The Human Machine Balancing Act: A Win-Win for All

  • April 06, 2023

As long as there has been work to do, humans have attempted to make less of it. For ages, people have created machines to reduce the burden of labor and free themselves from tasks that were too physically demanding, too monotonous or too inefficient to perform on their own. The 20th century saw an explosion of automated machinery assuming all sorts of manual chores in factories, farms and warehouses. But only over the last 20 years has automation moved into the office environment, with computer programs taking over “white collar” tasks that were once considered the exclusive domain of human employees.

Undoubtedly, pervasive automation offers organizations an attractive array of advantages: increased capacity and productivity, fewer human errors and lower costs, among others. But as digital automation becomes ever-more intelligent and self-sufficient, the relationship between machines and humans grows increasingly complicated. After all, the purpose of automation is to serve humans and elevate their performance, not replace them completely. Thus, as companies continue to adopt greater levels of automation, they’re faced with some profound questions about the future of work. How should the job roles of humans evolve? And how can automation help to unleash the best of human potential?

To derive maximum value from automation, companies will need to consider these questions in the context of their own business goals. And, based on the answers, they must learn to create and maintain an optimal symbiosis between machines and employees.

Automation is increasing, but there’s still room for growth

Organizations of all kinds are under constant pressure to accelerate and streamline their operations while driving innovation and elevating the customer experience. Almost universally, business leaders are turning to technology to meet these demands, and they’re finding solutions in automation, AI, and machine learning.

But while 73% of organizations expect advanced automation to be in common use in the next 2 years, according to the Innovation Index, automation maturity is still a long way off. Currently only 12% use it in most or all functions.

NTT DATA’s Innovation Index, a survey of 1,000 IT executives from 16 industries, found that :

  • 73% of organizations expect advanced automation to be in common use in the next 2 years, but automation maturity is still a long way off.
  • Organizations are adopting greater levels of automation but are yet to find the right balance between human talent and automated processes.
  • Balancing this equation entails understanding where technology can add value and where a human touch is still indispensable.
  • As organizations move to adopt automation at scale, the workforce will undergo a huge shift and each organization must address these transformative changes on their own terms.

An equation out of balance

Despite the increasing prevalence of automation in the office, most companies are far from getting all that they want from the technology. In most cases, their automation efforts are ad hoc or disjointed, rather than strategic and cohesive. This discord stems from the fact that organizations have yet to find the right balance between human talent and automated processes.

The viability of automation as a business tool is rooted in two generally accepted realities. The first is that machines are better than people at processing data, crunching numbers, and performing other repetitive tasks with speed and precision. And humans are more capable than machines when it comes to creativity, innovation, expressing emotions or empathy, and making nuanced decisions. While most businesses have access to all these capabilities through a mix of employees and bots, assigning the right tasks to the right resources – and achieving harmonious interplay between them – proves easier said than done. A lack of strategic planning and governance, along with a rapidly evolving and expanding set of automation technologies, leaves many companies mired in indecision or stymied by poor performance.

To balance the equation, companies must begin with a clear understanding of where technology can add value and where a human touch is still indispensable. Ensuring every step of an end-to-process is performed most effectively and efficiently (whether by a bot, a human, or a combination of both), is the key to harnessing automation’s true potential.

In the future the size of the workforce won’t shrink, but its composition could transform dramatically.

Goals worth pursuing: how the human-machine partnership enables a data-driven enterprise

While even isolated automation projects can speed up clerical processes or reduce payroll costs, these quick wins pale in comparison to what’s possible with a holistic commitment to automation at the organizational level. For enterprises on the path to digital transformation, the goal is to become a data-driven organization that – through a proliferation of automated processes – can harvest reliable insights to drive business performance and make informed strategic decisions. But it’s only possible when humans and machines come to work in concert and at scale.

As it all comes together, the benefits build on each other:


Automated processes take over time-consuming and repetitive tasks, empowering people to be more productive with their time.

Accuracy and precision

Machines are far less prone to mistakes, thus reducing review and rework, and fostering trusted data.

Improved customer experience

Automated agents and chatbots can provide basic information without intervention, and support humans with information to deliver better service.

Smarter decision-making

Automated processes ensure accurate data and can lend a clearer view of what’s driving value vs. what needs to change.

Lower costs

Automation can help save money in the form of fewer errors to correct, improved customer loyalty and reduced estate needs.

A better place to work

When automation is used to empower – not replace – people, it creates more meaningful and fulfilling work.

Ultimately, as companies achieve the right balance of machine efficiency and human sensibility, what results is a smarter, faster, leaner, more agile organization that can outpace the competition.

