Sarah Burnett, VP Everest Group, Computer Weekly top 50 influential women in IT, chair of BCS Women and founder AI Accelerator, discusses how HR is best placed to take the lead as AI creates new job roles and transforms the world of work
What are the latest job titles and what do they mean for HR?
Scanning the appointment pages of a leading computing magazine recently revealed vacancies for ‘Head of Robotics Delivery’, ‘Chief of Robotics’ and ‘Vice President of Artificial Intelligence (AI)’.
Managing artificial intelligence is becoming mainstream business – and it is moving out of the IT department and creeping into every corner of organisations, from self-service points in McDonald’s to in-house legal teams.
There are three critical areas that every HR person should be concerned about: crystal ball gazing in the business; ensuring that working practices change as tasks are automated; and helping senior management to understand and manage these changes.
Crystal ball gazing
HR teams are not alone in struggling to keep up with the impact of automation. However, too many HR professionals are playing catch-up with AI rather than becoming early experts and anticipating and managing change.
A good example is how Robotic Process Automation (RPA) robots ‘sign on’ to enterprise systems. For years now, access to a company’s IT systems has been done through a log in – and the log in is tied to an employment contract and record. RPA systems deployments often face real difficulties because no-one in the organisation has created a system for a robot to sign in. IT will have designed the systems, but the wider organisation has not got involved in spotting these issues and pre-empting the problems.
Changing working practices
FT journalist, Tim Harford, cites numerous examples in his new book What we get wrong in Technology showing how we fail time and again to make the most of the technologies until tech stops being an add-on and processes are overhauled.
He says usable light bulbs appeared in the late 1870s, Edison built electricity-generating stations in 1881, in New York and London, and he began selling electricity as a commodity within a year. Yet by 1900, electric motors provided less than 5 per cent of mechanical drive power in American factories. The economic historian Paul David argues that electricity only triumphed in the 1920s when factories themselves were reconfigured – drive shafts replaced by wires, steam engines by dozens of small motors and factories spread out.
Who takes the fall when it all goes bang?
What are the job changes happening now? Go-ahead lawyers are starting to develop skills as AI mediators – there is going to be a whole new litigation field looking at who is at fault if AI goes wrong. Will the robot take responsibility?
New skill sets – and new HR policies
New engineers are needed for automated processes – such as self-service luggage machines, automated burger deliveries and Amazon kiosks. These will increasingly combine basic AI with traditional engineering, and will, therefore, require new skills.
AI learns by watching people at work. HR will need to think about training employees to work with robots – and be watched by them while they learn. What are the implications?
HR policies are needed for robots. And people may need to be trained to work in a way so that robots can pick up data from them and learn the business processes that they are there to automate. People will have to tell robots where data is kept – and ensure it is always kept in the same place. Intelligent robots with machine learning capabilities might learn over time where the data is likely to be if someone saves information in different places, but initially, they just follow rules and instructions.
HR are best placed to guide senior management to understand and manage the human side of AI
While newcomers such as Uber and Airbnb have been created around highly automated systems, companies that introduce AI piecemeal are in danger of missing out on the real benefits.
Who should be rethinking these processes and where should it start? You might say it is the role of the IT director to lead and manage these cross-company changes – yet this enabling and facilitating role does not come easily to most IT professionals. So is it the role of the chief executive or the head of operations or even the finance director? The reality is that very few senior teams have really embroiled themselves in technology enough to ask the questions, anticipate the issues and help manage wholesale change.
What should forward thinking HR Managers be doing?
It’s fair to say that most HR people have still to step up to the plate in terms of becoming steeped in AI and its implications.
How can they do this? There are great free ‘MOOC’s – this stands for massive online open source courses, which anyone can take. They can also attend new free AI Accelerator webinars run by BCSWomen.
HR Managers need to become the IT team’s best friend and understand the blue sky thinking around robotics and AI long before it becomes implemented reality; and they need to make discussions and training around AI an everyday activity in the business – from the chief executive to junior managers.
Everyone talks about being on the cusp of a new working revolution – our HR leaders need to really understand and lead the way on the human side of workplaces of the future.