Rise of the machines: What automation means for HR

How radically will automation change the world of work, and what's HR's role in managing that?

Let’s start with a story – an excerpt from True Love, by Alexander Prokopovich. “Kitty couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. Her nerves were strained as two tight strings, and even a glass of hot wine, that Vronsky made her drink, did not help her. Lying in bed she kept going over and over that monstrous scene at the meadow.”

This evocative text was not dreamed up by Prokopovich in a creative fugue. The true credit must go to his computer.

Written – or should that be generated? – in 2008, True Love was the first novel to be authored completely by a computer program. It took 72 hours to compose and drew from 17 different books, principally Anna Karenina and the works of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

While it might not win a Pulitzer Prize any time soon, the software does make startlingly clear what machines can now do. The same technique of marrying huge advances in pattern recognition software with a revolution in natural language generation is now being used by media outlets such as Forbes, and to draft in-depth reports on the performance of mutual funds for financial giants such as Credit Suisse and USAA.

With computers now able to replicate processes once thought to be the sole preserve of the human brain, the challenge and opportunity for business is clear. And yet the urgency with which boards and HR departments are addressing this issue remains surprisingly low.

Low on the agenda

Technology has already made huge inroads into sectors such as manufacturing. Companies in this industry, along with retail and transport firms, are the most likely to be keeping an eye on where advances in technology might take them. But many in other sectors have yet to escalate this to the very top of their watch-lists.

The problem, says Geoff Colvin, author of Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, is confusion at board level around what kind of impact futuristic capabilities will actually have on them. “I think most boards are not considering this sufficiently because it may seem too abstract a problem to them right now,” he says. “They know it’s possible but haven’t seen it affect their business.” Not yet, at any rate.

“What you see now is a distance between what the economists are saying and what organisations are currently experiencing or expect to experience,” agrees Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School. “Beyond the obvious, people struggle to answer the question of ‘where do you see big job losses in terms of automation?’ We know from economists that jobs are going, but we’re not actually seeing it.”

The picture Gratton paints is one not just of failure to keep up to speed with emerging technologies, but to consider what this will mean for the human element of business.

Deloitte vice chairman and London senior partner Angus Knowles-Cutler confirms this. He is encouraged that companies and their leadership teams are starting to get to grips with what the brave new world of automation might look like. But the missing piece of the puzzle for most, he reports, is strategic workforce planning – and HR more generally. “I was at a meeting with HRDs and the general conclusion was that people have got to grips with what the technology might do but not the implications for workforces,” he says.

“I think this is being talked about in a lot of private and public sector organisations but not necessarily with HR involved,” agrees Naomi Bloom, managing partner of HR consultancy Bloom and Wallace. “That’s the big issue here.”

Bloom compares this to HR not being fast enough off the mark in adapting to the rapidly expanding contingent workforce that emerged in the 1960s.

So, what should HR involvement in conversations around the future of automation consist of? This, it would seem, depends very much on what you believe the future will actually look like.

Radical change

“There are some mainstream technologists and economists questioning whether the historical pattern [of people postulating that a radical tipping point has been reached, only for this not to come to pass] will hold – whether technology will create more roles than it will eliminate and whether the jobs it creates will be higher value,” reports Colvin. “That’s because the speed of advance is increasing.”

This is a question of Moore’s Law, a concept that Martin Ford brings vividly to life in his new book The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment. He describes a car that starts at 5 mph and doubles its speed every minute. “In the twenty-eighth minute you would travel more than 11 million miles,” he explains. “Five minutes or so at that speed would get you to Mars. That, in a nutshell, is where information technology stands today, relative to when the first primitive integrated circuits started plodding along in the late 1950s.”

The capability of machines to take on high-level tasks, such as writing news articles or analysing and interpreting radiology scans, could also prove game-changing. “When professional work is broken down into its constituent tasks a great many of these turn out not to be so complex after all, and can be done by less qualified people with the support of systems, or indeed by machines,” confirms Daniel Susskind, economist and lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford, in a recent piece for the Guardian.

Following this interpretation of the future, the most immediately urgent role for HR professionals seems to be avoiding employer-employee tensions around potential job losses.

The question that springs most readily – and anxiously – to mind when automation is discussed is: Whose job will be replaced? And more pressingly, particularly for HR magazine in light of the above example of automated writing, will it be mine?

“Introducing virtual workers is no different from typical labour arbitrage and the same factors need to be considered,” agrees Paul Donaldson, UK practice lead for automation at sourcing consultancy Alsbridge. He explains that it is often the employees themselves who are best able to highlight where automation efficiencies might be made. So “if they are not satisfied or feel threatened by robots, that will not help unearth these opportunities”.

