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How Cognitive Technologies Can Help Managers During the COVID-19 Crisis

Publisher: MITSloan

Author: Frederic Laluyaux, President & CEO of Aera Technology.

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Even in the best of times, managers face a huge roster of tasks across a wide range of priorities — handling daily operations, tracking progress toward corporate goals, planning for the future, overseeing individuals on their teams, and more. The pace of work has also grown exponentially in recent years within companies, as has the complexity.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing massive upheaval, the list of tasks has grown even longer — and, due to layoffs, absences, and new work arrangements, these tasks must often be achieved with smaller teams.

In my work with a broad variety of industries, from consumer packaged goods to oil and gas, I’ve seen that some businesses have been more successful at adapting to these rapid changes than others: organizations that have adopted cognitive technology.

Understanding Cognitive Automation

A product of the artificial intelligence field, cognitive technologies have been in development for decades. Thomas H. Davenport and Vikram Mahidhar offered a useful definition in a 2018 article, explaining that these technologies “employ capabilities — including knowledge, perception, judgment, and the wherewithal to accomplish specific tasks — that were once the exclusive domain of humans.” While most companies and leaders recognize the innovative and disruptive potential of cognitive technologies, as Davenport and Mahidhar noted, most continue to lack a strategy around them.

One of the most important of these technologies is cognitive automation. It boils down to a simple idea: Machines gather tons of data, process it in real time, and show a business the best steps to take as a result. It works when companies allow information about their transactions to be uploaded to a single place in the cloud. There, AI processes the information continuously, draws conclusions, and sends back key information.

Cognitive automation offers tremendous potential for managers. For example, these systems can manage supply, making sure that the right amount of a product makes it to high-demand areas using the fastest shipping channels. They can also track production, procurement, inventory, financials, and more.

The same goes for customer service. If various customers are reporting a similar problem but using different platforms (such as websites, Twitter, phone, chat, and apps) and different languages, cognitive automation can help parse the data more quickly than a human customer service agent, locate the similarities, and draw managers’ attention to a problem that needs to be addressed.

Clearly, cognitive automation is a useful tool for managers in stable environments. In times of crisis, as during the coronavirus pandemic, these technologies are even more necessary to many businesses.

Cognitive Automation in the Time of COVID-19

Since the sudden emergence of COVID-19, just about every aspect of business has become unstable and unpredictable. For example, shipping channels have been blocked, sending some supply chains into a tailspin. This can throw off not only the logistics of moving products but also manufacturing. Often, in order to build a product, factories need components from multiple countries. If the components can’t make it to the factory from the usual supplier, another supplier has to be found — quickly.

With cognitive automation, businesses are better able to make this happen. These systems may show that a shipment from China won’t make it to a factory in India but that a factory in Malaysia can churn out the same equipment and ship it to India, following a specific route that currently offers the fastest arrival based on weather conditions and channel openings.

Meanwhile, consumers are also looking for different products and services than they were before the pandemic. Demand keeps shifting, partly in response to the changing directives from health and government officials. By the time the uptick or reduction in demand becomes clear to the makers of products and services, those demands may have changed yet again. Often this results in a lag that prevents businesses from having what consumers are looking for at the ready.

With cognitive automation, this lag can quickly disappear. For example, businesses can be alerted instantly if there’s increased demand in Cleveland and decreased demand in San Francisco and reroute shipments instantly.

Increased Availability for People Management

When these tasks are handed over to cognitive automation, managers have more time to focus on what machines can’t handle and won’t be able to anytime in the near future: people management.

Workers need to know what their new tasks are, what the organization’s goals are, how annual projections are changing, and what the short- and long-term futures may look like for the company. They need to know what to tell customers and other stakeholders. They need to know what to do to help the company stem its losses. For all this, they need time with their managers.

The current conditions are particularly stressful. Many workers are worried that they will lose their jobs. Stress and worry can decrease productivity while increasing employee turnover and absences. There’s a powerful business incentive, in addition to a purely empathy-based one, for managers to focus on ensuring that their workers feel safe.

The last thing managers should be grappling with during the pandemic is a slate of tasks that machines could be taking care of. Machines can’t get this kind of virus. Let’s optimize how we use them to relieve the pressure on our teams as fast as possible.

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