Our report with Loughborough University gathers the evidence and insights and explores the ethical implications of how we’re currently adopting new technology. It creates a foundation for delving deeper into how we can ensure that people remain at the heart of work.
Much has been said about the potential impact of emerging technologies on jobs, and the future of work in general. While some commentators predict large scale job losses, others believe that when a task-based view is taken, the impact on jobs will not be so great. However, it is unquestionable that technology is having, and will continue to have, a major impact on work. For HR professionals, now is the time to be part of these critical conversations.
This factsheet outlines the three main types of technology that are having an impact on the world of work. It looks at the ethical implications of using these technologies in the workplace, and considers the role of HR professionals in shaping a human future of work.
While technology will continue to ‘challenge the status quo’ and redefine how work is done, people will remain critical in a technologically-enabled future. Much of the ongoing debate on the emergence and impact of innovative technologies centres on efficiency gains, such as job losses. However, we firmly believe that organisations have a say in these decisions and that leaders should instead focus on how they can use technologies for people’s and organisations’ mutual benefit. Our Future of Work is Human programme investigates this and other aspects of a human world of work.
Organisations should consider how technology can make work more productive and meaningful for people who work alongside it. Our review on the impact of emerging technology on professions shows that within the healthcare and transport sectors, technology is indeed augmenting people’s work rather than taking over their roles completely. It’s important, therefore, to consider the evidence before drawing conclusions on the real impact of technology.
There are also ethical issues associated with emerging technology. Research is providing some rules and principles being developed to address ethical considerations for both human and machine safety. Evidence and insights in this emerging field must feed into UK’s policy-making approaches as well as organisational practices.
What is emerging technology?
Emerging or innovative technologies are those that have the capability to alter business and economic models through their use. Three main types were identified in our research report The impact of emerging technologies on work:
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been defined as the development of computers to engage in human like thought processes, such as learning, reasoning, and self-correction. Others have defined AI as a ‘broad suite of technologies that can match or surpass human capabilities, particularly those involving cognition.’ All these definitions highlight the role of AI in modelling human behaviour and thought, but do not go as far as to talk about using AI technologies to build other smart technologies. It includes machine learning and cognitive computing.
Robots, including service robots, robot-assisted procedures, and robotic process automation (RPA). Service robots provide assistance to a human to complete a physical task.
Automation technology is the performance of tasks by machines (often computers) rather than human operators often to increase efficiency and reduce variability.
Evidence on the impact of emerging technology on work
The impact of emerging technologies on work is a hotly debated topic. While some suggest large scale job losses, others are more modest in their estimates. However, the critical piece that’s missing from these debates is evidence around how technology can augment the work of people and enhance their capabilities and effectiveness of organisations. The speed at which technology is being developed means that there’s an urgent need to consider how humans and technology can and should work together to mutual benefit - an idea that organisations must embrace going forward.
The majority of research on the contemporary usage of emerging technologies has been conducted in the healthcare and transport sectors. Evidence from these sectors shows that, rather than taking over jobs completely, technology is improving the quality of work by removing mundane tasks and allowing for some degree of role expansion. Examples include:
- An automated dispensing system in a UK hospital reduced the amount of time pharmacists spent in the dispensary, which was better used to care for patients on wards.
- An automated decision support system for air traffic controllers, advising them on optimal solution in a real-time setting, increased their performance and accuracy without increasing their workload.
- A comparison of a realistic rail-signalling automation model and experienced human rail signal operators found that as automation increased, the perceived workload of human operators, both mentally and physically, decreased and the consistency of performance increased.
However, conflict in human-tech interactions – when a machine and a person would make different decisions about which action to pursue – could have a negative impact on performance. One reason for this is the human instinct to resolve the conflict rather than consider alternative forms of action. The French military illustrated this in an experiment where a robot was used by humans to identify a target. When the robot ran low on battery and was programmed to return to the base to recharge, the human operator overruled it to focus on completing the task in hand, despite the issue. Such decisions by people to override robots may lead to serious negative outcomes, for example, jeopardising human safety on aircraft flights.
Workers’ attitudes and behaviours in relation to the technology itself is also likely to have an impact. A human worker’s trust in the technology can affect the outcomes of their interaction. One way to build trust is to involve human workers early on in tech implementation - giving people a voice, and addressing any concerns they have will help to create an environment where trust can be nurtured.
The ethical implications of using emerging technologies in the workplace and the impact they have on people must be considered seriously. It’s crucial that HR professionals act as ‘critical friends’ as well as the main stakeholders ensure technology strategies are people-focused.
For example, concerns are already being raised about the impact any technology may have on workers’ well-being and privacy. As the use of intelligent systems such as AI increases, they present risks and opportunities for employers and employees, and there is an urgent need for further research on how these systems can be used ethically.
There is ongoing debate around who is responsible for their actions of intelligent machines: the human co-worker – even if the machine is significantly more intelligent? Or the people who built the system, or the organisation that uses it? Currently, these are grey areas, but they need to be addressed by government regulation and legislation.
Other ethical concerns centre on:
- humanoid robots that imitate the behaviours and mannerisms of humans, especially in situations involving vulnerable people who may have difficulty in determining whether they are interacting with a robot or a human.