Before an organisation gets to the stage of explaining why some jobs must go or change, they must carefully consider what human interventions will still be needed. Only through HR factoring in all elements of its future workforce – human and virtual – can a cohesive organisation design fit for the future be arrived at, explains Donaldson.

“Virtual workers should be included as part of an overall resourcing strategy,” he says. “Robots will operate 24/7 and won’t take breaks but they still need to be managed to make sure they are working at an optimum level… Understanding the capabilities of this new workforce and ensuring they work in conjunction with your existing teams is a key activity for HR.”

A more prosaic reality

There are many who would point, however, to a more pragmatic imagining of the future than the ‘robots are coming to steal our jobs’ scenario. Plenty ascribe to the view that societies have always believed themselves to be on the cusp of technological revolution, but that, in the words of Deloitte’s 2015 report, Technology and people: The great job-creating machine, “the reality is more prosaic”.

This report goes on to describe the century-and-a-half it took “to realise the full potential of steam”, for instance. Deloitte’s Knowles-Cutler points out that discussions of Moore’s Law and technology’s encroachment into skilled work only factor in what technology is capable of doing, not what it’s likely to actually be used for. Regarding Deloitte’s 2014 prediction that 35% of jobs in the UK are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years, he caveats: “The two things it doesn’t factor in are the ease or difficulty of implementing that technology in the workplace, and the cost of human labour versus that of technology”.

Most critically, the above projections don’t take into account the scale to which new jobs will be created around new technologies, adds Knowles-Cutler. This is because “we understand job losses better than job creation”, he explains. Indeed Deloitte’s From brawn to brains report chimes with this less dramatic, more reassuring picture. It found that although 800,000 jobs have been lost over the last 15 years to technology, 3.5 million new, more highly skilled ones have been created.

With this more pragmatic take comes a quite different proposition for HR. The challenge principally stops being one of working out which jobs should be replaced and how to manage job losses. Instead it becomes more of an opportunity – a chance to work out how technology might augment employees’ day-to-day activities and what kinds of new job descriptions might be created.

Indeed the biggest danger presented by HR not being involved in organisational design and automation conversations, says Danielle Harmer, chief people officer at Metro Bank, is that automation could happen for the wrong reasons – namely cost-cutting instead of enhancing what the business does.

At Metro Bank the focus is on automating processes so that employees can spend more time on customer interaction, for those customers who still want this. “For example, we’ve recently put a skin around our main banking platform, so instead of cashiers having to flick between three to four screens and make 17 clicks to put a transaction through, it’s one screen and three clicks for a standard withdrawal,” says Harmer.

“That was not about having fewer cashiers. It was about ensuring the transactions are done reliably, so that cashiers can focus on the customer in front of them rather than worrying about actually doing the transaction.”

She adds: “Be careful about implementing technology just to save yourself money. You need to think about using it to impact positively on customers, whether that’s through greater choice, better information for them, or a nicer experience.”

Alexandra Bode-Tunji, programme lead for skills and capabilities at Transport for London (TfL), reports a similar approach here. Though cost cutting and efficiency gains can be achieved by dispensing with some job roles altogether, the far bigger opportunity lies in freeing up staff to focus on a very different set of activities and priorities than before, she says.

“Technology provided a huge opportunity around how to do things differently, to concentrate on the people element,” she explains. “Customer research highlighted that we have some great pockets of best practice, but customers were saying they paid M&S prices for budget shop service, so we needed to use automation as an opportunity to improve.”

For TfL a central element of this has been training employees to add a fun and personal touch to the customer experience. The result has brought a smile to even the grumpiest of commuter faces, through service information in the form of raps at Victoria station for example, and by Brixton employee Leon’s motivational speeches – so popular that he was nominated by the Evening Standard to become mayor of London.

People skills

For those in manufacturing, the opportunity is less about bringing customer service to the fore, and more around capitalising on the fact that employees, once freed from the execution of routine tasks, will have more capacity for creativity and ideas generation.

“In terms of R&D we tended to have a huge spend before. But with crowdsourcing we can put an idea on the Web and source ideas externally in half the time,” reports Toby Peyton-Jones, UK and North West Europe HR director for Siemens. “Crowdsourcing internally for process change and continuous improvement becomes hugely important in releasing and using your workers’ creativity. That was a huge capacity we hadn’t tapped into before.”

So automation could for many organisations be an opportunity to really focus and trade on those skills a computer can’t replicate but which are still vital to a business’ success – identified as interpersonal skills, digital know-how, creativity, management and leadership, entrepreneurship, and complex problem solving, by Deloitte. The rise in importance of these skills is reflected by the increased ubiquity of jobs that centre around them, as reflected by Deloitte’s 2014 report Agiletown: the relentless march of technology.

