The notion that technology is transforming the tasks that constitute ‘work’ is now widely accepted. But every so often we get a glimpse of how fast things are moving.
When an Ocado distribution centre in Hampshire was ravaged by fire in February, the real headlines were made by the revelation that hardly any of its distribution was performed by humans. In May, scientists unveiled a new robot fruit and vegetable picker that will go into production next year and will soon, it is claimed, be able to work up to 70 per cent faster than a human, and never need a break.
A recent report from the CIPD and PA Consulting – People and Machines: From Hype to Reality – lifts the lid on how such widespread AI and automation has been enabled, and what happens next. And while it says the process will have a broadly positive impact on the quality of jobs, HR is not sufficiently involved in the decision-making process around its implementation in business.
The CIPD found the introduction of new technology would transform jobs through enhancing existing roles, expanding employee skillsets and increasing pay.
But more worryingly, when it came to making business decisions around technologies, HR was reportedly involved in just 55 per cent of investment decisions around AI, and just 45 per cent of implementation processes. Functions including IT, production or operations were all far more likely to be consulted and entrusted.
Experts warned that excluding HR from such decisions could risk reducing productivity and leaving the human element behind.
Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said businesses needed to carefully consider the impact of new technology on their employees before investing; embed technology in the right way; and create jobs that were good for people rather than negatively affecting performance or wellbeing.
“[This report] indicates a real need for HR and longer-term workforce planning, but too often HR struggles to be part of the conversation,” said Cheese. “Instead, people professionals should be taking the lead, orchestrating the debate on who does what work and where, when and how technology interacts with those processes.”
Without HR engaging with the implementation of any virtual workforce, Terry Walby, founder and CEO of tech business Thoughtonomy, said the result would be mistrust from employees. “It’s a mistake not to have HR as part of that discussion because it has the potential to be a negative draw on the automation programme if your people don’t feel engaged,” Walby said.
By being involved at an early stage, he added, HR can abate workers’ fears, explain key details around what automation will mean for their roles and talk about “automating some of their work” rather than an entire job.
But Alistair Sergeant, CEO of digital transformation business Purple Consultancy, added that HR equally needed to be equipped with the knowledge to explain the automation and business strategy to the workforce.
“It’s about communicating that the new technology is not a scary thing, and we’re not going to get rid of a load of people,” he said. “It’s more about using people more effectively and delivering more back to them at work, and to the business as well.”
There is certainly an argument that at a time of record employment, AI could be the key to sustaining both productivity and competitiveness.
Recent research from ABBYY found that three in five (63 per cent) employees would happily outsource repetitive or boring tasks to a robot, given the choice. The constant strain of these tasks prevented employees from working on more strategic or skilled jobs, it suggested.
And where employers take the time to properly consider how and why they are implementing automation, the results are often promising. Darren Atkins, chief technology officer (artificial intelligence and automation) at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Trust (ESNEFT), said automation had helped staff by enabling them to focus on patient care rather than mundane administrative tasks.
“Our intention was to see whether it could bring some real efficiencies into the NHS. We embedded this idea that automation would free-up time,” Atkins said. “We can allow staff to spend more time doing the roles or tasks that add value, as well as spend more time with patients.”
ESNEFT introduced a range of virtual ‘medical secretaries’ to work alongside employees to process more than 2,000 GP referrals to hospital services. While previously, human medical secretaries had been focused on this administrative task for half of their working day, they were now free to interact with patients, which has raised patient satisfaction and reduced the time taken to make referrals.
“Our workers are happier now because they feel like they add value to their roles and can engage more with patients,” Atkins said.
As more tasks are automated, the drive to reskill and develop human talent will invariably become the next hurdle for businesses. Dr Zofia Bajorek, research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, said this involved both reskilling employees and thinking about new methods of working which used humans and software to their best advantage.
“Human roles are changing, and there are jobs that businesses will need in the future which don’t exist now,” said Bajorek. “Businesses need to think about adapting skills and workplaces for AI and humans to thrive in the future.”
She added that “robots displacing jobs will always be contentious”, but organisations can put a positive spin on the situation by turning their focus to how to develop their existing workforce with the digital and technical skills needed to work alongside AI.
“I don’t think of this as a negative. We are in a tight skills market at the moment, and any ability to develop and reskill our human workforce is a positive.”