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How to humanise your organisation

A woman at the table next to me in a Kensington café was complaining about how her teenage son barks questions at Alexa, Amazon’s cheerful virtual assistant. “He never says please or thanks - I heard him calling her a silly cow once.” Her concern was that her son could start addressing girls in a similarly disrespectful manner.

“Should I talk to him about it?”

My first thought was ‘Wow! What a First World problem!” But, continuing to eavesdrop whilst pretending to read my newspaper, I noticed the question started a thoughtful and well-informed debate among her friends on the pros and cons of artificial intelligence.

A similar debate is gripping HR departments now that the rise of AI robots – complex software run through powerful computers – is no longer just the stuff of sci-fi and has far-reaching implications for the workplace.

Business executives generally view AI as an enabler, pairing people and machines, enhancing innovation, improving efficiency and boosting productivity. Around £1bn is said to have been invested in UK-based AI firms in the first half of 2016 and PwC thinks AI could add £232bn to Britain’s GDP by 2030, the equivalent of a 10 per cent boost.

By the time the Eton schoolboy enters the workplace he could find himself partnered with a cobot (collaborative robot) quite possibly more competent than him at many tasks.

Let the machines perspire while we inspire

HR directors have a vital role in helping to minimise any negative AI side-effects whilst also assisting businesses to capitalise on the technology’s massive potential.

Chatbots can already take on the more routine, time-consuming tasks in HR and other fields, freeing up workers to get on with more important strategic and creative tasks that only humans can do.

And the first dedicated AI recruitment assistant launched in San Francisco last year promises to revolutionise how companies engage and nurture talent pipelines. Mya, as she is called, swiftly eliminates irrelevant CVs and engages directly with viable candidates. For those shortlisted, she’ll arrange a face-to-face interview with a flesh-and-blood hiring manager who’s far better-equipped to judge whether the candidate fits the organisation’s culture.

Apart from relieving HR of the dull chores, AI tools could provide detailed intelligence that would impact positively on recruitment and retention. They can help to bring more objectivity to tricky subjects like annual pay and benefits reviews. If programmed properly, they could also be useful in removing unconscious bias in the recruiting process.

By seizing the initiative to ensure the perspiring is done by AI machines and the inspiring by people, HR will also boost its own value in the organisational chain.

HR must shape the AI agenda

With intelligent machines becoming increasingly affordable for even the smallest organisations, HR must keep abreast of the rapid advances in AI systems if it’s to shape the agenda. Itself a driver of big data, HR must also create a talent strategy to ensure that employees have the ability to work with the new technology.

This will require on-the-job training programmes and encouraging employees, including those in HR, to think about their skills and competencies to judge whether they have what it takes to remain relevant.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean going out and learning coding – though that might be the answer for some – but you need to develop STEM skills and get creative in the more traditional sense of the world,” Robert Bolton, partner in KPMG’s Global HR Centre of Excellence, has said.

Of at least equal importance to these steps will be safeguarding and promoting the human factor in the face of data-driven management, machine learning and greater automation. To future-proof organisations, mottos such as ‘relationships not programs’ and ‘people not robots’ must be more than buzz phrases.

“We need to make sure that the future of work is human, that we are designing workplaces that make the best of people and not just the best of clever technology,” Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, wrote in a recent blog.

Employees will want to feel they’re working smarter, not harder; that their work is data-informed and not just data-driven; that they are valued and empowered, not reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet in a dehumanised workplace.

Growing AI interventions also risk deepening the alienation that many might feel in the fast-expanding remote workforce, while an ‘always-on’ work culture enabled by smart technology is already held largely responsible for a stress epidemic.

So emphasising employee engagement and teamwork and building bridges with leadership have rarely been so important. As is nurturing creativity and promoting empathy, while mindfulness programmes and other strategies to address stress will grow in importance.

Humane Resources

Ensuring the well-being of workers will reinforce the ‘H’ in HR (which we might even come to term ‘humane resources’) because it requires intangible human attributes that are not yet programmable, and maybe never will be.

Among humans’ “soft skills” include critical thinking, common sense, judgment, emotional and social intelligence, empathy, imagination and intuition, all of which give people an advantage over AI not only in HR but in other fields too. People also have personality, the ability to motivate and to lead.

And, as we enter a brave new world, demand for these solely human attributes is growing, alongside that for techie skills. The World Economic Forum says that emotional intelligence, creativity, and people management will be among the top requirements for jobs, while Microsoft is now recruiting arts graduates.

Understandably, however, there’s a steady pulse of fear beating beneath the debate on AI, and HR professionals must be able to outline to employees the challenges as well as benefits.

A jobs apocalypse?

More immediately, many of us are anxious about an apocalypse of another kind – a jobs one. Taxi and truck drivers are justifiably concerned that their ranks will be decimated by the rise of autonomous vehicles. Fruit-pickers, brick-layers and even burger-flippers are seeing robotics teamed with machine learning technology encroaching on their turf, while chatbots are fast doing away with humans for customer queries and self-checkout machines are doing the same in supermarkets.

Unlike the industrial revolution of the 19th century, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is also beginning to automate or alter tasks performed by white collar workers. Junior lawyers, for instance, might well be concerned now that a computer can hold the entire history of case law and has sufficient ‘intelligence’ to work out which parts are relevant to a case. Automation, robotics, algorithms and AI are making similar inroads into accountancy, insurance, banking and journalism.

Yet there’s a welter of conflicting evidence and opinion on what impact AI is having or might have on the jobs market.

A recent report by the consultancy firm PwC found that ten million jobs in Britain were potentially under threat within 15 years from breakthroughs in AI. Some 2.25 million jobs were at high risk in wholesale and retailing, 1.2 million in manufacturing, and 1.1 million in administration and support services, and 950,000 in transport and storage.

Yet the report also predicted that automation would boost productivity, generating wealth. So advances in robotics and AI should “create additional jobs in less automatable parts of the economy as this extra wealth is spent or invested”, John Hawksworth, PwC’s chief economist said.

For now, advances in digital and other labour-saving technologies appear to be creating at least as many jobs as they are eliminating. New figures from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation show the fastest rise in jobs placements since 2015 and businesses increasing pay offers to compete for staff. Unemployment is at a 40-year low.

Autonomous learning, however, is expanding the variety and diversity of tasks that intelligent machines can perform and diminishing the list of things that humans can do better. But despite the hype, AI is still in its infancy. Machines, as yet, are not as smart as us.

The Turing Test

The Turing Test has still not been fully passed. Devised by the computer scientist and Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing in 1950, it tests a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence indistinguishable from that of a human.

The Google executive and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, believes AI will pass a valid Turing Test by 2029. “That leads to computers having human intelligence, our putting them inside our brains, connecting them to the cloud, expanding who we are,” he said in an interview with SXSW in March.

More modest predictions by other tech evangelists see AI-enabled machines and people working together in the near future rather than as separate entities, capitalising on a blend of the best technology and human judgment.

Ideally, then, AI will unleash a person’s potential, not replace human expertise, and create new and more satisfying jobs that will be done by humans. We should also value the huge potential benefits that AI promises for fields such as medicine where tireless and unbiased intelligent robots acting as super-fast researchers are turbo-charging the race for new drugs to tackle crippling diseases.

Be nice to Alexa

One of the jobs of the future, some experts say, will be working out how to use people skills to interface meaningfully with such intelligent machines. This will involve using gestures, facial expressions and body language to build a truly creative partnership/relationship with our cobots.

The Eton schoolboy may just want to consider being a little more polite to Alexa. Others certainly are. Launched in late 2014, Alexa had received and declined 250,000 proposals of marriage by last autumn.

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