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Should you 'do HR' for robots too?

With intelligent machines predicted to become more prominent in the workplace will they soon fall under HR’s remit?

In a packed conference room back in June, two of Israel’s national debating champions Noa Ovadia and Dan Zafrir are going head to head with an opponent. They are debating first whether there should be more publicly funded space exploration, and second whether more should be invested in telemedicine technologies.

Neither side has been made aware of the topics beforehand. Each is given four minutes to make an opening statement, followed by a four-minute rebuttal, and a two-minute conclusion.

The result? The audience concludes that the two champions have better delivery, but their opponent had greater substance to its arguments. The competition ends in a draw.

So who is this opponent? You guessed it: a machine. Specifically, an artificial intelligence (AI) system called Project Debater developed by IBM.

The significance of this event, argued the machine’s makers, is that it demonstrates AI’s ability to take on humans in the very human art of decision-making and persuasion. After years of organisations asserting that, yes, robots can do certain, administrative, low-value human tasks, but no, they cannot match humans in specifically human areas such as decision-making, creativity or empathy, this seems to tell a very different story.

“At the moment we talk about the idea that we will specialise in human things and all robots can do is calculate and work fast and analyse data, but when you talk to people in tech, they say that this difference will disappear over the next 15 years,” says Liz Mellon, editorial board chair at Duke Corporate Education and executive director at Authentic Leadership.

Indeed, it is already starting to. At Robots of London, a UK-based supplier of robots, there has been “an increase of at least 100% in the last year in the number of robots we’ve put into businesses that perform a human function like acting as a receptionist”, according to founder Adam Kushner. From what he has seen, the collaborative or social robots – those designed to interact and work with humans in the workplace – are becoming ever more commonplace.

So HR could be forgiven, in light too of regular bouts of scaremongering around robots usurping humans, for assuming its role is to be the purveyor of bad news here. But, according to many, HR should in fact be exploring how these increasingly humanlike virtual workers and humans can work together as colleagues. Which begs the question of whether it’s too far a stretch to think that HR’s role will be to manage this new robot element of the future workforce.

According to Anne-Marie Malley, UK human capital leader at Deloitte, it’s not a stretch at all. “I think this is definitely the workplace of the future where HR has a role in looking after robotics,” she asserts. “Clearly there’s not the need for pastoral care or reward for the robots. But HR will need to change its approach to its talent strategy in terms of who – the robot or the human – is best for which jobs.”

“These technologies are no longer just tools to extend the ability of human beings,” says Chris Brauer, director of innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London. “They are now autonomous workers that perform specific tasks, [meaning] it’s crucial that this is not just in the remit of technologists.”

Of course, IT will make a business case that it is their remit because it is about outputs, Brauer says. But he encourages HR to make its own business case around labour dynamics and taking a holistic approach to the workforce.

“If HR doesn’t, then a portion of the workforce is going to fall under the remit of others in the organisation and there won’t be much focus on the impact that workforce will have on the human part of the workforce,” he warns.

Luciana Rousseau, founder of The Human Behaviour People, points to the example of social robots already being trialled in care homes. “I think there has to be a difference between the machines that are just task-orientated and the social robots looking after people,” she says. “When it comes to task-based machines, I think this probably will fall to IT or tech. But when we start to tip into that social element, this is where HR will need to step in.

“It’s not going to be as simple as ‘machines fall to IT’ and ‘humans fall to HR’ – there has to be some bringing together of the two,” she caveats, however.

“The reality is there needs to be the combined expertise of technology and HR to define what the make-up of the workforce will be and what technology can enable that,” agrees Malley.

This might all sound a bit far-fetched for some. But the idea that robot workers should report to HR is something already on some HR functions’ radar.

A division of HR at AXA consists of a connected team of robots and humans doing just this. AXA’s head of future workforce engineering Ambros Scope explains how he manages both his human colleagues and his team of virtual career assistants, developed by the company to coach employees about their careers.

Speaking about these virtual career assistants, he says: “They are wonderful employees as they get better all the time, work when I want them to and don’t complain. At the moment they’re dream employees.”

So should people leaders be ‘doing HR,’ as it were, for robot workers?

