Humans or robots? It’s not a competition (yet)

A breakfast roundtable hosted by the CIPD explored the key issues of a technology-enabled workplace with a few members and friends of the Future of Work is Human community.

There are many views on what the future might look like, but one thing is clear: we can no longer observe from the sidelines as technology enters the world of work on the terms of those developing the algorithms. Instead, we must articulate what is of collective value when people and technology meet in the workplace, and define the organisational and societal conditions that support that desired outcome.

My fundamental belief is that people (including both individual workers as well as those leading businesses or government institutions) are powerful agents, capable of shaping the the world of work rather than accepting the future as it happens to them. So, for some time I’ve been reflecting on the impact of technological advances on the 'deal' between the business and the society, attempting to infer the behaviours of the key stakeholders — employers, the state, and the workers — that might accelerate or temper a robot takeover.

I was immensely pleased to share and further build on these ideas with the thought leaders around the table. Together, we reflected on the outcomes of each of the stakeholders taking a more active stance on the technological change, as well as the key questions HR should be asking the business to help manage that change well.

  • Data is the new oil and big tech companies are increasingly in control, with the seven largest businesses in the world representing the sector. While Facebook and others are providing people with easy access to information and products at a click of a button, what are the trade-offs we are signing up to, often without our knowledge? In the discussion, we were shocked by an account of detailed data being collected by a school to understand habits and attitudes of very young pupils on the assumption that it would benefit their performance. Every organisation with access to such information should take more notice of the extent to which the value delivered by efficient processing of data at scale is captured by the individual and the public as opposed to the corporations themselves.
  • A future of a 'minimal viable employment' might be nearer than we think it is. With robots being able to perform tasks traditionally carried out by people, we need to think about the nature of 'work' beyond the paid jobs we do. There are ongoing conversations about the public support systems (like a Universal Basic Income) that are designed to provide a minimal safety net for everyone, not just those with in-demand skills and access to valuable networks. In theory, these should enable people to get back in control over their ability to grow and derive meaning from the work that they do. But, in practice, organisational environments need to be equipped with appropriate learning opportunities to accommodate the kind of worker that expects to continuously develop skills relevant within as well as beyond their current employment.
  • A mass digital detox is another option. Would you let a robot cut your hair? Does the rise of digital vacations and the return of hand car washing suggest that there will be an expansion of analogue working? As I’ve juggled three different devices at different points in time to write and edit this article, I too am wondering if a pen and a piece of paper would be more effective! In the workplace this trend can take a somewhat more worrying shape of workers sabotaging the machines. So, consumers (including both customers of tech companies as well as workers) have a major part to play in determining how much power is afforded to technology both at work and our personal lives.
  • 'The world is a total mess', to quote Donald Trump, but perhaps we should allow it to be such? One way to address the inevitable stakeholder tensions in negotiating the impact of technology on our lives is to build a non-hierarchical, fluid system in which all can both express their views but also listen and empathize with others to achieve genuine collaboration. But can we as a society ever agree on the fundamental principles of working together that create a healthy self-adaptive environment rather a race to the bottom dictated by current efficiency concerns? There are gains for everyone if AI and people become colleagues not competitors, but to allow that we must change the conversation that embraces, not only highlights, the differences between the two — often at the expense of human beings.
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So, what can HR professionals make of these — admittedly extreme — predictions? The kind of future in which all jobs are performed by human-like robots is distant, if not impossible, but there are a few practical things that HR can be thinking about now.

1. What does 'good' look like for human/tech interaction in your business?

HR and L&D professionals are sitting on top of more and more data about people’s experiences at work: their skills, motivations, and attitudes. This information can be leveraged to help organisational leaders make evidence-based decisions about implementing innovative technologies in the workplace, anticipating its impact, not reacting to it. There is a real danger that the trendy technological solutions only appear to be the answer while masking a bigger issue of a business not wanting to deal with 'bad robots', aka people. 

2. What is your organisation's proposition to those employees whose jobs are changing considerably due to the impact of emerging technologies? 

Businesses may be reluctant to invest in people holding jobs that are about to be replaced by robots, yet do not have an alternative proposition for those parts of their workforce. Not only does this include the core workforce, but the HR and L&D professionals too, who are increasingly exposed to automated people management solutions. HR must lead the way in articulating the principles of where current and future employees fit in a technology-enabled organisation.

3. What are the conditions for creating effective cultures of human/tech collaboration and integration? 

An organisation where people and robots work successfully together is likely to look very different from the organisation of today. One issue to look out for is the attitude of people towards technology, and their willingness to engage to make the most of it: this is the new workplace conflict, only with potentially costlier consequences of people and machines literally clashing at work. HR professionals tells us language is critical here: strategies that place 'co-bots' at the heart convey dominance of the machine, not its supportive or augmenting role that is more likely to be welcomed by workers. 

4. What are the opportunities to address big societal issues associated with access to jobs? 

Technology promises to reduce bias of human gatekeepers to the world of work, such as unfair recruitment practices. It also has the potential to eliminate 'bad' jobs — ones that comprise menial tasks lacking in personal meaning for the worker. Yet, to achieve these ambitions, technological interventions must be developed with input from people professionals, in order to prevent human bias being ingrained in the machine’s algorithms. This is where HR can make a difference not only in their own organisations but for the society as a whole. 

At the CIPD, we believe that the future of work is human, but that is not to say we are pitting people against technology. For us this is not a simple binary choice, and we are leading research to help people professionals and business leaders to realise the opportunity of technology augmenting people’s productivity and bridging the gap between the promise of meaningful work and the current reality of workers’ experiences. Our latest report reviews evidence on the impact of emerging technologies on work in the healthcare and transport sectors.

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