Talent Management
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What business and HR leaders need to know

By Michelle Moore

As the barriers between man and machine continue to dissolve, how work gets done and who does it will continue to change dramatically. To prepare for this significant revolution, HR leaders need to understand how to leverage technology to replace or complement the human workforce to improve productivity and business results.

How technology can impact jobs

Technology has the ability to positively impact jobs in three ways, each of which provide potential costs savings as well as opportunities to better leverage human workers (see Figure 1 – How Technology Improves Job Performance).

1. Replacing human workers

The first way that organizations can use technology to improve the outcome of a specific job function is by completely replacing jobs with technology. In these situations, organizations automate the tasks associated with a particular role. The workforce is either reduced, or people are reallocated to higher value jobs. For example, driverless trucks are now able to deliver goods to customers. In the short-term, drivers will still be in the truck, but they spend their time doing paperwork and other higher value activities versus driving. Another example of jobs that have been replaced by technology can be seen in retail organizations and hotels who are turning to life-like robots to greet guests and perform certain service-oriented duties (e.g., concierge). While using robots to replace human workers is not new, in the past the types of jobs that were replaced were usually physically intensive, and in today’s world of advanced artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics, more knowledge or customer service jobs are being impacted.

2. Automating specific tasks of a job

The second way organizations are changing jobs is by using technology to automate certain tasks. In this scenario, other tasks associated with the specific job are still performed by a human worker, and in some cases the worker may supervise the completion of the automated tasks. Organizations may consider automation as an option in effort to:

  • Complete tasks more quickly or accurately
  • Eliminate low value or unenjoyable work, and free up time for higher value work
  • Reduce the number of human workers required
  • Increase overall productivity of the human worker

For example, in the legal profession, AI is used to do labour-intensive research. Technology is able to do in seconds what it would take lawyers hours or days to complete. This allows lawyers to spend time on higher value tasks.

While many organizations focus solely on how technology can improve job performance, it is important for leaders to remember that performance can also be improved by continuing to invest in developing the more human skills.

3. Enhancing employee performance

Finally, organizations are also using technology tools to specifically enhance or super-charge the performance of human workers. For example, IBM Watson (a cognitive-based computer) is being used by physicians to identify the best cancer treatment at an individual patient level. Watson combines attributes from the patient’s file with clinical expertise, external research and data and identifies potential treatment plans for a patient that the doctor may not have otherwise been aware of. The doctor then considers the treatment options provided by Watson and makes a final decision for the individual patient.

What HR leaders need to do

While many of these changes to the nature of work have already begun, the pace of change will only increase. Leaders need to think about how this next revolution – one where the barriers between man and machine are eliminated – will impact their organizations, and identify what they can do both short- and long-term to capitalize on the opportunity.

HR leaders must:

  • Understand the types of jobs that exist at all levels of their organization.
  • Look at the tasks associated with each job to understand the capabilities required to complete the task as well as the time spent on each task.
  • Identify jobs and/or activities that technology could help with.
  • After identifying potential jobs or tasks, the feasibility and business value of using technology to change the way the work gets done must be considered. Leaders need to answer questions like:
  • Is technology to replace the job or automate tasks readily available?
  • How easy or difficult is it to find the IT talent to implement the technology?
  • How much will technology cost (versus the cost of human workers)?
  • What is the long-term viability of the job or task? Are there changes occurring in the market that would eliminate the need for the job altogether?
  • What are the regulatory implications?
  • How easily would technology be accepted? What are the social implications of making the change?
  • Will improving task performance deliver more value or is the current state good enough?

Don’t forget the humans

While many organizations focus solely on how technology can improve job performance, it is important for leaders to remember that performance can also be improved by continuing to invest in developing the more human skills and knowledge that are less likely to be replaced by technology – e.g., creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking and agility or flexibility. For example, teaching employees how to apply creative thinking techniques to solve problems or generate ideas for innovation can also positively impact business results and drive growth. By taking a balanced approach, leaders will be able to ensure humans and machines can work together to achieve better results than either could achieve on their own. 

Michelle Moore is senior vice president, Global Product Development at Lee Hecht Harrison. Attend Moore’s presentation at #HRPAAC, “Who Will Be Replaced by a Robot? What HR Professionals Need to Know,” on Feb. 1 at 3:00 p.m.

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