How will the rise of robots impact HR?


An engineer at IBM once told me that the future of information technology could be summed up in a few key terms: mobility, cloud computing, the internet of things, and automation and artificial intelligence. It is worth bearing in mind that automation and artificial intelligence are becoming more and more prominent topics within the public sphere, especially with the emergence of powerful AI like IBM’s Watson and DeepMind’s AlphaGo.

These forms of artificial intelligence, also referred to as robots or bots for short, don’t necessarily take up physical space. Instead, they are programs, stored on a desktop or a cloud, that have the ability to learn and adapt to different situations as opposed to earlier programs that were more rigid. Because of their learning capabilities, these robots can perform tasks that were deemed impossible by earlier programmers: Robots can write stories, they can understand human speech, and they can diagnose a patient better than their own doctor can.

Naturally, these capabilities have not gone unnoticed by the business community, and there is currently talk about how these powerful machines can be integrated into the workplace. An example of software robots making their way into the business world and snagging up repetitive and predictable jobs is the use of robotic process automation (RPA).

Robotic process automation is a process by which mundane and boring jobs, such as data entry and creating spreadsheets, are executed by a robot rather than a human. However, this capability is in effect a double edged sword: On the one hand, it frees up the people on the job to do more creative work. On the other hand, if the robot gets too proficient at the job, it could possibly replace its human counterpart altogether. As a result, one would expect that HR departments all over the world are giving this matter their utmost attention. Sadly, this is not the case.

Whether the problem may seem too abstract at the moment or it may seem like something that belongs in the distant future, the fact of the matter is that HR departments currently have important questions to face, and they can no longer afford to look the other way. HR departments have to imagine what the effect of automation will be on future jobs. Afterwards, these departments need to figure out what their role will be in that future.

The possible future of AI in the business world

1. A more dystopian view

Researchers at Oxford University believe that about 47% of all jobs could be completely overtaken by robots within the next 17 years. Similarly, the Gartner Group published findings that stated that, on a global scale, a third of our jobs will be lost to robots by 2025. Naturally, those who perform routine jobs that require little skill are more at risk than their more nuanced counterparts. There is plenty more research that basically paints the same picture.

And why wouldn’t researchers believe that human beings will eventually be replaced by a bunch of ones and zeros? After all, big financial corporations, like Credit Suisse, are currently relying on the power of robots to produce detailed drafts of reports about financial products, such as mutual funds. Even Forbes depends on robots in its day to day activities. Is it really that much of a stretch of the imagination to envision robots that can currently speak and recognize patterns to perform even more complex jobs in the future?

At the end of the day, any complex job can be broken down into simpler tasks, and a lot of these tasks are simple and straight-forward. Additionally, robots are more efficient than human beings: they make fewer mistakes and work around the clock. They also don’t require a monthly salary or an insurance plan, making them cost effective. The only thing robots require is a qualified individual overseeing their work so as to make sure that everything is going smoothly. This job of simple oversight is dull and uninspiring, which doesn’t bode well for future employees.

In this future, HR departments will have to figure out which jobs can be replaced along with what the repercussions are for this drastic change. Speaking of repercussions, the overtaking of unskilled labor force is bound to hit blue collar and middle class families the most, prompting the question of how can this be remedied.

As mentioned earlier, regardless of how many people get replaced with robots, there will always be a need for someone overseeing the robot at work in order to ensure optimum efficiency. Thus, besides figuring out which jobs can be better served with robots at the helm, HR departments need to discern where a human element will still be necessary. Only then will a streamlined organisation emerge that can best serve its customers.

2. A more utopian view

A more optimistic view is that the rise of robots is the harbinger of economic prosperity and a major spike in job satisfaction. This view is based on the belief that robots entering the work place will bring with them plenty of jobs as well.

A study published in the UK by Delloitte states that starting from 2001, thanks to automation, 3.5 million low-risk jobs have been created while 800,000 high-risk jobs have been lost. These newly created jobs are safer and pay a mean of 10,000 British pounds more. This sort of thing where advancement in technology might eat up old jobs only to create new ones has happened before: when the industrial revolution came around, a lot of the dirty jobs that required heavy lifting disappeared, giving way to more mental jobs.

