Doug Sawers, Managing Director at SD Worx, discusses the role HR must play in driving technology forwards
There’s something about the concept of robots and artificial intelligence that ignites the passions of otherwise steady individuals. Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, for example, talked about livelihoods being ‘mercilessly destroyed’ by this particular technological revolution. Professor Stephen Hawking has said that the invention of AI could be the ‘biggest disaster in humanity’s history’.
So are we entering some Faustian pact by using AI for commercial purposes? Or are we being modern-day Luddites if we refuse to participate – and in doing so miss out on many benefits for both ourselves and our businesses?
Among the many professionals wondering if AI will take their jobs are HR directors and managers. It’s true that many parts of HR work can be automated. However, as I see it, HR will also have an important role in shaping the workforce of the future to optimise the value of both artificial and human intelligence. So this increased automation will free them up to spend more time on this vital, strategic task.
Neither Carney nor Hawking have said that disaster is inevitable. In fact, Hawking is also quoted as saying that AI could be the “best or the worst thing for humanity”, handing us a sliver of hope. It is possible that, before artificial intelligence takes over we could use human intelligence to find ways to stop job loss and subsequent hardship. To do this, we need HR at the frontline.
There’s no doubt that robots can complete repetitive tasks more quickly, with increased accuracy and without a break. This makes them highly valuable for repeatable and scalable jobs. For administering the payroll, for example. Robotic process automation (RPA) can operate at the user interface layer of applications and work between existing systems to mimic tasks which were usually carried out by payroll administrators. This will reduce operational costs while improving service quality. This can be replicated across a business where high volume, repetitive work is preventing staff from using their own intelligence to take a more strategic and innovative approach.
Cloud-based HR IT solutions and robotics in the back office will remove the need for HR to spend as much time on processes, freeing up time and effort for more strategic work. This may include improving their “customer service” to their employees and exploiting the opportunities data analytics provide to understand the links between employees and business outcomes.
Inevitably, scientists disagree as to when superhuman AI will change our lives forever. But many believe it won’t be this century. So while robots are scalable, audit compliant, cost-competitive and easy to integrate with many network environments, they do still need humans to guide their use and to apply creativity, intuition and strategic thinking.
So it will be up to HR teams to help ‘skill-up’ existing staff. Their mission will be to drive the business forward, while protecting employees and optimising their skills and experience. Mark Carney has the same idea: “The commitment to reskilling all workers must be continual. Lifelong learning, every-greening skills and cooperative training will become more important than ever as technology evolves,” he says. Deloitte’s vice chair and London senior partner Angus Knowles-Cutler also agrees: “In a high-skill economy you need talent coming in and to train, retain and develop talent. So the HR function will be vital going forward.”
Much of this training will, of course, be technical in focus. There are, however, a range of softer skills that robots find difficult to master – at least for a good few years yet. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report of 2016, skills that will be in high demand by 2020 include complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, collaboration. These are all skills requiring high emotional intelligence, an inherently human characteristic which will be challenging to replicate, even by the most agile brains working on AI development today.
So, while we need to be aware of the possible impact of AI on jobs and society, the future’s not yet a done deal. We need a business world where robots don’t replace humans but complement their work, freeing them from the more repetitive onerous tasks. It’s up to HR teams everywhere to take the lead and replace the fear-mongering with a positive vision.