Artificial Intelligence: Building An Inclusive Digital Workforce

Purposeful AI

AI and Human Capital

In 60 percent of occupations, 30 percent or more of the work could be automated. As many as 375 million people worldwide would need to change their area of work by 2030. And everyone will have to get used to having intelligent machines as co-workers. These stats from a new McKinsey Global Institute report clearly point to the inevitability of automation in organizations. And if this had to be tempered with a bit of wisdom, I’d quote Eli Goldratt, and say, “Automation is good, so long as you know exactly where to put the machine.”

Currently, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of putting the machine (read AI, robots, and robotic software) to perform rule-based, repetitive jobs. This does not mean the jobs have to be 'low-end' – technology is evolving at a furious pace to take over even complex white collar jobs – only that they must follow a defined logic, and have a high degree of consistency and predictability. That leaves a whole lot of other jobs open for the human workforce – jobs that call for skills, such as empathy and problem finding, that only human beings possess today, and will continue to monopolize for the foreseeable future.

The challenge for enterprises then, is not so much one of laying off workers as of managing them along with machines. As the hybrid workforce becomes a feature of more and more organizations, it will change the nature of work and the sharing of roles and responsibilities. It will also present new challenges to human resource managers, who will have to deal with a new definition of talent and find new models to manage it.

How can organizations adapt to this situation? How can talent managers help their human colleagues fit into the hybrid workforce? And how can leaders ensure that man and machine work harmoniously, without fear, to create value for all? Some thoughts:

Create a workable people plus machines model

For the hybrid workforce to function smoothly, it is necessary to give it clarity about roles and responsibilities. While designing the new workforce, the organization should think about what jobs will be automated and what will continue to be done by human beings. Care must be taken to integrate the inanimate and human parts of the workforce, so both are aware of their boundaries and responsibilities.

Some jobs, such as answering simple customer queries, can be handed over exclusively to robots and chatbots; other jobs may require AI to support human beings – robo-advisers offering inputs to wealth managers is an example; and a number of jobs requiring innately human skills, will continue to be performed by human beings. Talent managers must convince employees that when machines take over some of their routine activities, they will have more time to focus on the more challenging or interesting aspects of their job, such as finding and solving new problems, innovating new solutions, or mentoring new co-workers. And the fact is that there will always be a need for people to supervise the robotic workforce, and take strategic decisions like just what and how much the robots will do.

Put the model to work in the right culture

One of the challenges of managing a hybrid workforce is pinning responsibility, accountability and even credit, on the right worker. When a customer has a problem that is attended to by both a robot and a human agent, who is finally responsible for the result? How does the company recognize and reward performance in such cases? And in the event, AI starts to act autonomously, and does things it shouldn’t, who faces the music?

While these are tricky, a bigger challenge is creating the right culture and environment for integrating AI throughout the enterprise. A study commissioned by Infosys found that fear of change among employees and cultural acceptance was among the top five barriers to adoption of AI technologies.

One way of addressing this is by easing employees gently into the situation by implementing AI in stages, starting with activities that are obviously suited to automation, to show how this could work.

Another way of calming apprehensions is by introducing reskilling programs, embedded in the culture of lifelong learning, right from the outset. As AI takes over more and more roles, human workers will need to find other opportunities in areas that they can call their own. Human resource managers must plan ahead to train workers in new areas such as design thinking, empathy-based communication, user experience design, and creativity.

Senior leadership has a huge role to play in ensuring these changes are carried out successfully. Articulating the organization’s vision for embracing AI within the workforce, establishing clear policies, and implementing the right measures will go a long way in convincing employees that the opportunities of AI far outweigh its threats.