HR must prepare employees for disruptive technologies

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We are looking at a fundamental shift in the way we think about the relationship between technology and work

It is striking how much I’m hearing about artificial intelligence (AI). From panel debates at Davos to news about the use of robots in healthcare, it seems that AI is finally breaking into the world of work. Perhaps it is no surprise that the level of anxiety about ‘machines taking over the world’ is rising.

There is no consensus about what we can expect. Some argue that up to 60% of work is likely to be taken over by machines within the next two decades; others that this is no different from the transitions experienced after the Industrial Revolution, and that levels of employment will remain the same. However, one thing is certain: there is no doubt that we are looking at a fundamental shift in the way we think about the relationship between technology and work.

We are already living with technology that makes many jobs more efficient. What we are starting to glimpse is a world where even these tools are being surpassed, as significant amounts of work are carried out in their entirety not by humans, but by machines.

I look back to the days when I first worked and had a couple of full-time secretaries. These medium-skilled roles, which provided a plentiful source of employment for decades, began to disappear some time ago as executives’ thumbs and their smartphones took care of both communications and scheduling, and a combination of Wikipedia and automatic filing filled other parts of the role.

Now these digital tools are in turn being replaced by more sophisticated innovations such as Microsoft Delve, which serves up content relevant information based on how you are spending your time. Far from being a tool, this program is actually in a sense knowledgeably interacting with the worker – who can hardly even be referred to as a ‘user’.

What this means is very shortly we will be using technology not simply to help us carry out our own tasks, but significantly augmenting what we do. In the man and machine world, machines work alongside us performing tasks that are adjacent to our own work. For HR professionals it will mean supporting employees in their interactions with these more advanced technologies.

So how can we prepare for this new and potentially alien working environment? HR has two vital roles in preparing businesses and their employees for this shift. The velocity of these changes will be extraordinary and HR has to play a key role in changing mindsets. That means highlighting what developments are on the horizon and helping people embrace AI as a way of augmenting what they do – rather than simply being fearful of what is to come.

To do this they will have to build strong internal communication and comprehensive training. There is no doubt that many routine tasks will be supplemented by machines, so it is crucial that workers are encouraged and supported to build more complex skills, which involve tasks that cannot readily be supplemented – such as collaboration and creativity.

There will also be significant implications for how teams work together. As increasing numbers of task-based roles are assigned to machines, there will be ever more geographically dispersed teams. To make these a success, HR departments must support and enable managers to create and manage virtual teams – especially when it comes to managing performance.

While many are inclined to see the entry of artificial intelligence into our working lives as a negative force, the truth is that it could create a wealth of opportunity, allowing many of us to focus on the more creative and enjoyable aspects of our work and raising levels of aspiration.

For those of us in the business of seeking and nurturing talent, this can only be a good thing.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School. In 2013, she received a lifetime achievement award in the HR Most Influential rankings

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