Keeping it human: co-creating our future with the machines

The fourth industrial revolution has brought us to an inflection point where the nature of work is changing much more dramatically, and HR needs to be involved in the thinking and design of human solutions

On 19 June, the CIPD and the Financial Times convened a gathering of business leaders, journalists, policy makers, academics, members and students to debate the question of ‘What will we do when machines do everything?’

Panel of speakers at Financial Times event

Chaired by FT Innovation Editor John Thornhill, the discussion panel featured CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese, FT Employment Correspondent Sarah O’Connor, author Margaret Heffernan and FT Special Projects Editor Robin Kwong.

The debate explored the impact of technology on work and covered the challenges around job displacement, skills and education, the economics of automation, recruitment bias, good decision-making, Brexit, the distribution of wealth and opportunities.

We are working in a world where ‘data is the new electricity,’ Cheese said, explaining that ‘right now, the five biggest companies by market capital are all data companies.’

Along with fast-emerging fields like cognitive AI, the vast possibilities for automation and the ‘Uberisation’ of work, this means that ‘the things that are hardest to replicate: sensory motor skills for a start, but also abstract reasoning, emotional intelligence, empathy, creativity — in other words, human skills — are where we need to focus,’ he said.

While FT’s O’Connor agreed that we are indeed at an inflection point, she noted that there have been many other such points and that we have ‘survived’ them. O’Connor said that we have to ‘think in a more nuanced way about the kinds of tasks that will be displaced.’ Instead of worrying that jobs are disappearing, we should ‘worry that the gap between the good jobs and the bad ones will grow,’ she said.

Heffernan meanwhile, said that by treating people as ‘widgets’ that can easily be replaced, we have ‘failed on an epic scale to get creative thinking and sound judgement from our people.’

And not only do we need to challenge the value we put around ‘efficiency’, we must also challenge our thinking around education, she said.

‘The future will see a different calibre of work that we are not educating for. STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) skills have captured all of the attention, but we see Microsoft for example, now recruiting arts graduates because they realise that good thinking is enlarged thinking and not binary,’ Heffernan said. ‘In Singapore, which has a reputation for drill-based education, there is now an emphasis on project and teamworking, and collaboration — the old model simply won’t work for the future.’

FT Editor Kwong added that creative and management skills — how you deal with other people, communicate and lead, or how to reframe change in a way that invites buy-in, are people added values that go beyond technology. He also stressed the need to take a stand on issues, whether they concern our ethos, decision-making or the value we place on people. ‘We need to form a view on what we want for our world or technology companies will form it for us,’ he said.

While questions and observations from the audience spanned broadly from organisational design, people investment, guilds and robots, Cheese said that the unifying question we need to address is what are the common themes around good work, ones that enshrine good principles and engage people.

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Peter Cheese

Watch CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese's Vlog on the event and follow Peter Cheese on Twitter.