- the ability of intelligent systems like AI to gather and store immense amount of people data and how secure might this be
- robot rights – the idea that intelligent robots should have the same rights as animals
- AI systems becoming more intelligent than humans – potentially creating their own successor systems, which may be able to self-modify their goals acquiring a level of autonomy. Some scientist warn of the danger of losing control over machines (for example highly intelligent drones/lethal autonomous weapon machines) in the future.
Legal and policy-making approaches have traditionally been reactive rather than holistic/proactive. There have been calls by some to design machines with a moral status. The EU has proposed legislation to allow it ‘to fully exploit the economic potential of robotics and artificial intelligence’, while simultaneously guaranteeing a ‘standard level of safety and security’. The UK needs to have a similar approach and should develop a framework for the safe usage of these technologies.
The role of HR
HR professionals have a critical role to play in ensuring that technology debates are focused on people and not just on efficiency gains. They need to keep aware and up-to-date with the rapid developments in this field, rely on robust evidence, and proactively engage with critical organisational stakeholders to shape a people-focused technology strategy. They need act as ‘critical friends’ and be a sounding board in times of technological transformation. The challenge for HR professionals is to balance the needs and expectations of their organisation and employees, and ensure that any use of technology is for the benefit of both. Additionally, HR professionals need to be aware of how technology is impacting their own profession and upskill themselves to add value (see section below on HR and L&D technology).
Rapid advances in technology also mean addressing the skills gap that currently exists within the UK labour market, which will have an impact of how organisations recruit and retain individuals. Digital skills for the economy, published by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills in 2016, revealed that 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are suffering tech skill gaps. HR and L&D professionals are crucial in identifying the skills gaps within their organisations and putting systems – internal or external – in place to address the issue. They should also proactively engage and consult with policy-makers to address the skills shortages that exist within the UK labour market more generally.
HR and L&D professionals should also ask themselves:
- What’s the evidence for the impact of technology on the world of work and on the profession?
- What impact might this have on your organisation specifically?
- Do you have the knowledge and insights to make evidence-based decisions around implementing such technologies?
- What’s being considered when making these decisions in your organisation? For instance, are people factors being given equal consideration as efficiency measures?
- Does your organisation have a strategy for accessing the skills needed to work with emerging technologies?
- If yes, how could this be further developed in consultation with employees?
- If no, is a skills audit planned to identify the gaps?
- Are you able to community these messages to critical organisational stakeholders?
Listen to our podcast HR tech revolution: friend or foe? in which we chat with three experts about how technology is affecting work and working lives, and the new opportunities it presents to HR and L&D.
HR and L&D technology
Advances in technology present new opportunities for HR and L&D professionals. HR systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated, allowing more automated reporting, self-service options for employees and connections with other business systems. For L&D practitioners, digital learning platforms make collaboration and knowledge sharing across dispersed work force easier than ever.
Practitioners need to consider how best to use emerging tools. This includes ethical considerations, as highlighted in the previous section, but also using technology to align with business and individual needs, and not just implemented for technology’s sake.
Our report The future of technology and learning looks at the research evidence and key considerations for learning technologies. It explored the digital tools L&D practitioners use now and are planning to use in future and found a gap between strategic ambition and practice. To combat this, the report emphasised the need to apply what we know about offline learning to digital strategy.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
LAWRENCE, M. ROBERTDS, C. and KING L. (2017) Managing automation: employment, inequality and ethics in the digital age. IPPR: The Progressive Policy Think Tank.
SWANN, A. (2018) The human workplace: people-centred organizational development. London: Kogan Page.
WEATHERBURN, M. (2017) Don’t believe the hype: work, robots, history. Resolution Foundation.
WILLIS TOWERS WATSON. (2018) The future of work: debunking myths and navigating new realities. Willis Towers Watson.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
CARSON, B. (2017) With transformation comes disruption. TD:Talent Development. Vol 71, No 6, June. pp30-35. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 69.
HOLLAND, P. and BARDOEL, A. (2016) Special issue: the impact of technology on work in the 21st century: exploring the smart and dark side. International Journal of Human Resource Management. Vol 27, Nos 21-22, December. pp2579-2671.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was written by Ramya Yarlagadda with a contribution from Melanie Green.
Ramya Yarlagadda: Research Adviser
Ramya joined the CIPD in 2016 as a Research Adviser. Her interests are in the areas of equality, diversity and inclusion, employee voice and leadership behaviours. She has published research investigating the links between diversity and inclusion and employee voice, purposeful leadership behaviours and voice. She is currently investigating the intersectionality of human-technology interaction and how it could deliver best possible outcomes for people, organizations, societies and economies. She is also managing a project looking at factors influencing workplace inequalities.
Ramya has a Master’s degree in Management and HR from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Melanie Green: Research Associate
Melanie joined the CIPD in 2017 as a Research Associate, specialising in learning & development and skills research. Prior to the CIPD, Mel worked as an HR practitioner in a technology organisation, working on a variety of learning and development initiatives, and has previous worked as a researcher in an employee engagement and well-being consultancy.
Mel holds a master’s degree in Occupational Psychology from University of Surrey, where she conducted research into work-life boundary styles and the effect of this on employee well-being and engagement.
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