Cobot culture: the next big play for consulting

07 Aug 2018  |  Tracey Follows 
Cobot culture: the next big play for consulting

Collaborative machines are set to redefine parts of our society, writes futurist Tracey Follows - they also provide an opportunity for those who can help us navigate a new era of people-tech culture

Clients no longer need an extension to their marketing departments as they once did. They have insights teams, researchers, creative studios, media planning in some cases and even strategic foresight in others.

And it is no longer the role of the agency, or the planner, to pull together all of the elements into one coherent ‘plan’. Even if they could, it is too big a task for an agency, and too nuanced a task for a holding company.

More and more clients are turning to two types of consultancy: firstly, the smaller, boutique type that can get into the cracks that run along culture and explore and explain what is happening on the ground; and second, the large consulting firm which can take a macro view of business operations, the supply chains and the overall business proposition.

My fear for those agencies looking to launch their own consultancy arm to their agency (as more and more seem to be announced week by week), is that their offer will fall in between these two micro and macro propositions. I’m even more convinced of this when I look at what is coming next.

The large consulting firms not only offer business analysis, they are starting to offer cultural analysis too. Take innovation. The consulting firms may have successfully sold all kinds of digital transformation and tech solutions to their clients, to the point that now their focus is no longer in getting this tech into firms but exploring how companies will properly absorb and utilise it within their culture. Innovation becomes less about technology and more about people.

Traditionally, culture is the bit that agencies really understand and consulting firms don’t.

Most agencies who are looking to create waves with a consultancy arm are thinking that they will move into the marketing transformation/adtech space and advise companies on that. But large consulting firms already do this pretty successfully.

So what they can, and I believe should offer, is consultancy around people - and specifically for an automated world.

If one looks back on the history of account planning in ad agencies one sees a tension around its role. Is planning there to act as a consultant to the client's business? Or is planning there to understand culture? (and by ‘culture’ I mean internal agency culture as much as external culture).

Consulting firms understand the power of systems. Agencies understand the power of ideas. For all the will in the world, a client hiring a consulting arm within an existing agency is not going to be looking for them to deliver big systems thinking.

However, they might expect them to deliver a powerful idea that can create cultural coherence within their organisation, and give their people direction, distinction and meaning.

As increasing numbers of employees come to the realisation that they are no longer working as individuals or as part of human teams, but as a collaborative units with robots and machines, human beings will need to believe in their daily work mission, and their company culture even more.

There is big work to do here: to convince human beings that what they are doing is meaningful and not just practical.

Henn-na Japan: the world's first robot hotel

The biggest opportunity and challenge at scale is delivering day after day a successful ‘cobot culture’. Cobots are collaborative machines which could revolutionise production. In the next ten years we will be seeing a rise in workplace robots that work side by side with humans, and that means that both will need to be trained in certain ways to work ‘collaboratively’.

Highly trained programmers will be required to set their tasks but real people on the ground will be working with them on the factory floor or in the office.

Cobots are going to be big business for small and medium sized companies, and whilst right now it takes a robot 20 minutes to fold a towel it won’t be that way forever. Just look at the Henn-na Hotel in Japan for early indications of what we will be expecting them to do - everything from checking in and hanging up our coat to delivering room service.

As Markus Schaefer at Mercedes-Benz said in Financial Times in 2016: ‘When we have people and machines co-operate, such as a person guiding a part-automatic robot, we’re much more flexible and can produce many more products on one production line. The variety is too much to take on for the machines”. And MIT studies with BMW found that robot-human teams were about 85% more productive than either alone.

The future is Cobots. That means for agency-consulting arms, not a focus on the adtech and systems of business for that is where they can’t compete. Their future lies in understanding, influencing, and informing hybrid people-tech culture for companies who want to stay human in an automated world. And that calls for some very big ideas indeed.

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