In service of people: automation tech at a glance

Automation is a suite of available technologies, which are each capable of automating certain tasks in different ways. A large enterprise is likely to employ more than one, or perhaps all, of these technologies across the organization.

  • Robotic Process Automation (RPA): Software that can perform repetitive digital tasks without human intervention, such as collecting data, completing forms, or sorting and routing information.
  • Chatbots: Found on web sites or through mobile texting, these bots act as virtual customer service agents to answer common questions or help customers complete basic tasks.
  • Cognitive Agents: Powered by natural language processing software and AI that emulates human behavior, these bots can answer phone calls and assist customers or employees with slightly more complex requests.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR): Software that can identify printed numbers and letters, such as from a handwritten form, and convert it to a digital format that can be extracted, sorted, and searched.
  • Machine Learning: An application of AI that uses algorithms to enable a program to learn and improve based on its experiences.
  • Deep Learning: A more sophisticated approach to machine learning that involves complex programming to achieve near-human capabilities such as “computer vision” or contextual decision-making.

Four ways to balance the human-machine equation

How can companies move beyond one-off, siloed automation projects and begin to move the needle toward true business transformation? Consider these four strategies that improve the complicated relationship between humans and machines.

  • Make automation a cultural commitment
  • Adopt a governance framework
  • Invest in automation humans can trust
  • Take advantage of analytics

As with any ambitious initiative, real progress begins when stakeholders across the enterprise understand and join in a shared vision. This process starts at the top, gaining buy-in from company leaders, who in turn must serve as champions of the automation mindset and the benefits it can create. Educating employees on the benefits of automation can help them see it as less of a threat to their livelihoods and more as a productivity tool and a path toward career advancement. In this way, human-machine optimization becomes a recognized and fervently supported pillar of the company’s future strategy.

If an automation vision and culture are the foundation of a data-driven enterprise, a governance framework provides the structural blueprint. Governance is essential to ensure the organization identifies the right processes to automate and selects the most appropriate technologies for the job. Importantly, an effective framework should go beyond the bounds of the IT team, involving business units and support functions to understand and address their most pressing needs. While IT professionals tend to think in terms of achieving technological uniformity, the reality is that it will take a patchwork of automation technologies, all configured to exacting specifications, to meet the diverse requirements of a large enterprise. Just as the company tries to match people with specific skills to particular roles, it must think in similar terms as it considers which jobs are best suited to which types of bots, and those best done by humans.

Trusting one’s teammates is a critical success factor for any group effort. So, if humans and machines are to work as a team, the company and its people must have confidence that their supporting technologies are reliable. Yet companies often find themselves stricken with “analysis paralysis,” conducting endless trials and pilot programs as they attempt to prove that automation will pay off. Or, they move forward with automation, only to assign humans to stand guard over every step in the process, which defeats the purpose of automation entirely. To achieve the right balance between machines and people, companies must be willing to “let go of the reins” to some extent. They must get comfortable with the idea that automation solutions are now well established and proven to work reliably, and that employees can safely move on to bigger and better things.

One of the greatest things about automation is that it not only frees employees from mundane tasks, but it also produces a detailed record of every action it takes. Thanks to dashboards and other reporting mechanisms that track and tabulate every move of every bot, managers have unprecedented visibility into their business operations. The data gleaned from automated processes can lead to insights managers need to think past routine “keeping the lights on” tasks and identify the value-producing assignments humans should be doing instead. These could include working directly with customers, innovating new product offerings, or driving cost efficiencies in other areas.

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The workforce rebalanced

As organizations move to adopt automation at scale, it’s clear that the human workforce will undergo a transformation of its own. Exactly what that evolution will entail, and how quickly it occurs, is a matter every company must address on its own terms.

In reality, automating basic administrative tasks may take certain jobs away from humans. Some companies may have fewer positions to fill, and no sensible way to shift displaced workers into different roles. But this won’t always be the case. As automation closes some doors, it opens others. It can create opportunities to upskill or reskill employees to work in tandem with automation, whether they are further empowered in some way by the new technology, trained to code and manage bots, or analyze data for trends and insights. Over time, automation is expected to give rise to entirely new career fields that are just beginning to emerge.

In the future the size of the workforce won’t shrink, but its composition could transform dramatically. In the optimist’s view, automation will make possible a world where machines are tasked with jobs that people no longer want or need, as humans are empowered and unencumbered. It’s a win-win for the people and the organization.

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Saveen Mundarath SVP & Chief Data Analytics Officer

Saveen has over 25 years of experience in data, business intelligence and analytics. He has executed large scale projects for global organizations, bridging business and information technology to solve complex data challenges for enterprises. He strongly believes that the data insights-driven organization is the baseline for competitive advantage.

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