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The Autonomous Enterprise Still Needs Humans

June 20, 2024


The eighteenth-century philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, once wrote, “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” The Economist staff believes people still need the opportunity to work. They explain, “Today’s workers have [much] in common with every other soul who has toiled these past 12,000 years. They remain at the mercy of their appetites, and of political and economic institutions built, often consensually, to help them produce more. As it always has, work still provides a structure for both individual lives and societies at large.”[1] Beyond saving us from the three great evils noted by Voltaire and structuring our lives and society, work can be very satisfying. Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman General and politician Marcus Antonius (aka Mark Antony) was credited with saying, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Unfortunately, for most of the world’s population, work has been anything but a pleasurable endeavor. That’s why journalist Tim Smith insists, “One of the most alluring visions of an AI-powered future [is one] where humans no longer have to work because machines are able to create economic value all on their own.”[1] He adds, “A growing number of startups are now trying to make these autonomous money-making companies happen.” Personally, I’m not sure most people believe a future without work is all that alluring.


Rise of the Autonomous Enterprise


Despite their name, autonomous enterprises aren’t organizations devoid of humans and populated only by machines — at least not yet. Author Joe McKendrick reports that most companies seeking to become autonomous enterprises also want to ensure humans stay in the loop. He writes, “The reality of a completely automated enterprise may still be some way off, but there are many processes and roles that can now be carried out by machines. Many IT executives and managers even agree that a substantially automated enterprise is now a realistic goal, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), a new survey shows. … Around a quarter (26%) of the survey’s 601 respondents plan to implement machine-operated tasks that require limited human input, or to fully transition to autonomous systems, within the next five years. … But don’t count out the role of humans just yet. One-third (33%) of organizations use machines to assist with tasks, but still rely on human input. … Close to another third (32%) have progressed to an ‘equal balance’ of automation and human input.”[2]


As I have pointed out in the past, “[Organizations] will be largely focused on the agility gained by reinventing their organizations around the principles of autonomy and intelligence. By leveraging technological breakthroughs in the areas of human-like reasoning and trusted generative AI, glass-box machine learning, and real-world optimization, businesses can make significant advancements towards this vision. In fact, marketplace agility is being unlocked today through a federated intelligent layer of technology that can span organizational silos to drive competitiveness, resiliency, and corporate value. Just as people were once skeptical of autopilot in planes, autonomous enterprise optimization and decision-making applications will soon be widely adopted and will transform the way businesses operate and compete. Companies that lean into the integration of autonomous business optimization and decision-making with new ways of working, enabled by these technological advances, will be in the best position to succeed in the future.”[3] As employees learn the benefits of automated processes (e.g., decreased error rates, elimination of repetitive tasks, and actionable insights), the autonomous intelligent enterprise won’t look so threatening to their future.


The DQI Bureau staff notes, “The term ‘automation’ has transcended its conventional boundaries. It is no longer just about repetitive tasks being executed by machines. Instead, it has paved the way for the rise of autonomous enterprises, where artificial intelligence and automation converge to optimize decision-making, operations, and services across the organization.”[4] They assert, “The journey toward an autonomous enterprise is built upon four pillars.” Those pillars are:


1. Human-led labor: “Human expertise remains crucial in guiding autonomous systems, ensuring they align with business objectives and ethical standards.”


2. Automated end-to-end processes: “This involves the seamless integration of automated systems throughout the enterprise, from customer service to back-office operations.”


3. Self-learning and AI-guided: “Autonomous systems continuously learn from data and human interactions, enhancing their decision-making capabilities.”


4. Self-optimizing: “Through data-driven insights, autonomous enterprises continually optimize their processes, making them more efficient and effective.”


The DQI Bureau staff concludes, “At the heart of autonomous enterprises lies artificial intelligence, powered by machine learning algorithms and data analytics. These AI-driven systems empower organizations to innovate and create unique, paradigm-shifting experiences.”


Concluding Thoughts


According to Avi Bhagtani, CMO of Digitate, “IT leaders have long known that AI-powered automation is essential for survival in a digitally driven economy. … Most companies realize this and are taking urgent action to increase investments in this area. The difference is that now enterprises are embracing AI and automation to improve business KPIs, and enhance employee productivity as well as customer satisfaction, thereby accelerating their path to the autonomous enterprise.”[5] This realization is why Sateesh Seetharamiah, CEO of Edge Platforms, predicts, “Soon we’ll see the emergence of new innovators that build new workflows with an AI core versus adding on AI features to existing processes after the fact. Over the next 18 months, I foresee a dramatic surge in AI use cases that will redefine existing business models.”[6] And, the DQI Bureau staff concludes, “This shift toward autonomy promises increased efficiency, reduced human error, and enhanced productivity, ultimately leading to a more agile and competitive business landscape. Organizations are investing in automating their processes to unlock new business opportunities, reduce costs, and provide better services. However, this transformation also necessitates reskilling and upskilling efforts to ensure a smooth transition to the autonomous work landscape of the future.” In other words, the autonomous intelligent enterprise, with all its numerous benefits, will still rely heavily on human input and oversight.


[1] Tim Smith, “Profitable, AI-powered companies with no employees to arrive ‘next year’,” Sifted, 23 January 2024.
[2] Joe McKendrick, “AI adds new fuel to autonomous enterprises, but don’t write off humans,” ZDNet, 19 December 2023.
[3] Daniel Gutierrez, “Heard on the Street,” insideBIGDATA, 25 January 2024.
[4] DQI Bureau, “Beyond automation: Evolution of businesses through autonomous enterprises,” Dataquest, 20 December 2023.
[5] Staff, “The dawn of the autonomous enterprise is on the horizon,” Help Net Security, 28 December 2023.
[6] Sateesh Seetharamiah, “AI Takes Center Stage: Upending The Digital Status Quo For Businesses,” Forbes 29 January 2024.

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