HBR’s 10 Must Reads: On AI, Analytics, and the New Machine Age

HBR’s 10 Must Reads: On AI, Analytics, and the New Machine Age
HBR Editors and Various Other Contributors
Harvard Business Review Press (February 2019)

How New Technologies Such as AI Will Transform Most Companies Within the Next Three Years

This is one in a series of volumes that anthologizes what the editors of the Harvard Business Review consider to be “must reads” in a given business subject area, in this instance mental toughness. I have no quarrel with any of their selections, each of which is eminently deserving of inclusion. If all of these articles were purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be almost $100 and the practical value of any one of them exceeds that. Given the fact that Amazon US now sells this volume for only $16.24, that’s quite a bargain. The same is true of volumes in other series such as HBR Guide to…, Harvard Business Review on…, and Harvard Business Essentials. I also think there is great benefit derived from the convenience of having a variety of perspectives and insights gathered in a single volume. They travel well.

In all of the volumes in the HBR 10 Must Read series that I have read thus far, the authors and their HBR editors make skillful use of several reader-friendly devices that include “Idea in Brief” and “Idea in Action” sections, checklists with and without bullet points, boxed mini-commentaries (some of which are “guest” contributions from other sources), and graphic charts and diagrams that consolidate especially valuable information. These and other devices facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review later of key points later.

There are ten articles in this book, plus a “bonus”: Michael E. Porter and James E. Heppelmann’s “Why Every Organization Needs an Augmented Reality Strategy.” The material — together — will help you to achieve several important strategic objectives.

More specifically, you will learn how

o Data science, driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning, is yielding unprecedented business insights
o Blockchain has the potential to restructure the economy
o Drones and driverless vehicles are becoming essential tools
o 3-D printing is making new business models possible and prototyping more realistic
o Augmented reality is transforming retail and manufacturing
o Smart speakers are redefining the rules of marketing
o Humans and machines are working together to reach new levels of productivity

Here are four brief excerpts to give you a sense of the thrust and flavor of the material in the book.

* * *

From “Artificial Intelligence for the Real World,” Thomas H. Davenport and Rajeev Ronanki

Broadly speaking, AI can supplement three important business needs: automating business processes, gaining insight through data analysis, and engaging with customers and employees…Of the 152 projects we studied, the most common type [46%] was the automation of digital and physical tasks — typically back-office administrative and financial activities — using robotic process automation technologies. RPA is more advanced than earlier business-process automation tools, because the “robots” (that is, code on a server) act like a human inputting and consuming information from multiple IT systems…

The second most common type of project in our study (38% of the total) used algorithms to detect patterns in vast volumes of data and interpret their meaning. Think of it as “analytics on steroids” … Projects that engage employees and customers using natural language processing chatbots, intelligent agents, and machine learning were the least common type in our study (accounting for 16% of the total). (Pages 1-3 and 6-7)

* * *

From “Why Every Organization Needs an Augmented Reality Strategy,” Michael E. Porter and James E. Heppelmann

There is a fundamental disconnect between the wealth of digital data available to us and the physical world in which we apply it. While reality is three-dimensional, the rich data we now have to inform our decisions and actions remains trapped on two-dimensional pages and screens. This gulf between the real and digital worlds limits our ability to take advantage if the torrent of information and insights produced by billions of smart, connected products (SCPs) worldwide…

Augmented reality solves this problem by superimposing digital images and data on real objects. By putting information directly into the context in which we apply it, AR speeds our ability to absorb and act on it. (53 and 55)

* * *

From “Drones Go to Work,” Chris Anderson

Drone economics are classically disruptive. Already drones can accomplish in hours tasks that take people days. They can provide deeply detailed visual data for a tiny fraction of the cost of acquiring the same data by other means. They’re becoming crucial in workplace safety, removing people from precarious processes such as cell-tower inspection. And they offer, literally, a new view into business. Their low-overhead perspective is bringing new insights and capabilities to fields and factories alike…

Drones are ubiquitous as sprinklers: We’ve come a long way from weapons, sci-fi movies, and headlines. But in the prosaic applications of advanced technologies lie their real impact. Once we find drones no longer novel enough to be worthy of HBR articles, my work will be done. (79 and 87)

* * *

From “Managing Our Hub Economy,” Marco Iansiti and Karim R. Lakhani

The emergence of economic hubs is rooted in three principles of digitization and network theory. The first is Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing will double approximately every two years. The implication is that performance improvements will continue driving the augmentation and replacement of human activity with digital tools…The second principle involves connectivity. Most computing devices today have built-in network connectivity that allows them to communicate with one another. Modern digital technology enables the sharing of information at near-zero marginal cost, and dual networks are spreading rapidly…This brings us to the third principle, a lesser-known dynamic originally posited by the physicist Albert-László Barabási: the notion that digital network formation naturally leads to the emergence of positive feedback loops that create increasingly important, highly connected hubs. As digital networks carry more and more economic transactions, the economic power of network hubs, which connect consumers, firms, and even industries to one another, expands. (158-159)

*     *     *

As the HBR editors correctly suggest, “If you read nothing else on how intelligent machines are revolutionizing business, read these definitive articles from Harvard Business Review.”  I also highly recommend these recently published books:

Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI

Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson

Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence

Ajay Agrawa, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb


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