Ravin Jesuthasan on Automation, HR 4.0 and the Future of Work

Ravin Jesuthasan on Automation, HR 4.0 and the Future of Work

Human Capital interacted with Ravin Jesuthasan, Managing Director at Willis Towers Watson, author, futurist, and a global thought leader, to gather an understanding about applying automation to create optimal human-machine combinations, the imperatives comprising HR 4.0, why the HR profession needs to rethink its role as a steward of work, and how COVID-19 is shaping the future of work.


The ongoing crisis has forced organisations to rally bold ideas and radically rethink the way they work. It is no wonder, then, that leaders desperately want to harness the disruptive power of automation. But the nagging question is: How? In what unique ways does your recent book, Reinventing Jobs, address this challenge?


We know from history that every time we’ve had a recession, we’ve emerged from it with more automation than we entered it with. We are currently in the mother of all recessions, and the adoption of automation is expected to increase exponentially.

A recent global survey by Willis Towers Watson indicated that 48% of organisations have taken action, are planning to take action, or are considering automating work to reduce cost or increase productivity. It is essential that organisations “lead with the work” and not the technology, or we run a real risk of a jobless recovery.


Reinventing Jobs is intended to be a guide for business leaders to help them achieve the optimal combinations of humans and automation. It demonstrates (with over 120 cases) how the deconstruction of jobs into tasks can help identify where automation should substitute, augment or create human work.


Your book describes a unique four-step framework for applying work automation. Could you briefly explain how each step in this framework can help optimise human-machine combinations?


The first step involves deconstructing jobs into tasks and categorising the tasks along three continuums: (1) Is the task repetitive versus variable? (2) Is the task performed independently versus interactively with colleagues or customers? (3) Is the task physical versus mental?


The second step is identifying the goal of the task. Is the goal to eliminate errors, reduce variance, improve performance or achieve a breakthrough?


The third step is identifying the relevant type of automation: robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (including machine learning and natural language processing) or social robotics.


Once you analyse work with these three steps, the fourth identifies the optimal outcome: substitution, augmentation or transformation.


As an example, assume you work at a bank processing mortgage applications. A key task would be to verify information on the application. This involves checking the data provided by the customer against bank records, government data, credit bureau records, etc. This is work that is repetitive, independent, and mental with the goal of eliminating errors given the significant consequences of a mistake (fines, sanctions, lawsuits, etc.). The relevant technology here would be robotic process automation, and the optimal outcome would be to substitute this activity with automation, freeing the employee up to take on other tasks.


You recently co-authored a white paper titled ‘HR 4.0: Shaping People Strategies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)’, published by the World Economic Forum. Could you share the six key imperatives that underpin HR 4.0 for our readers?


The six imperatives are:


i. Developing New Leadership Capabilities for the 4IR:



As organisations operate more distributed business models, leaders will need to lead from the edge, adopt the right technologies, drive a new vision of organisational culture and shape innovative people strategies for the future of work.


ii. Managing the Integration of Technology in the Workplace:


The way work gets done is changing. A growing area of responsibility for HR is to partner with CEOs and other C-suite executives to achieve the optimal combination of human workforce and automation to ensure a positive impact on the future of work.


iii.Enhancing the Employee Experience:


The increasing complexity of the workforce and the use of technology is calling for a change in the way work is experienced. HR plays a vital role in defining, measuring and enabling the meaningful employee experience in the 4IR.


iv. Building an Agile and Personalised Learning Culture:


HR plays a leading role in fostering a culture of lifelong learning in the context of declining demand for certain skills, the emergence of new ones and the requirement for talent to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn.


v. Establishing Metrics for Valuing Human Capital:


The mutually beneficial relationship between the workforce, organisations and society makes it essential for HR to create a compelling case for establishing viable and scalable measures of human capital as a key performance driver and continuously demonstrating the impact of its work on business performance.


vi. Embedding Diversity and Inclusion:


Changing social, economic and political forces bring an opportunity for organisations to profoundly advance inclusion and diversity. HR plays a pivotal role in promoting a sense of purpose and belonging in the workforce, equality and prosperity for the communities and regions in which it operates.


You say that the role of the HR function is shifting from being a “steward of employment” to becoming a “steward of work”. Could you elucidate this?


When Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, wrote his book on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we wondered about the work implications. We questioned whether this represented a fundamental change in work or was just technology continuing to do what it had always done — making things more efficient, raising the speed quotient, etc. But what we’re seeing is something fundamentally different.


Artificial intelligence has been with us since the late fifties, but we have never had the enabling infrastructure that we have today. The convergence of multiple technologies, such as cloud-based computing, transformations in mobile, the emergence of 5G, rapid proliferation of low-cost sensors to generate data, and the increasing speed and falling cost of graphic processing units, is empowering technologists, business leaders and people managers to realise the true potential of AI and other technologies. The other key variable is the democratisation of work, which is the ability to distribute work anywhere in the world and tap into talent at any time without the frictional cost of hiring a person into a job.


The convergence of these factors is presenting organisations with significant challenges in terms of thinking about how to get work done in the best possible way. At the same time, these factors are also creating options we’ve never seen before. Today, as business leaders, we have at least eight options for getting work done: from employees to independent contractors to gig workers to outsourcing and alliances to tapping into volunteers for crowdsourcing innovation or promoting brands on social media to the more intriguing options of robotics and AI.


These choices also pose real opportunities for HR to rethink its role. Increasingly, this profession needs to shift from being a steward of employment to being a steward of work, enabling leaders to orchestrate the various options to achieve the optimal combinations of machines and human talent of all kinds.


The world of work is set to look remarkably different than before, and there is a need to keep an eye on the many lasting changes that are underway. What are your views on COVID-19 and the future of work?


I believe that this pandemic is accelerating many of the trends underpinning the future of work. For example, we have been talking about remote work for 50 years but made precious little progress until this pandemic ensured that any work that could be done remotely was done in such a manner. We expect to see continued advances in automation, and companies will need to ensure that they are approaching this with a view to a sustainable and equitable outcome for all stakeholders.

With 5+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR - from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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