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As a result, HR will need to rethink the job itself and focus on making employee experiences even better
One of the hottest topics in the business world today is the "future of work," also known as "how artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, sensors and computing are changing the way humans get work done."
The world of work has been disrupted by technology for hundreds of years. In the early 1900s, we witnessed automobiles replacing horses, eliminating the need for the job of street sweeper to clean up after the animals. In the mid-20th century, we witnessed the widespread use of electricity and telecommunications, opening up jobs in global commerce and eliminating the need for couriers. In the 1970s, the word processor did away with the need for "steno pools," and in the 1980s, the emergence of the personal computer and spreadsheets transformed the work of financial analysts, office workers and almost everyone who managed data.
Today, the media commonly writes about the "massive loss of jobs" ahead as AI, cognitive computing and analytics become mainstream.
While it's absolutely true that AI (I'd change it from "artificial intelligence" to "augmented intelligence") is in fact coming at an accelerating rate, the reality is that such tools can offer us tremendous opportunities to make work better.
Consider one simple example. In the 1980s, as automated teller machines (ATMs) became popular, articles were written about the "end of the bank teller." In fact, now that there are nearly one million ATMs installed around the world, research shows that the number of tellers has gone up by almost 10 percent, according to Deloitte research.
The ATM didn't do away with the need for people; rather, it expanded our use of the financial system, making the job of teller a job of sales, service and consulting. Most of us visit the ATM for most of our transactions but still go into the bank for in-depth conversations.
As automation enters all areas of work, mundane tasks often go away. The work of assembly workers is being automated throughout China. Much of the work of farmers is likely to be displaced by smarter tractors (with sensors that can sense humidity and actually see when plants are ready to be harvested). And the work of customer service agents will likely change from processing transactions to actually helping people.
Build a Culture of Change
Bersin's research report, Essential Skills for Talent Working in the Machine Age, found that there are 25 "essential human skills" that tend to flourish and become more important as computers become smarter. These include abilities like oral expression, problem sensitivity, empathy and active listening—things that machines just cannot do as well. In other words, all the things that make us human will likely become more important than ever as machines get smarter.
What does this mean for HR?
It doesn't mean you have to worry about laying off half your people. Rather, it means there are two important strategies you should prioritize for the years ahead.
First, you should practice design thinking—watching how people work, empathizing with the job, and truly understanding what parts of every job can and should be automated. Your HR team should become familiar with automation technologies (natural language tools, robotic process automation) and help your operations teams understand where such technology can be applied and how the "essential human skills" can work with these augmented tools to be able to provide even better customer service at a lower cost. Remember, your goal should not be to automate work as it exists today, but rather to rethink the job itself, with a focus on what will make the customer and employee experience better than it was before.
Second, you should push your organization to build a culture of learning and self-reinvention. Organizations can no longer afford to be afraid of learning new tools. Technology is now embedded in our phones, available online and is becoming a common element of almost every part of work. Customer service, manufacturing and even sales roles are being enhanced with cognitive and analytics tools faster than ever before. If people are not ready to learn and you are not ready to help them, you are likely to end up with a workforce that either fails to use the technology well or one that has to be replaced with (typically younger) more facile employees.
The future of work is all about people, not technology.
We as HR professionals should take the lead as technology marches forward, applying our skills in job design, employee development and culture to make sure the future of work works well for everyone.
Josh Bersin is a principal of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, a leading research and advisory firm focused on corporate leadership, talent, learning, and the intersection between work and life. Contact him on Twitter @josh_bersin and read his blog at www.bersin.com/Blog/
As used in this document, "Deloitte" means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.
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