The Future Is Human

The Future Is Human

“Science fiction and popular cultural metaphors pit man against technology, while the truth is technology is a tool, which is only as good as the human who creates it.”

A healthy fear of the future is part of the human condition. But we do not have to see it as a monster knocking at our door. There is a lot of noise in the media about how man and machine will compete in a futuristic landscape and man will lose. It is more likely that man and machine will integrate. Technology will be embodied, not interfaced. Science fiction and popular cultural metaphors pit man against technology, while the truth is that technology is a tool, which is only as good as the human who creates it. What we should really be afraid of then is - how good is the human?

Somehow, despite all the technological advances we have seen, it is Artificial Intelligence (AI) that has captured the collective imagination. This is because it has already made inroads into e-commerce, finance, education, agriculture, healthcare, academia, transport, smart cities, and AI-based startups.

According to Accenture's recent report on 'AI and its future in India', AI can add up to USD 957 billion to India's economy by 2035.' The caveats are workforce readiness, language barriers, and socioeconomic issues. In 2016, India graduated 2.6 million students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), but their level of employability and proficiency is low. Eighty percent of executives believe that the workforce is not ready, and companies need to invest in training and make major changes to performance and talent acquisition strategies. According to the report, five pillars are mandatory for a robust AI ecosystem:

  • Universities
  • Large companies
  • Startups
  • Policymakers
  • Multiple stakeholder partnerships

'Future of Jobs,' the 2016 World Economic Forum's report, delineates eighteen drivers of change for our near future and how these will impact jobs. These include not just technological advances like AI, but also changing work environments and flexible working arrangements, socioeconomic, and demographic drivers of change in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) environment. According to this assessment, in barely three short years, the future will already be here.

The new normal

Robert Bolton, Partner, KPMG, UK, says, "Many businesses are exhibiting uncertainty and inertia. They apparently don't recognise what today's transformation trailblazers know and are clearly acting on uncertainty is this era's new normal."  HR needs a paradigm shift to accommodate the accelerated pace of change as per the 2019 KPMG report, 'The Future of HR In the Know or in the No.'

A future-proof HR will be flexible and agile, and social on intranets, with mobile-based apps offering fast and personalised information on a range of HR centric questions. These will be integrated into the business as it has a diversity of skills - tech-savvy, data scientists, connectors, brand editors - and will use big data to make the right decisions.

HR will make many shifts from its current role. Primarily, it will enable, empower, and create compelling employee experiences with investments in training, improving workspaces, and giving more rewards. It will embed culture and values in the workplace to recruit and retain hard-to-find talent. From the 'police' of the organisation, where it enforces rules, HR will move towards functioning as a coach, mentor, and thought leader. It will be the driving force for creating a cohesive work environment where employees can grow, by providing intelligent digital platforms that can create a Netflixlike experience for corporate learners.

The image of being a luddite (a person opposed to technology) will be transformed as HR begins to use data and analytics to make strategic decisions at speed and in an unpredictable environment. It will have a key seat at the table, be a part of the decision making, and contribute to the strategy of the organisation. It will focus more on employee outputs, wherein they will encourage workers to produce the maximum value in their job, both for themselves and the organisation. In this larger and more integral role, HR will give real-time recognition to employees and unlock human potential by aligning positions with employee skills and interests. It will show agility to best meet the needs of the employees with fast design implementation and iteration to stay ahead of workplace trends like employee wellness and career mobility options. Job titles will reflect employees' talent and experience.

HR as an influencer HR will act as an influencer beyond the organisation by helping to shape policies, regulations, and laws that support the new paradigm. It will be a culture advocate and a brand builder and connect the employee's and the company's purpose. It will be an expert in the new ways of working and talent transitions, a facilitator of virtual team effectiveness, developer of all types of leadership, and most importantly, communicator of values, norms, and beliefs through virtual and personal means. It will partner with real estate to create spaces that promote culture and apply a consumer marketing lens using tools like design thinking and sentiment analysis, allowing employees to rate the company's culture and management.

Disruptive technologies like big data, analytics, machine learning, and AI will be critical operational aspects of HR management. AI will be an ally that will provide assistance in recruitment and help prevent attrition. It will also solve problems related to gender-based wage differences and help in prediction. HR software will evolve into a smarter version, capable of handling complex tasks like employee satisfaction, review cycles, productivity, and performance evaluation. Empowerment and freedom in a diverse workplace will require HR to make lesser effort for greater impact. The use of wearable devices, integration for time tracking, time-restricted email policies, workplace health, and encouragement of remote work will all fall under the gamut of HR responsibilities. In the future, HR will be defined by learning, risktaking, and networking, as it manages a blended workforce of gig and permanent workers. It will need creative judgement, flexibility, and long-term relationship building.

Recipe for becoming future proof - the ingredients

In a world of 'minimal manning,' Deloitte Consultant, Erica Volini, says that in the next ten years, 70 to 90 percent of workers will be in socalled hybrid or super jobs, which will combine tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional jobs. A good example would be of startups, where a single employee may handle social media and marketing, while also doubling up as a coder. Specialised workers will slowly be replaced with problem solving generalists, says Jerry Useem in an article in the Atlantic, 'At work, expertise is falling out of favour.' He adds that the half-life of skills is getting shorter, and the evolution of the economy basically needs a different kind of worker with not only different acquired skills, but different inherent abilities. You have to be very adaptable, especially in an ambiguous and changing environment. In such a landscape, the following uniquely human skills that work in confluence will be the secret sauce for becoming future-proof across all kinds of work.

