Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington
Technological disruptions are defining this era of rapid business transformation and driving a set of deep rooted questions about the future of work, the implications for organisations, management and employees and how we can navigate to the ‘next horizon’.
How businesses respond to the challenges and exploit the benefits of smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will be a key determinant of success going forward.
Task automation is a key area for AI applications. Roles that have been traditionally thought of as requiring a high level human intellect are now being automated. Whilst it boosts efficiency, decision makers must be mindful of how this may impact brand identity and user experience – and where it is still critical to maintain human involvement.
All these areas of potential disruption evidence the growing need to focus on the human dimension. How will staff respond when their jobs are drastically changed or eliminated? How will we mitigate worries or stress that AI may cause? What new skills might employees need? What responsibilities do employers have for those displaced by technology –some analysts estimate that 80% of current jobs could disappear within 20 years and others project that for each job created in new firms and sectors, three will be eliminated elsewhere.
So, what do leaders need to understand and pay attention to as their organisation embarks on the AI journey?
Deep vs. Narrow. An initial consideration is how deep to deploy AI within a business as it has both deep and narrow applications; AI can be used narrowly to automate a single task or apply rule based thinking to a process or outcome, or it may be used to automate entire departments e.g. customer service. How deep to take AI will depend on the goals, priorities, resources, and values of the firm and where it sees the place of humans in service, innovation and sales.
Hierarchies Disrupted. It may be natural to think that the IT department should lead the way in driving adoption of AI across the business. However, the increasingly strategic nature of the decisions embedded in the choice to deploy AI may be seen as sitting more in the realm of the COO, CEO or heads of business units and functions.
The Human Workplace. There is a growing risk that firms will become over-reliant on technology and ignore the value of humans. Smart technology will increasingly replace even complex roles; however, it will be some time before it can outperform humans in problem solving, creativity, negotiation, collaborative design, conflict resolution, and crisis response. Digital transformation initiatives typically fail as a result of paying too little attention to the human and cultural aspects of change and their place in the future solution. Hence we need to think about how to invest in staff to maximise their potential with technology in an enabling role, how to care for those whose roles and departments are being disrupted by AI, and how to raise everyone’s digital literacy so they understand the nature of the technology that is bringing about such change in their world.
New Skills. As AI becomes commonplace, employees’ soft skills will become even more important. As rule based thinking and automation proliferate businesses, skills like sensitivity, creativity, verbal reasoning and communication, empathy and spontaneity may be increasingly desirable. HR or a new Department of Humanity can facilitate this aspect of personal development to ensure that businesses make the most of the interplay between personal and artificial intelligence.
Balance. All firms will need to strike a fine balance between AI and the human workforce. In order to preserve the human element of your business in an automated climate, what will act as a key differentiator? Careful decisions about which roles and functions to automate should guide AI strategy in business—a simple ‘bottom line’ approach will compromise the human element and could erode the firm’s uniqueness over time. It will also be important to show compassion and support to employees displaced by new technology.
The gifts from AI to society include smarter decision making, the capacity to draw new insights from vast arrays of data, the potential for cost-saving replacement of humans, and efficiency-oriented high-volume applications which are simply beyond human capacity to execute in a meaningful time-frame e.g. scanning literally millions of websites in an information search. However, a sweeping implementation of AI without regard for the impact on employees would be bad internal PR at the least, and could have devastating consequences in terms of customer appeal and reputation. Furthermore, the cost of widespread unemployment cannot be carried by the public alone; private industry will almost certainly be expected to contribute to a solution.
The Future of Work Has Already Begun
Ultimately the future of work and the future of society are deeply entwined. Our sense of place in society, our worth, our contribution and our legacy are often predicated around our work. Anything that starts to disrupt that relationship between work and individual identity is going to have far-reaching impacts. On the plus side, humans have proved themselves to be remarkably adaptable. So, while the idea of working side-by-side with a robot may at first be unsettling, a small step back reminds us that we already work and relate with AI and ‘smart’ machines every day. For example, predictive text is a form of AI software to which most smartphone users have adjusted. When sending emails or texts on devices, or running an internet search, we expect, to some extent, that our intention will be perceived.
The AI companions that will join us in the workforce will be preoccupied with learning about us to try to make our lives better. Just as the predictive text on your phone doesn’t send runaway messages (usually) and the internet search bar sometimes knows you better than you know yourself, we as a society should anticipate AI’s helpful (if sometimes at first clunky) role in the workplace over the coming decade.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are futurists with Fast Future which specialises in studying and advising on the impacts of emerging change. Fast Future also publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business, and create new trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future. For further information please visit: www.fastfuture.com