Leslie Willcocks reviews: ‘The Autonomous Enterprise: Powered by AI’ by Sarah Burnett
‘AI’ has always been long on rhetoric and striking examples, and short on what is mostly, really, happening in our organisations. For a long time now, Sarah Burnett has provided seasoned objective, detailed, valuable insight on automation and digitalisation, and has always been one of the few analysts you go to automatically to find out what is happening, and what is going to happen. She has now published a long-awaited book. It is entitled ‘The Autonomous Enterprise: Powered by AI’ (BCS, London, 2022). Sarah kindly asked me to write the foreword, and this offers a good guide to the content and the issues she deals with. So, I have taken that and added in more perspectives and detail here. The challenges she confronts are all very current and, if you have anything to do with automation and the future of enterprise, they will be on most people’s worry lists.
The book draws on an impressive knowledge hinterland thoroughly wrung from the author’s roles as researcher, practitioner and analyst. Sarah has spent much time engaging with, and thinking through myriad examples across sectors and the globe. She has always been incredibly up to date. Unsurprisingly, this is a distinctive feature of the book. An introductory chapter—alone worth the price of the volume—offers a detailed overview explaining the concept of the autonomous enterprise, and already many examples spread across retail, finance, healthcare.
The author explains that the autonomous enterprise is one that firstly conducts its core daily functions in a digital and automated manner, with minimum human touchpoints and with ‘AI’ embedded in many systems. Staff do much fewer repetitive tasks and are empowered to automate the ones they still do, freeing them up for more complex activities that play to human strengths. The enterprise takes advantage of operational data, including creating digital twins—virtual models of critical processes. Data analytics is a strong capability supporting operational and strategic decisions, business and risk management and innovation. The author’s description is close to what people would also call a digital business, or one mature in its digital evolution. She points out many existing examples today, including Amazon and Ocado in online retailing, where core functions such as sales, order fulfilment and stock controls are highly automated. Relatively new challenger banks and insurance companies are also highly automated and fit the description of autonomous enterprise.
The book then gives a very comprehensive and detailed analysis of what ‘AI’ amounts to. I have always found this a task best compared to hacking one’s way through a conceptual jungle full of strange noises and false trails. The author does an outstanding job of making the vocabulary consistent and usable, and the area understandable. With the jungle behind us, there is then relatively sunlit uplands in the form of a compelling assessment, using many illustrations, of how these technologies are already being used to achieve innovation and efficiency, and much more besides. Reading these chapters, it becomes clear that the potential is massive, that imagination and disciplined management are required, and that an enormous amount of value is still being left on the table. Four enlightening case studies follow, and these ground our understanding in the management realities of organisational functioning. Having written a few case studies in my time, I can say that these are exceptional in spelling out the vision needed, the preparatory work, the investment, the organisational challenges, and the sheer hard work required.
I flag this book because it is rooted in organisational realities, and it offers a telling contrast to another book I read very recently called ‘The Age Of AI: And Our Human Future’. This one lives off the long CVs of its three prestigious authors but contributes mainly mundane descriptions of what AI is and could do, but nothing detailed, or concrete, or new about subjects that happen to be vital to economies and societies around the globe. A real page turner only in the sense that I got through it as quickly as possible. It is positioned as a major volume on fundamental subjects, by major figures supposedly in the know. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver.
While many talk of fast digital transformation, and the imminent arrival of digital business, this book by Sarah Burnett posits no overnight successes, rather a slow evolution, with automation at the heart of things. The view of the autonomous enterprise is distinctive and convincing. Automation changes how things are done in the enterprise. For example, it turns traditional knowledge work inside out. Enterprises have to document not only processes but the expertise that they codify to create the automations. Organisations need to prepare for many such possibilities, and adapt to ensure success. An autonomous enterprise mindset is required, start with the end in mind, focus on the ‘phygital’ (it’s in the book, dear reader, and refers to joining the digital world to the physical world!), practice good data stewardship, stay agile and be very aware of how things can go wrong. The book also rightly stresses a collaborative approach and pooling of resources. In my own research I have often found an execution gap opening up between those doing automation and those responsible for digital transformation. New silos for old. But to be successful with digital transformation, as the book makes clear, digital technologies must converge.
The book gets macro in its final chapter, being rightly less pessimistic about job losses and skills, and very clear-eyed about the ethical dimensions of using AI, and indeed all technologies. Unlike ‘The Age of AI’, this a book to be massively informed by; clearly written, with multiple examples and well digested and analysed empirical research. Like contemporary art, only ten percent of today’s ‘AI’ literature is really worth engaging with. This is definitely one of that ten percent.
Leslie Is Professor Emeritus at London School of Economics and Political Science, Associate Fellow at Green Templeton College Oxford, and Research Director at Knowledge Capital Partners. He is co-author of four books on automation, including Becoming Strategic With Robotic Process Automation (SB Publishing, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK)