People and machines: from hype to reality – are robots really coming to change the world of work?

The news is awash with stories of the impending robotic revolution and the mass-displacement of jobs by new technologies. This fear is not new, and any new technology which changes the way we work and live is likely to shift perceptions, but it is important we question how much evidence exists to support these fears. At CIPD we want to know what is really happening in the minds of decision makers in organisations, when they consider the potential value of AI and automation. Is new technology really re-shaping the world of work as we know it? And how are employees being effected?

We've recently explored these questions in more in our new research People and machines: from hype to reality developed with PA Consulting. Below I will give an outline on some of the key findings for the HR profession:

The value and outcomes generated by AI and automation

We surveyed employers to find out how they approach AI and automation, and the impact it is having on work and found several interesting findings, some of which counter to the rhetoric on this divisive topic:

  • Not all organisations have started to invest in AI and automation: around 32% of UK organisations have invested in the last 5 years. This is split between fairly evenly between those which use technology for cognitive tasks e.g. algorithms in chat bots (22%), and those which use technology for physical tasks e.g. (20%).
  • Those that are investing, have realised various benefits: Over half said they have seen an improvement in the quality of good/services they provide (52%). And over a third (37%) have realised reduced costs. Finally, over a third (34%) have seen their revenue increase, following investment in AI and automation.
  • Automation isn’t only reducing jobs, its also creating them too: The impact on the job market is also interesting: 43% of those who introduced AI and technology report that jobs have been created, whilst slightly fewer reported that jobs have been lost (40%). Overall, 35% of employers saw more jobs as a result, whilst a quarter (25%) saw fewer jobs.

We also conducted surveys of employees and found some interesting results. Job quality and well-being is also being affected, but not in the way you’d expect:

  • Employees report that they are spending more time learning, not less: a fascinating outcome of this research was our finding that employees do not appear to be experiencing a negative impact on important elements of their job quality. Instead, 43% said they were spending more time learning new things, whilst only 6% were spending less time.
  • Time spent doing monotonous tasks has reduced drastically. Half of employees we surveyed (50%) said that they were spending less time doing monotonous tasks. Only 15% said that they were spending more time doing this.

The role of the “technology and people” strategy

Given that AI and automation is changing many important aspects of work; namely job quality and employment levels, there is a clear need for the HR function to be involved. But we know that HR impact doesn’t stop there. There is considerable value that HR can add to organisations when operating strategically as a function. Key financial and performance outcomes related to the business are associated with strategic HR activity – it is therefore important that the function is involved in strategic decisions relating to the workforce, and this includes decisions relating to the application of new technologies.

The reality however is very concerning. Our study shows that of all the functions, HR is the least likely to be involved in decisions to invest in AI and automation (55%) and in its implementation (45%). The reality is that most HR functions have no voice on the topic of AI and automation. This is a considerable risk factor in today’s organisations.

Technology as a tool & the worker as the master

An important point to draw out from the findings of the study is the extent to which the relationship between technology and the human workforce is highly complex, and not as simple as many would have us believe. Whilst technology, in its various forms, may change the way work is done it is very clearly the employer who has agency in the decision to implement technology. The application of technology at work is by no means an inevitability.

It is for this reason that we recommend HR does several things to enable the effective implementation of AI and automation:

  • Develop a clear people strategy for AI and automation and work across functions to make it work.
  • Focus on job quality as an outcome measure to ensure AI and automation is appropriate and meaningful for those involved.
  • Foster an innovation culture that adapts and accepts AI and automation and empowers employees to use new technologies.
  • Improve employee voice on technology decisions, so that employees can shape the decisions that impact the work that they do.
  • Ensure all employees effected are offered learning and development opportunities to up-skill as necessary. This is an important leading activity that is important in setting the foundations for the adoption of technologies.

Overall, we recognise the real potential of AI and automation . There are many positive stories emerging about the potential for technology to positively shape the workplace, but the risk of low HR involvement is one we cannot overlook. Only by being involved in these conversations can HR professionals shape outcomes for the better.

To find out more check out the research here.

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