23 August 2018

The algorithms are coming: are you ready for the automated future of work?

Wider deployment of AI means HR will need to re-skill employees to enable them to thrive in the changing world of work


Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery is head of content and community at Ciphr. She was previously deputy editor at People Management magazine. You can find her on Twitter @c_newbery.


Future of work Skills Technology


Wider deployment of AI means HR will need to re-skill employees to enable them to thrive in the changing world of work

According to a Ciphr survey carried out earlier this year, a little over half (58%) of HR professionals expect automation to have an immediate impact on their strategies in 2018. A far greater proportion – 86% – expect to focus on futureproofing employees’ skills over the next 12 months.

The two trends are closely linked. The UK’s skills ‘crisis’ has been ongoing for some time; one in four UK jobs were unfilled in 2015 because of skills shortages, according to a 2016 UKCES report. Last year, a CIPD report warned the UK lagged behind its European neighbours in four key skillsets, including literacy and numeracy, while research from the Open University found that more than half of employers have been forced to hire someone who is less skilled than they had hoped.

Despite government interventions, the skills challenge is expected to intensify as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) reshapes the labour market as we know it. Two-thirds (65%) of children entering primary school today will work in jobs that don’t exist yet. How are employers – particularly their HR departments – expected to cope with such a radical shift in work as we know it?

“I’m a real sceptic when it comes to workforce planning,” says global HR consultant Rita Trehan. “With the business environment changing so rapidly, can we predict the skills ? I don’t think we can. I think you can predict some key skills, but more importantly you’ve got to be thinking about scenarios: saying, ‘what if we saw this change?’ Planning means that you can pivot when these scenarios emerge.”

“When AI does eventually start to impact jobs, it’s going to happen really fast”

HR professionals need to be thinking more broadly than the stereotypical ‘robots taking our jobs’ scenario, warns Perry Timms, founder of PTHR and author of Transformational HR. “If we get too occupied with algorithms and robots in the true sense of the word, we might be doing ourselves a disservice, and overlook all sorts of other forms of automation such as sensors, data, and analytics tools.

“People aren’t quite sure yet how automation will impact their business – but a few are experimenting, particularly in the consumer arena,” he adds, citing a white-goods manufacturer in Slovenia that is using chatbots to help customers choose the right product to buy. “Although that conversation doesn’t involve a person, it feels very human. I think we’ll see outward-facing change to start with, followed by internal changes – which is why HR ought to have a good watching brief on it.”

Lucy Adams, CEO of Disruptive HR, agrees that automation, and its impact on the skills required by employees, is something to watch out for. “It’s definitely coming,” she says. “You don’t necessarily need a project team or to be responding to it right now, but you should check in every few months and ask: ‘is now the time we ought to be responding?’ Because if we look at the types of jobs AI is likely to impact, it’s going to happen really fast when it does happen.”

PwC estimates that up to a third (30%) of existing UK jobs will be susceptible to automation from robots and AI by the early 2030s, but that “in many cases, the nature of jobs will change rather than disappear”.

As well as presenting a challenge for HR practitioners, L&D professionals will also need to rethink the nature of learning, says Kathryn Kendall, chief people officer at Benefex.  “L&D will become much less about the skills you need to do your job now, and much more about the skills you might need to do a different job in two years’ time.” Worryingly, some futurists are claiming that the half-life of a learned skill is just five years, meaning that much of what a person learnt 10 years ago is completely out-of-date, and half of what was learned five years ago is irrelevant.

“HR needs to look at what the research suggests might happen in their sector, and start planning”

“Once we get to a place where AI can replicate complex diagnoses, complex patterns of activity, complex interactions and conversations, and demonstrate empathy, I think that’s when it’s something that needs a response,” says Adams.

When this revolution comes, employers will need to consider their responsibility – if any – to those workers who will be left behind. “Because it won’t necessarily be the case that because one job disappears, somewhere else another is created in a different part of the economy, and that someone will be able to make that move,” says David D’Souza, membership director at CIPD. “If you look, for instance, at the displacement of long-distance lorry drivers because of the growth of automated vehicles, it’s not the case that they are all going to become data scientists.”

Adams shares his concerns: “In the move from manual work to service-based industries, at least there were new jobs being created. I don’t think we are clear yet on what those new roles will be and how we can prepare people for them, or whether they will be there at all.”

“I think there is a naivety around our understanding of flexibility within the economy,” adds D’Souza. “HR professionals need to look at the research, look at what it suggests for their sector, and start factoring that into their workforce planning. Even if it is just a risk rather than a reality, it is better to have done the planning and thinking and not need it, than need it and not have done it.”