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Michael Sippitt and Georgia Roberts comment for The Global Recruiter on The Brave New World of Work

27 August 2019 #Employment #Employment


Artificial intelligence is no longer a concept of the future. It is becoming the norm. GPS maps offer us alternative routes to avoid traffic; the new fitness tracker you have been Googling is instantaneously advertised on your Facebook feed; Alexa talks to us. AI is everywhere and is transforming the way we live. Fundamentally, HR professionals and business leaders who engage with innovation will keep up. Those that don’t risk becoming irrelevant.

Data driven potential

Technology is giving Human Resources the ability to analyse and visualise employee data faster than ever before. This is a valuable tool for making better and quicker decisions, but workforce analytics are far from fool proof. Human involvement is still significant in both programming and judging outputs. This must not be overlooked.

Anything that involves language can only go as fast as the human power of comprehension and communication. Intuition is much faster and therefore more important to human survival. In his latest book Novacene, the centenarian engineer James Lovelock writes “Human civilisation took a bad turn when it began to denigrate intuition.” Intuition is what distinguishes us from machines.

Such speed of analysis is inevitably shaping strategic management thinking. Data visualisation of key issues and trends are more powerful than long-winded reports and rationale. Yet speed carries risk. It is easy to be impressed by a visualisation without assessing the underlying quality of the data it has harvested from and forgetting other relevant factors which are not as easily recorded.

Data science and algorithms predict human behaviours. The airline EasyJet is an example of how a corporate has benefitted from AI predicting its passenger demand patterns. In the same way, AI can predict employee behaviour patterns to yield desired business outcomes. Yet HR may judge employee behaviour at work better by knowledge and experience than purely by algorithms. Intuition again should not be lost.

Nonetheless the HR profession now needs strong awareness of all technologies that add value. Other digital developments in trade and supply chain management will also mean that HR cannot afford to be left behind in contributing to AI based analysis. But awareness alone won’t cut it. HR professionals need to be able utilise and implement new technologies and will also be on the front line when employees suffer as a result. 

HR must be aware of the risks such technology carries. Currently when technology fails, it is just an inconvenience. However, when trying to comply with legal duties, there may be a high price to pay for wrong outcomes. While human intervention is as ever prone to errors, the intervention may also remain essential as the data analysis must be considered, in the same way airline pilots at times have to judge whether the plane’s electronic systems are reporting a real problem or if it is just a technical glitch. Do not assume the computer knows best.

At another level, technology represents a world without parameters. Progress will be competitive and quite likely ruthless. Technological advances may easily be abused. 

Practical ramifications for HR

A major issue is recruiting people who can handle change. Adaptability has been vital to human evolution, and this is needed now more than ever. HR will need to find people who can adapt, train them to stay relevant and coach leaders through change by focusing on these skills. “Through coaching, leaders can develop their adaptability skills by raising their self-awareness around any resistance to change, by learning how to move outside their comfort zone to stretch their capabilities, and by building confidence to adopt a flexible mindset when dealing with change,” says Kate Oldridge, leadership coach with Forbury People.

Continuing education is needed. Lifelong learning seems now a necessity. The only problem is – learning what? At the recent Centenary conference of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva there appeared global consensus that job displacement is inevitable and is happening, and that lifelong learning is important for humans to keep meaningfully employed. The gap in the analysis is not only what is worth learning but also who will teach it?

The BBC recently reported on a new government scheme to retrain employees whose jobs are lost to automation. By 2030, it is estimated that up to 20 million manufacturing jobs could be replaced by robots worldwide. This extends beyond manufacturing; many traditional jobs will be automated and such displacement is predicted to have a greater effect on women. 

HR will be faced with implementing significant changes to work patterns and terms of employment, as well as potential mass redundancies. It may be more likely that altering the way people work, i.e. hours and earnings, will be a prelude to more substantial transformation involving significant displacement of human labour, or may be implemented in parallel as already often happens in significant restructurings.

A strong argument can be made for promoting competence to start and run small businesses, which may help diversify economies. This will give some displaced employees a chance to start making a future for themselves. Even if only a small percentage do it – and succeed to any extent – it creates jobs for others. 

Challenges of the future

Looking at legal challenges, there are known problems of AI being potentially biased because of the influence of human subjectivity in its coding.

The lack of women in senior roles in technology companies is viewed as one explanation of bias, the same being true of race, age, and disability. Anything we have learned to treat as a possible breach of human rights is likely to find its way into computer programs. It will take legal challenges to hold corporates to account for relying on systems assuming they are free from bias. How do you defend a discrimination claim against a biased algorithm? To exacerbate the situation further, the law usually drags well behind technological advance.

The other problem already hitting employees is closer monitoring. Generally, employers will be free to introduce systems with employee consent that erode employee privacy. As jobs increasingly become more at risk of automation, employees become more likely to consent to sacrificing their privacy over sacrificing their jobs.

There is the beginning of an ethical backlash. Voices are heard speaking out against abuse of privacy at work and about the stress caused by over monitoring of breaks, performance, and even personal attitude. 

Trade unions have condemned monitoring technology for increasing stress among the workforce. Employees could be discouraged from taking breaks, or allowing sufficient time for strategic or creative thinking, for fear this will look ‘unproductive’.

Employers should also be aware of how their employees are communicating and organising themselves via social media. Today’s world centres on how we connect and share, and trade unions are harnessing this. Employers who overlook this dimension may find themselves out of touch with their workforce. Connectivity now makes old fashioned employee engagement programmes look inadequate on their own. 

Brave New World

The right strategy in HR? Know your options how to maximise value from better people management boosted by swift analytics, be mindful of validating outcomes as unbiased, and focus on well-being and better engagement of employees while using better analytic tools.

The message for HR in the brave new world of AI: use it well and win; abuse it and there will be a price to pay in terms of reputation, employee trust, and legal risk.

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 employmentunit@clarkslegal.com by telephone 020 7539 8000 (London office), 0118 958 5321 (Reading office) or by completing the form on this page.
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