For those operational leaders old enough to remember, Johnny Rotten’s screaming, sneering, derisory prediction of “No Future” may be a step closer, if you believe the headlines.

In consulting speak, this is the era of “zero operations” and is being driven by two parallel themes:

  1. New automation toolsets: newer technologies such as robotics, chat bots, machine learning and artificial intelligence are making process automation far easier and (theoretically) cheaper. Reports from reputable sources claim anywhere between 30-50% of jobs could be significantly impacted over the next 5-10 years.
  2. Distributed scale: building scale by consolidation has long been the mantra of those leaders wanting to reduce their unit costs. That’s no longer the case. With many service centre tasks completed in less than 5 mins (anecdotally up to 50%) and the technology to enable self-service and/or distributed servicing readily available, why would you go to the expense of establishing large, remote service centres? Far better to increase utilisation of the frontline during their quiet times and bank the productivity benefit in the service centres.

So, in simple terms, most of the work ops teams do today will be automated away and for those tasks that can’t be automated away, they will be done either by the customer or someone very close to the customer i.e. no need for an operations function any more!

With this in mind is there a future for ops? My answer is a resounding ‘YES!’ but the role will be very different.

There are four growth areas:

  1. Enabling Digital Transformation: Many organisations have a digital agenda, but for all of the over-hyped success stories there are many more examples of mature organisations languishing in the valley of disappointment. There is a mountain of work to prepare for digital transformation in most organisations given the level of process fragementation. The opportunity here is to industrialise first e.g. consolidate, standardise, simplify before automating – this is the heart of the ops value proposition.
  2. Complex Case Management: while many of the simple, transactional requests, and even some of the more complex ones, can now be automated, there will still be a need for people to be involved in complex case management. This will more than likely be augmented by AI/ML etc. not replaced by it.
  3. Ops Leader 2.0: a growth area will be in the service equivalent of “air traffic control”, with leaders responsible for managing a flow of service requests rather than individual requests, working with blended teams of robots and people, anticipating bottlenecks, dynamically balancing capacity, extracting and analysing large data sets, identifying customer opportunities and improving processes in real time.
  4. Unknown Unknowns: Finally, there are the new operational roles that no one has thought of yet. Just like no one dreamed of being a blogger or social media analyst 20 years ago there will be many new roles that we are yet to envisage.

All these will require a different skill-set to those commonly seen across operations’ teams today: a blend of operations, technology and analytics. Agile, lean, human centred design are examples of the industry recognising that the new skills are required. But these examples are the tip of the iceberg. Finding someone today who is comfortable executing process improvement, calculating capacity requirements, understanding coding syntax across a range of applications and the underlying architecture, designing queries to extract and cleanse data and then performing advanced statistical analysis to create insight and value is mission impossible. The operational war for talent will be focussed on finding people with the right inherent capabilities, a willingness to learn and grow and then building development programs that blend these with domain areas of expertise adapted to the business context.

What is certain is that we need to start planning now. The workforce shift will happen in a relatively short time-frame. Re-skilling and re-deploying at scale will be extraordinarily challenging, but for those who get it right, it will provide a serious advantage.

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