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Human-Robot Teams: The Next IT Management Challenge

Productivity can skyrocket when people and robots work together, yet so can human frustration and fury.

The biggest challenge facing IT leaders managing human-robot teams is ensuring that the work environment has, and can maintain, a spirit of collaboration, says Kamyar Shah, CEO of management consulting firm World Consulting Group. When robots are added to a team, human workers often assume the worst -- that their jobs will be reduced or eliminated. “However, if IT leaders show that robots are put in place to help and not hurt or terminate, this will calm human employees and make them more open to learning and cooperating with the robots,” he says.

Robots have rapidly evolved to the point where they are much more than just a piece of hardware that can perform a few basic production tasks. “IT leaders need to tackle the role of advocating for the business value that these now software-driven machines can deliver in manufacturing and warehousing,” says Jim Lawton, vice president and general manager of robotics automation at inventory tracking firm Zebra Technologies.

Reassurance and support can go a long way toward calming workers' fears, notes Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. “Broadly speaking, the biggest challenge is to establish trust so that the humans perceive the robots as teammates,” she says.

A Matter of Trust

Trust building, whether among humans or between humans and robot teammates, includes cognitive, affective, and emotional components. The cognitive component includes knowing the partner's capabilities; what they're good at versus what their weaknesses or blind spots are. That way you'll know when you can depend on them to carry out work independently, and as expected, versus when you'll need to more closely monitor or double-check what they're doing or how they are doing it, Woolley says.

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Zebra Technologies

Shah believes that training and communication are the best ways to get human-robot teams to work effectively. “Once employees can understand how the robot works, and their purpose for working with them, the process of teaching employees how to work alongside these machines will be much easier and more effective,” he says. Additionally, by closely collaborating with their operations colleagues, IT leaders can define exactly how a robot will function alongside humans.

Current-generation robots are controlled by software that goes far beyond simple, repetitive movements. “Advanced systems orchestrate how the robot works with people and where it goes and when, all while collecting data that can be captured in data lakes,” Lawton says. “These innovations make IT's involvement in the automation process critical.”

Ensuring Human-Robot Harmony

Careful vendor selection and planning can go a long way toward creating harmonious human-robot teams. IT leaders bring immense value, with expertise in designing user experiences for maximum impact. “When the process is easy and fluid enough for people of various levels to be comfortable working with and around robots, there’s no question that the team will work together effectively,” Lawton says.

The best way to address complaints from team members is to listen to everything they have to say. “Don't ignore any complaints; take every single one seriously,” Shah advises. Ask questions to achieve clarity. “A problem may be as simple as clearing something up or answering a troubleshooting question,” he notes. Also be prepared to take action, if necessary. “If someone has a severe issue with a robot, don't just sit back and wait for them to resolve it -- get out there and help your team member address the issue,” Shah suggests.

Not unlike human-versus-human conflicts, it's often helpful to look beyond the immediate complaint and investigate any possible underlying concerns. Woolley advises managers to share their concerns about human-robot collaboration: “Are they worried about losing authority or respect by handing responsibility over to a piece of technology? Is there sufficient transparency into the capabilities and decision-making abilities of the technological teammate? Are they worried about the level of authority they have for overriding the decisions or actions of the teammate?”

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Anita Williams Woolley, Carnegie Mellon

Some employees may be reluctant to work alongside robots due to negative personal experiences with early robotic systems. “Manufacturing and warehousing robots were previously limited to completing repetitive tasks,” Lawton says. “People recognized these machines as not able to adapt to the environment or contribute to continuous improvement.” Additionally, since many early robots were dangerous to be around, employees were often cautioned to stay far away from the machines.

Unlike their predecessors, today's sophisticated collaborative robots, such as autonomous mobile robots, are specifically designed to work alongside people. “It’s in our nature as humans to be skeptical,” Lawton observes. “Overcoming that skepticism and building human-robot collaboration starts with making sure that the associates who will be working with the robots are part of the strategy and execution of any automation project.”

Takeaway

Lawton believes that robots should be viewed as a disruptive technology with the ability to create better, safer workplaces. “With today’s innovation in automation, there's real potential to free people from dirty, dull, and dangerous work to focus on what people do best: create, problem-solve and innovate.”

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