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Three HR Strategies for Managing AI Job Disruption

The impact of AI on jobs and the workforce is more varied – and less certain –than the press coverage would have us believe.

News headlines would have us believe that the workplace will be overrun by AI-powered robots with chrome-plated appendages and superhero powers:



It’s enough to send hard-working employees back to bed in the morning. But the impact of AI on jobs and the workforce is more varied – and less certain – than the press coverage would have us believe.


AI-fueled automation is not a zero-sum game in which a single outcome – either an apocalypse of massive job losses or a utopia where all lost jobs are replaced – will dominate. Yes, more jobs probably will continue to be automated away. But at the same time, others will be created, and some may not change for a long time, or not much, as AI evolves. Meanwhile, some (or many) jobs will be augmented by machines that operate alongside humans to assist them with their work.


None of these scenarios will dominate, despite what their advocates argue. All are developing simultaneously while their effects on work will vary over time. We can see this happening as AI-powered sensors displace factory maintenance workers, chatbots free up customer support agents to handle more complex tasks, and companies create new roles for a changing workplace.


HR leaders will have to be prepared to deal with each scenario, perhaps to widely varying degrees, inside the same organization. They will have their hands full grappling with the impact on people and their jobs. “What’s happening is not about losing jobs or creating jobs but rather that work will change,” says Hannah Berkers, a senior researcher with the Professorship of Corporate Governance and Leadership at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, who researches the role of robotization in work design.


AI is already causing more changes to work than any technology before it. Machines used to simply follow rules defined by humans. Now intelligent machines are emerging that increasingly can think on their own and act on what they learn in ways their human creators have not anticipated. They will surprise us by what they’ll be able to do.


Although humans will continue to be in charge, HR leaders will need to think differently about AI than the technologies of the past – not merely as a sophisticated tool but as a member of the workforce with skills and abilities that are as important to the company’s talent strategy as those of any flesh-and-blood employee.


That is, with one main difference. HR leaders have plenty of experience assessing the impact of a new (human) hire on a company, but preparing for a world of ever-evolving, intelligent machines is a whole new ball game – one that requires teamwork with line-of-business (LoB) leaders who know what work needs to be done and technology leaders who know what AI code can do.



Three HR Strategies for Managing AI Disruption

AI is coming alive in the workplace. HR leaders will have to make sure it’s a good colleague.

The future of AI-influenced work is fluid




Although there’s no way to know exactly how AI will impact the workforce, these four key scenarios are developing simultaneously:



Scenario 1: Job erosion 


Worldwide, more than a billion people could lose their jobs to AI automation over the next ten years, according to the World Economic Forum. This erosion of work – jobs that either disappear or require much less human participation, control, and discretion – threatens to affect about one-quarter of the workforce.



Scenario 2: Augmented work.


Rather than make people’s jobs obsolete, AI will help many people work faster and more efficiently. After all, while intelligent machines can operate at record speed with unmatched precision and accuracy, they have yet to learn how to empathize with angry customers, collaborate with colleagues, or think creatively – human skills that are indispensable.




Scenario 3: Job creation.

As more companies begin using AI, millions of employees will be needed to create the code and keep it running, says Greg Vert, a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting. But new categories of work will also emerge. Case in point: As AI connects autonomous vehicles to roads, Canada’s Information and Communications Technology Council says new occupations are emerging, such as “smart mobility managers” who know how to build intelligent transportation systems and “autonomous vehicle scientists” who make self-driving vehicles safe and ensure that they work correctly in locations they have never been.



Scenario 4: Business-as-usual.


For late adopters, AI and automation will continue to be science fiction – human-like robots that populate the pages of fantasy novels, not corporate headquarters. In fact, AI may have little impact on jobs such as sales representatives that require complex and emotionally rich interactions with customers and partners.


No one should expect HR leaders to predict how the four scenarios will come into play at their companies. Technology and LoB leaders will continue to be the main source of ideas about how emerging technologies will be deployed in the workplace. Rather, HR must build a solid understanding of how AI will change the work that is done in their organizations under any of these scenarios and determine, as each scenario presents itself, how they will respond in a way that keeps work centered on humans rather than machines.


How HR can anticipate multiple futures of work




Of the four scenarios, three are familiar. HR leaders have been contending with technology-induced job erosion and job creation, along with business-as-usual, for decades. As AI makes inroads, these leaders will be able to respond with upskilling and reskilling the workforce in the face of disappearing or new roles, as they always have.


But for HR leaders to do the necessary work to plan for and support AI, they need to have agency to do it. All too often, AI discussions happen well out of earshot of HR leaders. Berkers observes that HR people often aren’t invited to talk about plans to deploy AI because they’ll ask questions about the potential effects on the workforce that are hard to answer. But that’s a mistake. “The important step is getting HR involved and at the table, actively participating in discussions on robotization and dealing with technology,” she says.