“Whether HR has a talented human or a talented bot working on something, it’s just a different way of looking at things, but it does raise the question of how HR can conduct performance management on both the bot and the human,” says Mark Lillie, UK power and utilities leader and global CIO programme leader at Deloitte. He cites the example of a bot that predicts something wrongly: “How do you manage the performance of that?”

The answer, he says, lies in taking a “very data-driven approach” that gives a “clear view on role, accountability and the expected output up front” so that “wrong, inappropriate or bad behaviour can be recognised”.

“There will definitely be KPIs and targets on the output that bots deliver, as ultimately the business will want to know that these machines are performing accurately,” he adds.

“But humans will always need a different type of performance management,” Lillie caveats. “The outputs may be similar but humans will need elements of coaching and rewards that robots don’t.”

Scope agrees that to treat the two demographics the same KPI-wise would be missing a trick. “It’s just not necessary to try to use human KPIs on machines,” he says. “It should be about how we can get them to co-operate, not how we can make them look alike.”

Mellon agrees with Lillie that the question of how to manage an underperforming robot is a knotty one. “It’s like the worst sci-fi movie ever to say to a robot ‘you’ve underperformed so we’re unplugging you’ if the robot has reached a point where it has empathy,” she says.

“The reality is that the more human the robots become, the more human they must be treated around things like this.”

And that means, as with any human worker not being up to scratch, it’s a case of asking the question: is it skill or will? “If it’s a skill issue, you train the human and so you reprogramme the machine. If it’s a will issue, then you dismiss the human and unplug the machine,” she says.

Mourning for robot colleagues aside, the challenge is that if HR does monitor and manage human and robot workers in the same way, the humans stand to lose the most, warns Mellon.

“Right now, if you compare a human and bot processing data, that would be unfair to the human, and if you compare a human and bot on feeling empathy, that would be unfair to the bot,” she says. “But if bots are able to understand empathy in the future, these KPIs would disadvantage the human as there is the possibility to develop the bot in this way, but not the possibility to accelerate the human brain for data processing.”

Personalised leadership is going to be necessary to cater to these differences, points out Mellon, adding though that this is “nothing new for HR”.

On the matter of workforce happiness and engagement, HR will also have a critical role in encouraging human employees to integrate and collaborate with their new colleagues.

“Most often when HR teams ask us for advice on integrating robots within the workforce, it is the humans not the robots that there’s an issue with,” says Kushner. “At the moment, robots can read emotions and see someone is sad but can’t respond to this, and that frustrates humans. HR has to step in and train human workers how to deal with working alongside robots.”

Trust between the two parties can be fraught, adds Mellon. So when onboarding robot workers into teams, there is more work to do than with a new human worker. “Robots just say the unvarnished truth and, for humans, if this means raising a flaw in their work, it can feel like a colleague stabbing them in the back.

“Low trust makes for ineffective teamwork and HR is going to have to manage that – if it doesn’t, imagine the fights that could break out!” Mellon muses.

But perhaps the biggest consideration is whether HR – as it stands today – is up to the task. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that it’s not.

The first stumbling block, says Mellon, is that “the average HR leader isn’t even thinking about this future yet”. But perhaps more critical is that in order to manage robots, HR is going to need to understand them.

“This means HR will need to develop a new skillset that can both manage people and manage bots and algorithms,” says Brauer, pointing to a need for HR to become more technologically fluent. “There needs to be a new generation of HR professionals that can reach across those two spaces.”

At the milder end of responses to this stands the possibility of having a dedicated member of the HR team whose role is to deal with the challenges of a human-robot workforce. Kushner thinks this kind of HR team set-up is just around the corner. At the more extreme end stands the idea of a complete overhaul of HR as we know it.

“HR needs the robot operator expertise and the human behavioural expertise so I’m not sure how much longer it will keep its ‘human resources’ badge,” suggests Rousseau. And this may call for a rebrand.

“HR’s name will probably drop away, as it refers to humans only. Maybe it will become social human resources,” she adds, in reference to social robots.

Or maybe it will become RHR – robot human resources. In which case, HR magazine may also need to rethink our identity one day soon…

This piece featured in our recent Futureproofing versus present practicalities technology supplement. Read the full supplement here