How Automation of Jobs Will Affect Talent Acquisition

Knowledge workers are more likely to work alongside machines than be replaced by them

By Erin Binney Jul 17, 2017
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BOSTON—Good news for recruiters: Companies will continue to need their skills to hire human talent even as more tasks become automated. In fact, the role of talent management professional may even become more important as organizations incorporate human talent and digital technologies into their workforces, a concept known as augmentation.

"You will still be hiring human talent for the foreseeable future," said Tom Davenport during the opening keynote presentation at the Human Capital Institute's 2017 Strategic Talent Acquisition Conference. Davenport is co-founder of the International Institute for Analytics and the President's Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College.

Automation has changed or eliminated many jobs over time, he said, going all the way back to the invention of farm equipment. The concern now is that knowledge workers will be the next group affected by automation—and that there are no jobs "upstream" to move to.

"I don't think the future is going to be quite as dramatic as [some] people say," Davenport remarked.

He said he believes that the next step is not total automation, but rather augmentation. In this scenario, "smart humans and smart machines" work in tandem to enhance job performance. The machines help make up for human limitations, and the employees are freed up to take on higher-level tasks.

"Human capabilities may even be amplified as a result of this combination" of digital and human talent, he said.

Tasks, Not Jobs, Being Automated

Automation has been slow to develop, Davenport said, because fully automated systems haven't worked that well. Take, for example, automated phone systems that have callers yelling "agent!" or "help!" at the earliest opportunity so they can talk to an actual person.

On the other hand, automation can have a powerful upside. For example, he said, digital tools will allow health care professionals to diagnose and treat diseases in the future that they can't today.

That's why a combination of machine and human talent is crucial. Consider robotic surgery, Davenport said, where about 20 percent of the work is done by machine and about 80 percent requires human intervention.

Davenport acknowledged that many knowledge workers' tasks are already "on the way out" in that they are increasingly being done by machines rather than people. Lawyers, for example, now run online searches rather than sifting through pages and pages of case law, and radiologists rely on machines to identify cancerous lesions on medical images.

He emphasized, however, that only certain knowledge work tasks—not entire jobs—are being automated. "In many cases, I think when we put machines or digital talent into jobs, it won't be to replace humans," he said. "It will be because we can't even conceive of a human doing that task," such as processing high volumes of data in seconds.

A study from McKinsey Global Institute released earlier this year supports Davenport's claims. It found that machines are in fact increasingly being used to perform certain job tasks but that fears about automation eliminating entire occupations may be overblown.

"Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are ushering in a new age of automation, as machines match or outperform human performance in a range of work activities, including ones requiring cognitive capabilities," the study report authors wrote.

However, they concluded that less than 5 percent of all occupations are currently in danger of being fully replaced by technology.

HR's Role

Davenport said there are several ways HR and talent management professionals can help prepare their organizations for augmentation.

For example, he said, a shift of this magnitude will require the HR function to execute a change management strategy and to sell the idea to employees.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Change]

HR can also play a role in the reskilling of the workforce. It's going to be important for HR professionals to think about what tasks will be done by machines and what tasks will be done by humans, Davenport said, and then make sure employees have the necessary skills.

Finally, talent acquisition professionals will need to continue to hire for entry-level positions. "Everybody thinks we're only going to need experts in the future to work with these smart machines," Davenport remarked. "That may be, but people are not born experts." They must be trained and developed.

"As a society, as individuals, we all have a transition to make over the next decade or two," he said.

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