Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution, hailed by many as an era of change in which industries and organisations adapt to rapidly developing smart technology that automate working processes which would previously have been undertaken by humans. But is this something to celebrate when we consider the potential upheaval or individuals and businesses?
A recent Capita Resourcing report revealed that workplaces are undergoing rapid transformation, with 54% of employers automating business processes that were once performed by people.
In spring 2016, Google DeepMind’s computer algorithm, AlphaGo, beat the world champion in Go, a game said to be many times more complex than chess. There is every reason to believe this intelligence will soon have business applications, potentially taking jobs from professionals, as well as other skilled workers.
It is true that many organisations that have automated core processes complete repetitive tasks more quickly resulting in enhanced operational efficiency. They have achieved more accurate results and reduced costs through completing the same tasks with fewer resources than if carrying them out manually.
This enhanced efficiency does not necessarily mean, however, that there will be less of a role for humans to play in the future, merely that their role is likely to change over time in order to adapt to rapidly evolving powers of technology.
Robotics and automation may be useful interventions for work that is repeatable and scalable. In a payroll context, for example, robotic process automation can operate at the user interface layer of applications and work between existing systems to mimic tasks that payroll administrators have historically done. The intention is to reduce total cost of operation while improving service quality and ‘calming the noise’ of payroll errors.
While robots are scalable, audit compliant, cost-competitive, and easy to integrate within many network environments, they do also need humans to guide their usage.
The human resources (HR) department will have a pivotal role to play in helping staff ‘skill up’ to take up these new roles and responsibilities and ensure that a company’s talent meets the needs of the organisation as a whole. That core function makes the interface between robotics and HR particularly significant.
Artificial intelligence and automated technology are impacting on the operation of the HR department in driving efficiencies and productivity in much the same way as they impact other corporate business units. What makes HR different is its broader role in helping shape the organisation’s business culture and its working practices. Indeed, automation is presenting opportunities to HR to fundamentally change its role within the business. As Mark Bowden, a director at Deloitte, articulated back at the end of 2015:
The rise of technology is allowing the simplification of processes and policies, freeing up the HR professional’s time so he/she can instead concentrate on more strategic roles.
Critically, it also helps free them from bureaucratic, time-consuming processes and – thanks to the latest high-powered analytics – it allows them to better understand and report back on the link between employees and business outcomes, enabling them in turn to gain credibility and exert more influence in the boardroom.
Finally, HR can be instrumental in easing the process of digitisation more generally in companies. Recent research carried out by Fujitsu indicates that just 55% of business employees are positive that they personally get the most value they can from the services and solutions on offer at work. At the same time, 67% of employees say their organisation should invest more into digital services and applications over the next two years.
It is clear that employees are looking for more automation and HR can help them to achieve it. There is, of course, a balance to be struck, and HR can also be key in helping ensure that the pendulum does not swing too much the other way and too much automation starts leading to job losses. Training staff has to be key to success in this area.
Reverse mentoring, through which younger employees pass on their digital knowledge to older employees, is another useful technique. This kind of approach can be key in building employees’ understanding and awareness, and in helping them strengthen their standing within the business in a new robotics and automation-focused future.
As we look to the future then, we have a vision of a business world where robots do not replace but instead complement the work that humans do, freeing them from the more repetitive and onerous tasks and allowing them to add greater value to the business. HR is already helping businesses achieve this vision. It needs to continue this guiding role long into the future.