Machines vs. Humans in the Age of AI: Finding the Right Workplace Balance

A recent MIT Technology Review article identified “Five Jobs That Are Set to Grow in 2018” and Artificial Intelligence (AI) engineer had a prominent spot on the list. “There probably isn’t a more sought-after skill set in the world of technology, the author, Erin Winick, says. She’s likely right.

There’s a lot of buzz about AI these days—and while some of the buzz is optimistic, others have been more fatalistic. In fact, high tech gurus like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and others have issued dire warnings about where all of this “smart technology” could take us.

At a more immediate level, HR professionals—and their employees—are thinking about what AI and other emerging technologies could mean to the way they do their work, whether they will even have work to do, or if bots will be doing their work for them.

There Will Still Be Jobs for Humans—But They May Be Different

Infosys, a global technology consulting firm, recently released research on the impact of AI on leadership, the workforce and ROI. One heartening bit of data: 83% of C-level executives are confident that employees in their organizations can be trained for the new job roles that AI will create.

Brian Kropp, HR Practice Leader at Gartner, says, “The more important question for most employees is not ‘will my job be eliminated?,’ but ‘how will my job change to reflect this new reality?’” AI, Kropp explains, “will have a positive impact on workflows and team dynamics.” He predicts that, in the next 3-5 years, “most companies will likely be using performance measuring technologies to assess employee productivity, giving employers the tools they need to track employee engagement, guard against turnover, and better manage and support under-performers.”

AI is well positioned to help free up HR practitioners from mundane work that keeps them from playing a more strategic role in organizations. HR practitioners, though, have a ways to go when it comes to embracing, rather than denying, the potential impact of this technology.

Getting on Board: HR Needs to “Join the Party”

In a recent XpertHR webinar, “Artificial Intelligence—Taking the ‘Human’ Out of Human Resources?,” Tammy McCutchen, VP of ComplianceHR, and Lori Brown, CEO of ComplianceHR, addressed the topic.

Webinar participants were polled about their use of AI in hiring:

  • 16.9% said their organizations currently use AI in hiring;
  • 54.4% said their organizations don’t use it; and
  • 29.7% aren’t sure.

Allegis Group  conducted a formal survey on the issue, gathering input from more than 300 HR professionals, senior-manager level and above. Like the webinar participants, they also reported mixed feelings about AI and its potential impact.

  • Only 21% indicated that AI was something to be excited about;
  • 17% said it was both disrupting and enabling; and
  • A lower percentage (8%) felt that AI wasn’t being adopted quickly enough.

“Talking about AI has become our new normal,” says ComplianceHR’s Lori Brown. “HR has to join the party.” AI in fact is not to be feared, but embraced. As Brown points out: “AI cannot replace that which is uniquely human about human resources – reasoned judgment based on years of experience and institutional knowledge – but there’s work to be done to better leverage AI she says.

Despite the mixed feelings, and even a certain level of resistance, HR pros aren’t likely to be able to ignore the potential impact of AI. The genie is already out of the bottle as they say.

The Future is Now!

As McCutchen points out, organizations and individuals are already being impacted by AI—whether they know it or not. Google search, Amazon Echo and Apple’s Siri, and a wide proliferation of “chatbots” that are being used by organizations to interact with customers are just a few examples of AI in practice.

AI, says McCutchen, is a broad concept that encompasses a number of different technologies that include machine learning, predictive analytics, visual image and spatial recognition, natural language processing, intelligent assistants (chatbots), task automation and expert systems.

Organizations are already taking steps to prepare their workforce for the impact of AI, according to Infosys. Those steps include: investing in online computer-based training (65%), augmented reality (52%), and traditional, instructor-led training (49%)—with 53% already having increased training in functions affected by AI deployment.

While it’s impossible to predict exactly how AI is likely to impact the work that HR does and the types of employees and skills that employers need to staff for in the future, one thing is certain. As Rachel Russell, Executive Director of Corporate Strategy with Allegis Group notes, “As AI takes on more of the work we do, continuous learning and a willingness to develop new skills will likely be a requirement for nearly every worker to maintain their job. This fact has always been true for workers in many fields, but now it’s more important than ever.”

These ongoing shifts and changes require HR professionals and organizational leaders to become ever more adept at change management.

Deb Card, partner at Information Services Group, says that organizational change management is “one of the tools that must be in every HR toolbox.” “HR, she says, “needs to be included in the strategy and planning for rolling out new automation and cognitive technologies so they can lead those critical changes as they impact the workforce.”

Already, says Card, many companies are finding that the introduction of robotics and cognitive technologies aren’t replacing employees, but “enabling them to shift focus to higher value activities.” This can be great news, she says, but only if this message is “communicated early and often and if there is a planned path of change that includes reskilling and reimaging the job.” There are three key areas of potential focus for HR, says Card:

  • Communication – Responding to questions like: “How is my job changing?” “What does it mean to me?” and “How do I prepare for what’s next?”
  • Workforce planning – What labor/skills are phasing out? What new skills/talent is needed?
  • Learning and career development – As more routine tasks are handled by technology, problem solving will become a much-needed skill. “In addition to technical training, problem solving, empathy and other consultative skills should be part of the new learning agenda.”

Looking at AI as a positive force, rather than a distant threat, and taking steps to proactively participate in workforce planning around the impact of AI and other emerging technologies, can help HR not only remain relevant, but position the function as a critical strategic partner for now and the foreseeable future. Here’s a handy checklist on “preparing for robotics and artificial intelligence in the workplace.”

For more insights from Tammy McCutchen and Lori Brown on AI’s likely impact on HR professionals, listen in to our latest XpertHR webinar.

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