Article (April-2019)


Human judgment and not automation will take center stage

Sahil Nayar

Designation : -  

Organization : -  Mumbai


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Where do you think, we are headed in terms of skill set requirements and capability assessments to build a talent bank for future workplace needs? And how do you visualize the workforce of future?
SN Visualization of the workforce of the future is like straight out of a sci-fi movie with estimates that 400-800 million people around the globe being be replaced by automation. Especially in the HR function, there are firm beliefs that AI will eliminate more jobs than create. On the other hand, it is also very interesting to note that a great majority of organizations called their investments in AI worthwhile. The suspense continues to build as all those who have been displaced by the tech invasion will need to up-skill, re-skill and create their new avatars in order to find themselves in the jobs of tomorrow. The most interesting plot in this seemingly fictitious future is that with India's strength in technology, favorable demographics and structural advantages in availability of advanced data India should find its space in being an AI pioneer. Some large and well-run organizations with revenue of more than $1 billion are using automation to reduce HR staff, say a few who can see into the future. And how? The best-performing HR departments have 32% fewer employees. And why? They make better use of automation. But this is an elite group of HR departments, and probably is only a minority representation. Probably, the climax of the sci-fi is that AI will contribute as much as $15.7 trillion to the world economy by 2030. AI has the potential to add $957 billion to India's economy by 2035, lifting it by 15%. India's data diversity is a big draw for global AI implementers. AI can be a game changer in government where "scale" and "quality" need to be addressed simultaneously. The future is now, the question is - "Are we ready?"

How is AI, robotics, automation affecting the employment scenario in India?

SN Let's take a quick look around us and what do we see? Chatbot systems are being used on corporate job sites to answer basic questions from job seekers. The chatbots can use text to converse with a job prospect. At the moment, voice capability is not an option in many of these deployments, but that we are seeing on the anvil in 2019. The recruitment chatbots are still in their infancy and can't handle very complex questions. But they are certainly getting better at handling open ended questions such as, "What's a company's work from home policy?"
Now that's about the large corporates. Let's take a quick peek at the manufacturing sector that contributes to a major part of the workforce in India. Many industries still have limited access to power and other basic infrastructure and a large portion of manufacturing and services are concentrated in small and medium enterprises. So, while advanced automation is already galloping in disruption of job futures across the globe, India is still cantering along. In this context, it is imperative to make a distinction between "automation potential" and "automation adoption" and visualize where in the spectrum we stand. While a large number of tasks might increasingly be technically "automatable", their adoption will depend on a wider range of socio-economic factors, including relative cost of labour and availability of skilled labour. Therefore, adoption of advanced robotics and related technologies over the next decade will be in specific niches and job displacement will thus be concentrated in specific industries and work processes. What one also needs to be on the lookout for is - can the cost of implementation of robotics be made economical to the extent that it overpowers the existing perils of a blue collared workforce.

Recent studies estimate automation potential in India ranging between 52 and 62 per cent, based on the task content of various occupations. The impact of automation on jobs could be even greater if considered in terms of skill levels. There are published data that reveal that less than 20 per cent of the population is engaged in high-skill occupations that typically require advanced analytical skills and are thus less vulnerable to the impacts of automation.

Let's now look at AI and automation impacting various sub-functions of HR management.

In the talent acquisition space for instance, AI is bringing about a sea change in the speed, accuracy and timeliness of delivery. Auto-sourcing, just-in-time hiring, and self-serve hiring are expected to improve utilization and drive revenue growth. AI driven applications act as HR's weather man helping us analyze the engagement level of employees, determine flight risk and uncover great talent in the front-line and more. AI helps build loyalty by acting as a career guide to employees. With AI, HR managers can realize their goal of being a strategic business enabler. AI is poised to be a game-changer not only for areas such as recruitment and engagement but in solving workflow problems too. We currently have tools around that handle processes such as interview scheduling, employee on boarding, and even the answering of basic HR questions. This is freeing up many HR practitioners' time and helps them focus on more strategic and impactful areas. Some still wonder what they can possibly do with their free time - now that's the challenge of today. Whilst reading, did you feel I was being judgmental, read on. It will also ensure the human judgment takes center stage as automation will never be able to do what a human interaction can.

As we have progressed from "employee engagement" to "employee experience", advanced sentiment analysis technologies are using NLP (natural language processing), text analysis, biometrics and other evolving technologies to go beyond outdated tools and techniques. Sentiment analysis is also be used to foresee when an employee is getting demotivated or uninterested in their work; the AI then provides data-based recommendations on actions to boost the employee's engagement levels by improving his experience in the role. Talking of experience, one cannot forget that communication plays a key role. New dialogue tools like chat bots and intra-organization communities, there's a more transparent communication flow and a happier and more motivated workforce.

One of the most successful deployment of technology is in the Learning & Development space probably because it has become imperative for organizations to invest in re-skilling and retaining their existing workforce. With AI and analytics in use, HR and employees can now map their career progression route and up-skill themselves in the most demanding and fitting skills to avoid the pink slip nightmares. Also, with digital education options, bite-sized, on-demand, mobile or web based micro-learning sessions, talent transformation and training, re-skilling and up-skilling the workforce has become much easier and fast-paced.