Being a mental gymnast: Cognitive flexibility defines the speed and ease with which you can switch between different systems of thought. It is the ability to see new patterns, make unique associations between ideas, and to become a 'shallow expert' so that you can easily shift between software, platforms, and services.

Being a skilled negotiator: Humans are much better at negotiation than machines. You will be expected to show greater interpersonal skills and the ability to negotiate with colleagues, managers, clients, and teams.

Being service-oriented: The knack of looking for active ways to assist and anticipate the needs of customers and colleagues. Consumers are expressing concerns about issues such as carbon footprints, food safety, privacy, and ethics. The business needs to reflect these new values, translate them into product offerings and become conversant with the processes involved in meeting these demands.

Being a decision-maker and showing good judgement: The ability to make sound judgement calls and an aptitude for decision making is especially relevant in light of big data. You will need to mine data and find relevant and actionable insights that can direct business strategy. Data is also dry, and the talent to build a narrative or tell a good story with it will be a very handy skill. Being able to find and assess the quality as well as the content of information will be an added bonus.

Being emotionally intelligent: The big kahuna of skills needed in the future. It refers to the overall social skills - being able to relate to, persuade, and teach others. Travis Bradbury, co-author of 'Emotional Intelligence 2.0', calls emotional intelligence 'the other kind of smart.' It is intangible, informs every interaction we have, helps tune into the emotions of others and adjust behaviour in accordance with the mood of a colleague, partner, family member, or even our own feelings. An emotionally intelligent person can manage behaviour, regulate emotions, navigate social complexities, and make interpersonal decisions that achieve positive results.

Being able to coordinate with others: This requires strong interpersonal skills and the ability to collaborate. If you can play well with others, you will have a distinct advantage over both machines and those who are socially inept. Nonroutine interactions like teamwork, playing off each other's strengths, and adapting to uncertain circumstances are particular to humans. In addition, the ability to handle diversity with cultural intelligence will be very important as team members may belong to different races and cultures and be of different ages and gender. To transcend geographical boundaries through digital platforms and be able to coordinate and collaborate across networks, you will need to build alliances and lead by influence.

Being able to manage people: This is a key skill because humans are more creative, better at reading each other, and able to bounce off each other's ideas and energy, but they get sick, demotivated and distracted. As a future manager and team leader, you will need to motivate teams, maximise productivity, and respond to their needs. This will be imperative given that contingent or gig workers will constitute up to 40 percent of an average company's workforce.

Being creative: This is the ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate information and throw all ideas together to present something 'new.' As new products, technologies, and ways of working come into existence, creativity will be a mandatory requirement.

Being able to think critically: Critical thinking is the foundation of innovation. It means asking the right questions about the problem or issue, considering various solutions and weighing up the pros and cons through logic and reasoning to choose the most advantageous option.

Being able to solve complex problems: A core skill of the future employee, it is the capacity to solve unusual, ill-defined problems in complex real-world settings. This requires mental plasticity to solve problems that have never been encountered previously, in an environment that is changing at warp speed and becoming progressively complex. Economists call them 'wicked' problems problems nearly impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, or ever-evolving requirements. These skills are built on experience and based on a strong foundation of critical and lateral thinking.

Being able to communicate effectively: Effective oral and written communication represents the ability to think clearly, present arguments and information persuasively, inspire with passion, concisely capture highlights, and promote yourself. It is often neglected but will be very important in the context of digital communication where non-verbal cues are missing, and there is a high likelihood of being misunderstood.

Some other scenarios include the ability of employees to work without direct leadership in tight temporary organisations that act independently. This is premised on being able to build relationships quickly. For long term employment, employee-ownedand-operated companies like collectives or cooperatives could employ low-skilled people who lose their jobs to automation. These companies could provide niche services, which large organisations miss or ignore. In this case, all employees will need a good business sense. Future skills will also include man-machine interfaces, where they work in concert, not competition. The future will be connected, collaborative, and digital predicated on unpredictable consequences of technological disruption, making lifelong learning and curiosity fundamentally necessary.

The future is human

So, the secret to becoming future proof is to be truly human. It is just that simple. But that is not the end of the story. It is just the beginning.

Yuval Noah Harari, author and historian, said in a lecture at Google, that emotional intelligence and mental stability are going to be necessary in a future where people will have to continuously reinvent themselves to adjust to the constantly changing landscape. Otherwise, the job market will create serious psychological problems for people unable to do so. The integration of man and machine may also have the unintended consequence of leaving behind the more benevolent characteristics of humanity like compassion, justice, resilience, and humility.

Engineers of driverless cars grappling with age-old questions of morality and ethics as they develop algorithms are just a manifestation of how the future will assimilate wide and disparate fields like science, spirituality, philosophy, and the whole human experience. However, we humans are not good at prediction or identifying the consequences of our actions. It is a human weakness that our future tends to look quite like our present with a few tweaks. We can only imagine, prepare for, and influence it. The rest will just have to be dealt with as it comes up. The most reassuring aspect of any projection into the future is that we are and will continue to remain relevant. The question is - how?

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