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AI is coming to work. Are you ready?

Developments in AI are moving apace, and we can’t ignore that for much longer

You might believe that the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace will liberate employees from the grinding monotony of repetitive work... or you may subscribe to the view that it will merely destroy jobs, creating an underclass of people with little economic value. More likely you imagine it to be a bit of both, and you’re wondering where on that continuum your organisation will come to sit.

Or, like most of the managers in Roffey Park’s annual survey of UK working life (The Management Agenda 2018), you might just be thinking 'how long are we going to avoid having conversations at work about AI?' Respondents to our survey tell us that the potential impact of AI is not being talked about by their leaders nearly enough, if at all.

Soft skills

Whatever your viewpoint, the pace and potential of AI looms large. And it goes hand-in-hand with myriad implications for how we work. Studies are demonstrating that as technology takes over more mundane processes, soft skills will grow in importance.

Until machines can offer anything resembling the extraordinary complexities that make up the human dimensions of working life, it follows that a workforce with highly-developed skills in creativity, emotional intelligence and relationship-building will become increasingly desirable. If the ability to adapt to the changing scope and nature of work is key, qualities such as resilience and empathy will step into the spotlight. As artificial intelligence prevails people are likely to be free to carry out more meaningful forms of work.

We need to talk about it

Responses to our survey suggest a widely-held belief that this shift is something that needs to be addressed in the future. But there’s evidence that many organisations are ill-prepared and in danger of falling behind – because AI is already here. Only 17% of managers agree that they are equipped with the right leadership capability and people skills. Our survey data paints a picture of senior leaders being risk-averse, under-skilled and in some cases in denial.

Managers, meanwhile, articulate a desire for greater urgency, and for their organisation to be more open and experimental in its approach to AI. There’s a clear view being highlighted by the majority of managers in our survey, and that is the need for leaders to think – and act – more proactively.

The depth of a CEO’s understanding of AI could be the difference between success and failure in a fast-changing world. Senior leaders can set the tone in making conversations around AI a priority.

Investing in re-skilling

Current estimates as to the percentage of jobs that may be automated in the future differ widely. Projections vary from 9% (OECD) to 47% (Frey and Osborne 2013). As routine and manual tasks are set to be increasingly devoured by advancing technology, it’s predicted that one of the most desirable determinants for employability is the willingness to learn new skills. Less than half of managers say their organisation is investing in reskilling to support their employees in this approaching new world of work, however.

Employers should be thinking what additional skills are needed in their organisation and taking action to develop in their workforce the capabilities and skills they will likely need in the future.

As technology takes care of routine tasks, and people are required to adapt and upskill, helping them to do this is likely to become a defining challenge in the next few years.

Carol Hatcher is a research assistant at Roffey Park