It goes without saying that HR leaders across industries in India have started to embrace technology and have started to make major shifts in their approach. Their openness and enthusiasm is unbelievable when it comes to using the latest technologies to improve HR processes and outcomes. They are seen to take proactive steps towards adopting a culture of data-based decision making. Using analytics in HR, parsing through the available data has become much easier and time-saving. This not only allows HR leaders to take decisions pertaining to the immediate issues at hand but foresees the future concerns to be addressed.

There are statistics that speak a loud about the growing unemployment in the country, so much so that highly qualified individuals are forced to take up meager jobs to make a livelihood. To avoid any kind of social unrest, how more employments opportunities can be generated?

SN The solution lies in pressing the button on modernizing the workforce and delivering skills for the future. A rudimentary first step is to ensure everyone becomes literate in the use of technology followed by systems that deliver continuous and lifelong learning while simultaneously encouraging a culture of being versatile and adaptable. In addition, the process of job destruction and new job creation will be stressful and chaotic making it essential to put in place the mechanisms that make job transitions smoother. In order to take the plunge, one can't wait for the waves to subside! The organizations of today need to be agile, thereby making demands on their employees to be #FitForPurpose. Being professionally qualified doesn't guarantee a #FitForPurpose tag anymore.

Is the current HR ecosystem ready to take on the challenges of a highly demanding and dynamic future workforce? How HR should evolve and upgrade its competencies to address this challenge?

SN Although the HR AI hype is real, the promise is too. The trick is balancing the two. Here are 2 ways to do just that.

Understand HR AI hype vs. today's reality

Prepare for a complex transition to HR AI

A gradual progression from the automation of processes is a shift to increasingly sophisticated analytics. This is sure to lead to a huge challenge in managing not just data, but the models it generates. It won't be surprising to see that a few years from now, HR departments will have to manage millions of data models. Every employee is going to have various data models pertaining to various aspects of their work and personality, and those models won't necessarily come to the same conclusions. The impact of that will be extraordinary. Not only will organizations need to maintain "data model farms" containing all of its models, they'll have to develop alternative models as data capabilities and the workforce evolve an effort similar to changing a flat tire while a vehicle is in motion. One of the most important things to understand about AI today is that, where machines used to deliver facts, they may evolve to become smarter and deliver 'opinions'.

However, it is yet to be predicted whether these 'opinions' and 'decisions' that have seemingly progressed from being 'man-made' to 'machine-made' will be accurate or not. Hence the humans may still have to be around to evaluate the machine's weaknesses and fuel the smart Artificial Intelligent machines with natural intelligence without falling prey to natural stupidity backed by bias and lack of common sense.

What are the ways which can help HR to create a system where man and machine can co-exist without eating into each other's space? Is it even possible to have such a workplace universe?

SN In my opinion, HR is probably the one of the most competent functions that can adapt to this co-existence. HR has a power to influence the business and drive a transformation, and as much as it may be a foot in the mouth let me caveat this to say, provided HR understands the business. I would say that the businesses should leverage on HR's strength to bring about a meaningful co-existence of man and machine. This can be achieved in many ways such as :

HR has to leverage its power to influence the academia to realign India's education system to emphasize on skilled talent rather than churn out mere degree holders. A mechanism has to be in place for evaluating redundancy of skills and constantly upgrade them. Massive up-gradation to new technologies must become a practice in the premier institutes in India. As I spend time at various colleges across the length and breadth of our country over weekends - I do see some universities making a genuine attempt in this direction but those are few and far in between.

Secondly, alongside HR, business must focus on creating a highly flexible, resilient and adaptive workforce which is multi-skilled and has the capacity to undertake digital tasks from anywhere rather than a fixed location. It's time we move away from our age old thinking of late sitters are hard working or we want people to sit under our nose and work so we can actually monitor them under the guise of providing guidance as and when required.

Next, HR must encourage preparedness to embrace the new era of AI, blockchain, additive manufacturing and emerging technologies. India cannot afford to bypass this revolution. This requires a new mindset. Our policies must drive this change. Last, but not the least, we must work across disciplines and institutional boundaries. We must break silos.

How do you think young generation should prepare themselves to remain employable and worthy in the age of technological disruption? How can HR and organisations support in this?
SN The young generation has to start thinking of the un-thinkable, in a way. They need to challenge status quo and not be worried about the consequences.

Hone creative skills, Think analytical, be humane and being able to sell in the sense of persuade.

Try stuff that you never thought about. If you try things that you never thought about, you may find that you have skills and talents that you never realized you had. Being able to challenge your own assumptions about what you're good at and what you can do creates massive opportunities to put yourself on a path that'll make you happy and successful.

In organizations that thrive on business agility, HR can support in this adaptability exercise for the young generation by making policies more flexible and by incentivizing innovation.

Any transformation as massive as this will require a huge amount of change management. I see that HR will play a major role in being a catalyst for this change as well as transforming itself to bring about innovation, agility and growth.
(Views are personal)