There is no shortage of studies, interviews, surveys, roundtables and such finessing the story of the future of work and the future of HR. It is probably the second most discussed topic in HR media now, next to performance management.
As I am writing a review of Martin Ford’s compelling narrative, Rise of the Robots. Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015), the New York Times best seller, it has occurred to me that in all our predictions, we are overlooking one very important and most unfamiliar scenario, the landing of intelligent machines into the workplace.
Martin Ford’s book leaves us with a challenging dilemma to solve for. What if the “human” is replaced in Human Resources? Replaced by a robot. What changes then? What would it mean for the function such as ours? What would be the vision for the workplace?
It seems that time has come for HR to start paying attention and launch a broad based dialogue across the profession about the not so distant future when people and machines will be working seamlessly together. “Seamless” collaboration between people and technology is what we need to achieve. The coming of the ”jobless future” is what we need to solve for.
To start us off, Ford argues that the workplace machines are about to overhaul the 21 century economy. As robots become more sophisticated and further “personalized” we are beginning to witness the next generation artificial intelligence transforming the work scene as we know it now.
It’s becoming increasingly evident that data and algorithms, computers and wearables, robots and drones are not only able to execute most of the routine, patterned types of jobs but have already moved up the food chain towards more sophisticated “white collar” domains. As an example, medical and legal fields are being immediately affected.
Ford cites a manufacturing “BOT” from Universal Robots who can paint, screw, glue, and solder and it builds new parts for itself when old ones break or wear out. The robot does it just in time, when needed and moves on with its task without missing a beat. A robot built by Momentum Machines, can make a quarter pounder in 10 seconds and has the capacity to replace an entire McDonalds crew solving the company’s problems with turnover, recruitment and training of its employees. Japan saw the opening of its first hotel fully staffed by the robots only a few weeks ago. What about the driverless cars, imagine the transportation industry continuing to evolve, all without the drivers. Google has just transformed itself into the Alphabet to unleash with these types of innovations, It has just won a pattern to create worker robots with personalities.
Unlike previous economic disruptors that affected one sector of the economy more than others, i.e. the shift from agriculture to the industrial age; information technology revolution is not sparing any present jobs, none. Information technology phenomenon is pandemic, it affects all, from cleaning and gardening staff to white collar legal and medical professions, technology is coming to replace and surpass the skills that took humans so many years to develop.
Robots are experiencing no downtime, no turn over and are loyal to their employers; they have high and increasing productivity, 100% retention rates and are outperforming their human counterparts in a broad variety of tasks.
General research in the areas of artificial intelligence supports Ford’s ominous outlook. Oxford University has conducted the research that has shown that estimated 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades. And if even half of that proposed number is closer to the truth, we are in for a serious wake up call.
Are we ready? Have we thought through the full spectrum of consequences to the employees and our organizations? What would leadership and management look like if humans are operating alongside with the machines?
Our ability to figure out the relationship between people and machines in the workplace could be that moment of truth for HR. What if all depended on HR’s ability to help govern the new machine enabled workplace?
Martin Ford optimistically predicts that in the 21 century people will live more purposeful and fully entrepreneurial lives supported by the products and services generated by increasingly more sophisticated machines. Ford and a few others believe that technology might be the ultimate and only recourse for solving the knowledge and wealth-inequality gap.
Critics of the robotic workplace do not want to accept Ford’s picture of the jobless future. It does sound somewhat apocalyptic and Luddite. Whether we buy into Ford’s vision or accepts parts of what he shows, there is no question the march of technology is unstoppable.
The main message for HR is that in the environment when human labor becomes uneconomical vis a vis a machine (as our own HR administration jobs have already started to go) we need to explore a radically different approach to the role of people in organizations. We need to help business figure out how to pivot our workplaces to be functioning in the economy that none of us have ever seen before. Are we even close? Are we focused on the right issues now? What would it actually take to know the answer?
Martin Ford’s book is an irresistible read, well researched and powerfully told. His picture of the future workplace challenges HR indirectly to develop our own position on the issue and to develop it soon.