A crucial issue for Lynda Gratton is how to ensure technology is enhancing rather than getting in the way of bringing those uniquely human capabilities to the fore. The utopian vision of technology taking away the mundane, routine elements of people’s jobs and freeing them up for more rewarding aspects has yet to come to pass in many organisations, she warns.

“When we talk to people about technology the first thing they say is: ‘I’m completely overwhelmed’. So one of the things HR has to do is build protocols around the way people use technology and give them time to do what humans do best; which is think and be creative,” she says, chiming with HR magazine’s recent Reclaim Your Time campaign, which found that email, for example, both claims large amounts of employees’ time, but is regarded as one of the least useful tasks.

Another key issue is how businesses can best interact with policymakers and educators to ensure those creative thinking, social, interpersonal, and soft skills are being fostered in the future workforce. Indeed it is a question that goes right to the heart of the social health of the nation. It is a question of avoiding a two-tier society of gainfully employed, highly-skilled individuals, and swathes of the long-term unemployed, unable to find the kinds of routine, low-skill work they once relied on.

Fast learners

Also critical is the ability of companies to recruit and develop workforces with high levels of learning agility, says Siemens’ Peyton-Jones. “We recently had a project to bring the cost of a turbine down,” he says. “Engineers pointed out there were lots of moving parts and lots to maintain in the gearbox. So we removed the gearbox and now have a different mechanism which does exactly the same thing. But that means all gearbox engineers are out of a job. We need those engineers to be the same people, so we retrain them. It’s normal business for us.”

To support this learning agility, a culture of self-organising and self-directed learning will be absolutely vital, according to Peyton-Jones. HR’s involvement in matters of organisation design and automation is critical, he highlights, not only because they will be able to take the lead each time a new future structure for technology-worker interaction is devised. Rather it’s because this structure will evolve so rapidly.

“The days of being able to organise through setting up an organisational structure and having processes that are fixed and permanent are disappearing. We’re moving into a situation where culture itself becomes an organising principle,” he says. “If I create some overall goals and a culture that enables people to work in a particular way they can self organise. Because you won’t have the time to plan this from the top.”

Imperative for change

It would of course be naïve to conclude that the future of automation in the workplace will be one purely of reallocation of staff into more skilled positions – particularly in light of the not insignificant education challenge. Even in a less radically different landscape of still healthy levels of employment some jobs will inevitably go. And HR has a vital role to play in managing expectations and anxieties around this.

Bode-Tunji describes the critical nature of HR’s involvement in ongoing automation programmes at TfL, such as the removal of ticket offices and the subsequent loss of 850 positions. “This is the biggest change in stations for the last 25 years, nothing has really changed in that world,” she says. “The biggest tool we’ve used is justifying the imperative for change; explaining that journeys that start with buying a ticket from a ticket office have gone down to 3% of ticketing transactions.

“We explain that if you look at growth predictions for London and how we actually manage the increase in demand for the services, we can’t build more ticket offices but what we can do is provide different channels for how people access these products.”

HR’s role

Whichever projection of the future you ascribe to there is huge opportunity, and indeed a great imperative, for HR to be involved. “All organisations need to consider having resources that are analysing the strategic impact of technology on their industry, and on their organisation,” says group HR director and master of the Guild of Human Resource Professionals Robert Potter.

“Where they sit is entirely dependent on the nature of the industry,” he adds, explaining that HR should in many instances be leading on recruiting these skills and deciding where they sit. “There’s a debate on whether someone on the board should have these skills,” he adds. “The strategy comes from the leadership, so most company boards – in my view – should be considering integrating these skillsets into their board profile.”

But wherever such skills sit, HR must also be heavily involved in day-to-day discussion of preparing for the rise of automation. This may take some serious upskilling on the part of the profession, says Potter. “Clearly there’s an opportunity for HR to be involved,” he adds. “In the same way five or 10 years ago people were saying HRDs needed to become more financially literate to be able to talk finance at board level, there is no doubt they also need to develop fluency in the language of technological development.”

He adds: “It’s like any epoch change. You have to read around it, you have to read the reports and studies, you have to attend the conferences. You have to display awareness and apply strategic thinking on how those matters and influences will impact on your organisation.”

What HR urgently needs is an idea of how technology will – perhaps more radically and suddenly than ever before – shape the future of work. There are a wide range of projections and predictions about just how profound these changes will be. And the role that HR will need to play will differ according to which one comes to pass. But whichever imagining of the march of technology comes to fruition, HR professionals and their organisations can ill afford not to keep up.