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How much HR do robots need?

01 June 2016 #Employment

It may not spell the total demise of HR, but the rise of robots now promises a big difference to workforce numbers and character.

Already some very big companies rely heavily on robotics, which along with artificial intelligence, puts humanity firmly in its place. There must indeed be a growing number of HR professionals already witnessing the effects of this development on workforce planning and engagement. Robots may not need motivating but how do we motivate the humans who watch them taking over?

It is estimated the robot market will be worth $135bn by 2019, so says IDC, a tech research firm, as reported in the Financial Times on 3 May. Asia is evidently retooling its manufacturing, accounting for most current robot spending.

Investors are said to be increasingly entering into this growing sector, and the advances are rapid. We are not now talking about only programmed machines on assembly lines, but many flexible functions assumed by robots, whether driverless trucks and cars, robots that move and deliver products, and robots that are becoming capable of "thinking" in terms of artificial intelligence enabling them to learn tasks from humans.

Machines can "see", respond and reliably fulfil a function, having learned how to adapt and handle situations they face. It will not just be down to what is programmed into the robot, the robot will be able to acquire new "knowledge" and experience.

For now the normal pattern appears to be mainly designing robots for a specific purpose, which can work alongside humans rather than totally replacing them. Many businesses in the first phases of robotics will need and want to keep humans involved, albeit perhaps a lot less of them. Down the road, a robot will always be able to match or exceed a human's ability to do some physical task. The many companies developing robots will be looking to beat others to the achievement of new levels of robotic productivity.

There will of course be a lot of hype and many failures in the development of these technologies, but one thing we have learned in recent decades is about the rapid advance of technology beyond what we imagine based on our own past experience. In short, where technology is concerned, the past is no guide to the future. Today all the talk is of technology and what it offers. The UK, especially London, is becoming very strong in the development of early stage technologies, and many young people are understandably attracted to a career in technological innovation. 

The pace of change can be extraordinarily rapid, especially in a global market where the advances may be occurring the other side of the world and out of sight until actually impacting businesses whose models are based on old assumptions.

It will be a challenge for HR to keep ahead of this particular curve, seeing the issues and implications, particularly as employees who are younger begin to ask serious questions about the security of their jobs a few years ahead.

Robots will steadily become a far cheaper option than human labour, even outsourced labour in developing countries, which has other serious supply chain consequences. The fact that robots can work round the clock, do not need time off for holidays or sickness, do not complain or join trade unions, and do not need to be reviewed and managed, leaves little doubt what the majority of corporates will do when given the choice to develop a robotic workforce for elements of, or even in due course the bulk of, their business model.

This does not of course stop at manufacturing or logistics, it will extend to all services, and knowledge workers are at specially high risk as they are easily replaced for any commoditised services and perhaps progressively even in more creative work.

The world's population continues to grow, exponentially in some countries, and young people have more and more visibility of where the grass looks greener, hence contributing to the ongoing mass migration challenge. Yet technology is fair set to remove many human work opportunities, even if creating scope for people with strong technology skills, which in turn depends on the quality of education and opportunity to acquire and develop these.

The big challenges of the 21st Century are probably the three C's of Climate, Conflict and Computers. HR cannot do much about global warming or wars, but when it comes to computers (meaning all the new technology of robotics and artificial intelligence as well as established computer technologies) HR is in the front line of impact on the workplace and on the lives of a very large number of affected employees.

The overt hostility to labour reforms currently displayed in France may pale in comparison to general human hostility to the steady loss of meaningful work as many companies across the world increasingly phase out human workers. The issues will be about social cohesion as much as people management, but the story begins in the workplace where the old certainties are already beginning to break down.

Views of HR professionals what they see happening and how they forecast the future of work, and implications on people management and motivation, will be most welcome.

Forbury People is associated with forburyTech, a new initiative of Clarkslegal that brings together the various strands of legal, strategic, HR and investment inputs which together make up the ecosystem of technology businesses. Never was there a greater need to look at technological change in a holistic way, taking account of the impact of change on employees and those who have yet to enter the workforce.


Michael Sippitt


Forbury People Ltd.

Clarkslegal, specialist Employment lawyers in London, Reading and throughout the Thames Valley.
For further information about this or any other Employment matter please contact Clarkslegal's employment team by email at by telephone 020 7539 8000 (London office), 0118 958 5321 (Reading office) or by completing the form on this page.
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Michael Sippitt

Michael Sippitt
Senior Consultant

T: 0118 960 4642


Employment team
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