So, what will tomorrow’s job titles be? It’s never easy to prophesise about new job positions that will be available thanks to advances in technology. Nevertheless, several individuals and entities are taking their shots: Evan Davis, senior director of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work in Europe, Middle East, and Africa, is of the opinion that there will always be the need for individuals who will try to make sense of the patterns spotted in data by AI.

Additionally, Goldsmith’s FuturaCorp published a study that envisions unique job titles like technology brokers and interactionists. Yet, more important than figuring out what job titles will be, HR needs to imagine what the integration between humans and robots will look like.

Professor Chris Bauer, director of innovation for Goldsmiths’ Institute of Management Studies at the University of London, believes that a hybrid workspace where human beings will work in tandem with advanced robots is an inevitability that will produce outcomes that far exceed the work of humans or robots on their own. And there’s reason to believe him: when it comes to freestyle chess for example, a human teamed up with a super computer trumps a computer or a human playing on their own every time.

We’ve already assessed that perennial jobs will be left to robots. Consequently, humans will have more time to focus on more complex tasks, including making strategic decisions and forming hypotheses based off of the data. These sorts of tasks require more creativity than staring at a screen and just punching in numbers all day, making them more rewarding in the process. Additionally, there are certain tasks that robots still seem a far way away from figuring out: Aspects such as interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, entrepreneurial spirit, and leadership are still quite elusive for a robot that deals in fact based arguments rather than dabbling in subjective feelings and drives. To drive this point further, a FuturaCorp study posits that although four out of every five deterministic jobs are bound to be replaced by robots, four out of every five complex problem solving jobs will still be retained by human beings.

With this view in mind, HR has to prepare today’s workforce for tomorrow’s challenges. Today’s employees need to be re-trained and educated so as to supplement the power that AI brings to the table. A big part of this is offering employees soft skills training as well as enhancing these employees’ complex problem solving capabilities and knowledge of technology. This can be accomplished, in part at least, by partnering with educational institutions.

Robots and HR

After investigating what automation means for the workplace, it’s time to look into how automation will affect HR departments themselves. In the vein of evolutionary necessity, HR departments that fail to adapt and incorporate AI in their work are bound to be replaced by more progressive teams.

As a matter of fact, several teams in the HR realm have already put Robotic Process Automation to good use: They utilise robots to crosscheck internal data with external data, they have the bots carry out a lot of the tasks pertaining to spreadsheets, and they have the bots help them with the reports. As a result, these teams end up with a considerable amount of time that they can dedicate to more strategic and nuanced issues, including personal interviewing and employee training.

In fact, robots can have a clear advantage over human beings when it comes to tasks related to data analysis. Obviously, robots can crunch huge amounts of data much faster than human beings doing the same task. For example, a company called Alexander Mann Solutions uses a robot that goes by the name of Doris that is able to go through 72,000 candidate documents in a record time of 48 hours, whereas 10 people doing the same task would need two entire months to complete it.

Aside from their data crunching capabilities, robots are not afflicted by the biases we, as humans, suffer from; a robot can’t hire a person because it likes their clothes or appreciates their ethnic background. To a robot, the data is all that matters. Due to this, studies show that robots can perform better hiring decisions than seasoned HR officials.

This might come across as controversial at first: what about human intuition, which is something no robot can replicate? It turns out that our intuitions about people are faultier than we think. One experiment showed that employees hired through an algorithm tended to stay 8% longer at a job post than those hired by an obstinate manager who refused to listen to the algorithm.

It is worth repeating that, along with all of these benefits, robots are extremely cost effective. According to Ernest and Young, AI can help create cost savings of up to 65% as opposed to an offshore option. Furthermore, the report estimates that “93% of HR employees’ time is spent on repetitive tasks” and “65% of HR rules-based processes can be automated.”

So, what now?

Robots are infiltrating our everyday lives; there’s no stopping them. The one question we need to ask ourselves is how do we adapt? As far as HR personnel are concerned, they need to scrutinise how this disruption is affecting their respective industries and act accordingly. This involves properly training and reskilling their current employees as well as preparing them for this massive tectonic shift.

When everything is said and done, a lot of employees will lose their jobs in both the dystopian and utopian scenarios. In both cases, unless these employees are prepared mentally and adequately trained, they’ll be taken by storm. And once the dust settles, they may find it difficult to adjust to their new reality.

However, given the need for HR personnel to help integrate men and machines, HR must also upgrade their technical expertise and start engaging in constructive conversations with the entities working on the frontiers of this fascinating new technology.


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