It is hard to get our daily dosage of news without seeing robots getting a mention, who appear to be making inroads into every human activity. Human resource professionals have to prepare for this new order on three counts.
1. Dealing with the fact that people are likely to be replaced by robots.
2. Dealing with issues faced by people when working alongside robots.
3. Dealing with the possibility of robots running HR.
A 2014 report from Deloitte, UK, had predicted that 35% of all jobs in that country carried a high risk of being automated in two decades. This is a scary number. The prescription offered by the authors for displaced workers was to train them to do more customer-facing jobs, or use them to generate newer ideas for business. There are two obvious challenges for HR here. One, there may not those many new roles of the type envisaged, and, two, people hired and trained for one set of skills may not be amenable to training in an altogether different bundle of skills. The second of these challenges is compounded by another finding in the same report that low income jobs comprise a disproportionate share of the jobs expected to be lost. The prospect of training people with low-grade qualifications so that they can occupy higher-paying skilled jobs that are safe from automation is indeed daunting.
A year later, Deloitte followed up with another report for UK that seemed to strike a positive note. It claimed that while 800,000 jobs had indeed been lost to automation over fifteen years, three and a half million jobs with higher skills had been created over the same period. This looks reassuring until we realise that the new jobs are not necessarily created in those very organisations where jobs were lost. Automation creates jobs for those who have to build, deploy, and maintain automation solutions, but that does not help the HR manager, who has to manage dislocation and discontent in an organisation which may be only losing jobs to automation.
One implication of this is that HR managers will have to get better at tracking development and deployment of disruptive technology so that they can anticipate and plan for systematic reskilling and staff reduction. This is another daunting task, as the sweep of technology across industries is breathtaking. Last year, Fast Company magazine listed twenty jobs that are at risk for replacement, and it made for sobering reading. The list included bricklayers, dairy farmers and manufacturing workers of all types, but also included journalists, insurance underwriters and financial analysts. How much technology tracking and planning can an HR manager do when robots are readying themselves to perform quintessential human tasks like writing fiction! ‘True Love’ by Alexander Prokopovich, is a short story written by a robot. The author’s name along the title is that of the person who owns the machine. Robots are not expected to replace all employees in any company, and this means that the remaining workforce has to learn to work with robots instead of human peers. This can cause a number of difficult situations in the workplace ranging from attribution of blame (“the machine did it”), anxiety (“I cannot match the machine”), to outright fear (“the machine is going to knock me down”).
Robot designers are overcoming some of these issues through intelligent design. Last year, the Economist reported the emergence of ‘cobots’. These are collaborative robots that work alongside factory workers to assist them in their work. Many of them have extensive sensors, to avoid unintended physical contact, and are built with softer surfaces, to minimize impact if contact does happen. Some, like the ones from Rethink Robotics watch the human colleague for non-verbal cues to anticipate requirements. If the human looks in the direction of a part that he/she wants, or stretches his/her hand towards an object he/she wants to pick, the cobot will anticipate the request and move to do the needful. Many of these cobots also have a screen that displays their ‘emotions’, using emoji-like expressions. Deploying the right kind of cobots is not something the HR manager can do on her own, but this is certainly within her circle of influence.
Any talk of robots actually replacing HR staff creates anxiety, but is difficult to avoid. By now, we have come to realize the power of chatbots (like Siri from Apple) to answer complex queries. Nobody doubts their ability in replacing human assistants who answer employee queries regarding policies and service requests among other things. HR is already using IT applications intensively, and it is easy to see robotic process automation (RPA) eliminating the human element almost completely from many of them. For instance, in an organisation using enterprise-wide performance assessment applications, bots can train staff, remind them to do their bit (e.g. enter goals, achievements etc), check to see if content has been created, compile status, and generate reports. Bots can even check the quality of content in the text fields to confirm adequacy. Remember, Gmail carries out certain amount of content analysis to decide whether to screen out spam altogether or put it in the spam folder. The more one thinks about it, the more likely it seems that HR is not safe from robots!
Last year, a survey by CareerBuilder showed that 55% of HR managers expect AI to play a significant part in the HR function in the next five years. 7% expect robots to take over the HR function completely. Seven is a small number, but it is definitely bigger than zero. And, remember that the respondents were looking only five years ahead!
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