5 September 2019

Automation, HR and the changing labour market

Automation is already having a huge impact on the world of work, so we look at how this could affect HR in the future and change the labour market as a whole

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Lindsay Harriss

Lindsay Harriss

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Future of Work HR transformation Technology

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Automation is already having a huge impact on the world of work, so we look at how this could affect HR in the future and change the labour market as a whole

It seems that every day brings another online article trying to explain how increased use of automation, including artificial intelligence (AI), will impact the workplace. Understandably, this is a major source of concern for many, with one study finding that 72% of workers in the US are worried about a future where machines will perform various human jobs.

But it’s not all doom and gloom; although the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated in 2018 that, by 2022, 75 million jobs may be displaced as a result of the shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, it also predicted that 133 million new roles may emerge.

The fourth industrial revolution

The good news is also that the benefits of new technology are being experienced everywhere. Indeed, the current era of automation, often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, is gathering pace and smart technology is reshaping the way we live and work for the better, in ways we could not have imagined a few years ago. Even now, we can hardly comprehend how this will change our lives in the future. We are already becoming dependent on automation and AI in many ways – from virtual assistants such as Siri to chatbots that can swiftly handle online customer queries.

In fact, a whole menagerie of machines is now making our jobs easier to perform, across all sectors. For example, the rise of new technology has revolutionised HR; it has become vital to use a high-quality HR system if you want to efficiently run any organisation. Indeed, this has made many tasks, such as recruitment and performance management, so much simpler and speedier, freeing up HR professionals to concentrate on more strategic duties and the human interactions that matter.

“It’s futile to guess what new roles may emerge”

With automation set to take over more routine and repetitive tasks, it’s highly likely that there will be fewer traditional, entry-level administration roles, and the career ladder, as we now know it, is likely to lose its lower rungs. For example, according to analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than half (58%) of all HR admin roles are at risk of automation. Roles in other professions will be at risk too, so there’s a big challenge ahead for employers to plan and shape workers’ careers in the new, automated era of work.

Professor Chris Rowley of Cass Business School and Kellogg College, University of Oxford, explains: “There will still be jobs, but just different ones – throughout history this has been the case with technological changes, such as from the end of blacksmiths and rise of motor mechanics with the shift from horses to cars.” Although we cannot forecast exactly what these roles will be, “at a minimum there will be the need for more people in the maintenance area, which itself will become more complex and skilled.”

“History is not necessarily a guide but, as we know, all technological revolutions to date have resulted in more work overall for humans,” agrees Professor William Scott-Jackson, chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting and director of the Centre for Applied HR Research. “It is futile to try to guess what new roles may emerge. Much more important is to plan for a time when people will need certain key attributes to be able to adapt to many unpredictable changes in work – for example, flexibility, fast learning, at ease with technology and access reliable guidance.”

Interestingly, with machines picking up labour-intensive and repetitive tasks, some say that it’ll be ‘soft’ skills – such as emotional intelligence and creativity – that will be in greatest demand in the workplace of the future, and that will set humans apart from the machines they will work alongside. In fact, according to the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2019 State of the Workplace report, there is already a shortage of vital soft skills – especially problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity, the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communication skills.

According to a 2019 report, although many organisations are now finding that new technology creates more work than it replaces, this work can only be carried out by workers who have a higher level of training than many currently possess. The WEF predicts that more than half (54%) of all employees will require significant upskilling by 2022 to avoid “an undesirable lose-lose scenario – technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality”. And it’ll be up to HR and L&D teams to lead the charge to retrain and upskill their people, if their organisations are to succeed.

Humane and non-human resources

Far from becoming obsolete in the era of automation, many experts believe that HR should be at the vanguard of change – shaping how technology is implemented in the workplace, so it is deployed ethically and  benefits both boss and worker.

“The myth about the future of work is that we can only guess what will happen and then wait passively until it arrives. That is not the case: trends such as AI and automation are shaping the world before our very eyes, but it is up to us to decide how we will use these technologies to create the future we want,” says Heledd Straker, principle consultant at PA Consulting, in the CIPD’s 2019 report, People and machines: from hype to reality. “HR can – and should – become a key voice in the development of AI and automation in the workplace such that it achieves business goals by meeting the needs of people. Indeed, HR is central to creating the future of work.”

“HR should think of its role as building strategic capabilities,” says Scott-Jackson, who is also the co-author of HR with purpose: future models of HR. “In this case it would need to take responsibility for human and non-human resources – particularly as they may become increasingly interchangeable with decisions based on relative cost benefits.”

Some forecast that we are now on the cusp of the fifth industrial revolution, in which the focus will shift from using technology to improve efficiency and productivity, to using it to make the world a better place. Speaking to the WEF, Salesforce founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff, predicts that organisations will need to have what he calls “a chief ethical and humane use officer” in the future. And, who knows, this could be just one of the many new roles that will emerge as a result of increased automation – perhaps putting the ‘humane’, not just ‘human’, into HR.