Creating a triumvirate of partners – HR, LoB, and technology leaders – gives companies the best shot at balancing human abilities with machine intelligence. Here are three strategies for doing it:



1. Embrace the modern centaur


Despite automation’s much-ballyhooed benefits, such as increased productivity and the end of workplace ennui, not all employees loathe routine work, nor do they all care to awaken their inner Picassos as AI automates mundane tasks.


“Some people are more drawn to routine work or making meticulous calculations,” says Berkers of Amsterdam University. “Not everyone wants to do creative or problem-solving work that might be necessary or will be more of an emphasis in the future.”


For this reason, part of HR’s job is to teach employees how to work in tandem with machines. That’s different from today’s more typical IT training, in which a product designer learns how to use new software to implement a more efficient workflow or analysts try their hands at in-depth data modeling.


Instead, HR leaders should consider embracing the concept of “centaurs” – a term coined by Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion who, after being defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue, suggested that the combination of the different cognitive capabilities of humans and machines can not only enhance the performance of humans but the power of intelligent machines.


This symbiosis is already happening in the workplace. Technology futurist Daniel Burrus uses the example of a patient with a potentially cancerous spot on his skin. “If a doctor performs vision analytics of the spot using AI, he can achieve 99% to 100% accuracy – no human doctor is that accurate.” Yet AI can’t provide a course of treatment. Instead, a doctor’s years of experience, extensive expertise, common sense, and critical judgment can complement a machine’s algorithmic cognition and compensate for any errors – the “augmented thinking” that Burrus says is “the future of AI.”



2. Match abilities of humans with AI


As these centaur systems become more commonplace, it will fall to HR to match the strengths and weaknesses of human employees with the machines they work alongside. This begins with HR awakening employees to not only the qualities that make them distinctly human (think empathy and critical reasoning) but to recognizing the ways that these qualities can complement and draw greater value from AI.


Consider, for example, how AI-powered chatbots can gather critical information about a customer’s missing shipment, use sentiment analytics to identify when that customer becomes increasingly frustrated, and automatically switch the call to a live agent who has the empathy and authority to reach a resolution.


Companies looking to integrate AI into the workplace need to display the same kind of empathy toward employees that they require employees to show to customers. One way to do this is by properly managing employee expectations of AI. Clearly communicating how AI technology will be used in an organization can help foster greater human-machine collaboration, as can rewarding fast adopters of AI systems with opportunities to work on new and innovative projects.


“Organizations need to create the capacity for development in addition to incentivizing and providing different learning pathways to help workers shift from the old to the new,” adds Vert.


For example, veteran factory workers may continue to bristle at the notion of AI-enabled sensors taking over the task of monitoring equipment and predicting maintenance issues. However, an incentives program that rewards factory workers for learning how to operate the sensor systems or hone basic coding skills to fine-tune them can drive greater adoption, boost workforce morale, and foster a more collaborative work environment.



3. Advocate for people in an AI-infused workplace


As AI becomes more integrated into everyday work, HR leaders should serve as advocates for employees. On one hand, HR must shift from treating AI as a bolt-on technology to viewing it as a member of the workforce with the power to redefine responsibilities, influence co-workers, and change the nature of work.


But like human beings, AI systems are fallible: AI chatbots have been known to spew abusive epithets, autonomous cars currently have a higher rate of accidents than human drivers, and gender and racist bias in AI systems has been well documented. By cultivating a culture of openness, inclusivity, and transparency, HR leaders can create spaces in which employees not only feel comfortable blowing the whistle on AI-induced blunders or questioning the output of intelligent machines but have ways to make themselves heard.


Supporting employees also means ensuring that jobs remain human-centered. By working together, technology executives, HR professionals, and LoB leaders can redefine the roles that people have so that AI works to satisfy the needs of humans rather than humans being required to meet the demands of AI. Establishing a strong, healthy work culture and positively reinforcing problem-solving (a distinctly human skill) can create a nurturing environment where people come first. By ensuring that intelligent machines play to workers’ strengths, organizations can foster a culture that breeds synergy, not competition between human and machine.


Give employees a voice in AI deployment




HR leaders can create spaces in which employees feel comfortable blowing the whistle on AI-induced blunders.

There’s no telling exactly what shape the future of AI will take in the workplace or how it will change the work being done. Multiple scenarios await. But more important than any crystal ball is HR’s direct line to employees – a chance for HR leaders to gather firsthand feedback from employees on how they feel about AI, its place in the organization, and its impact on their roles and responsibilities.


“Employees are best able to spot opportunities for how things can be done differently in the future,” says Berkers. “Together, HR leaders and employees can investigate the most valuable aspects of a job and what parts should be handled by AI.” It’s precisely this collaborative intelligence – be it between HR and employees or CTOs, CHROs, and LoB leaders – that will lead to success in an AI-infused world.

Meet the Authors

David Jonker
Vice President and Chief Analyst | SAP Insights research center

Cindy Waxer
Independent Writer | Business and Technology

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