Manning the machines: HR in the age of AI

Even as businesses are disrupted by technology, the notion that machines will eliminate entire professions is simply untrue, as HRM Magazine discovers

Workers all over the world are celebrated on May 1 and the weeks after, but for thousands of IT professionals in India this year, it was a month to forget.

Several large Indian IT firms carried out mass retrenchment exercises mere days apart, axing thousands of workers in one fell swoop.

While some layoffs were not unexpected in today’s slower economic conditions, the disconcerting proximity of the bloodbaths signalled something much deeper at work. 

Although it was initially reported that most were performance-based decisions, it soon came to light that the culling was in large part due to the digital transformations that these companies were beginning to embark on.

As part of their business overhauls, IT giants like IBM and Wipro confirmed that quality of talent, and not quantity, would be the key workforce ingredient.

IBM India, in particular, cut “at least a few thousand employees” because it wanted to remove dead weight who it felt were no longer able to contribute to the organisation’s digital business.            

A senior executive told local media that IBM’s main objective was to achieve “100% capacity utilisation” across all projects, especially as demand for digital-technology based services is expected to skyrocket.

What this means, another software engineer said, is that “no one is kept idle on the bench now”.

“In some cases, people have to upgrade themselves with new technology skills to get redeployed. But, those who are not willing are at risk and often told to go.”

Wipro was another notable participant in this combined reduction in industry headcount. It removed over 500 employees from its Indian operations in what the company referred to as a “rigorous performance appraisal process”.

“This systematic and comprehensive performance evaluation process triggers a series of actions, such as mentoring, retraining and up-skilling,” Wipro said, adding that individuals who were unable to upskill and work with newer technologies would likely be released. 

Fear of machines?

Two things became apparent in both of these situations: One, the emergence of new technologies is forcing workers to acquire new skills in order to operate effectively in both the present and the future business landscape. 

Secondly, the worry about automation replacing human workers appears to be unfounded and misguided. If the statements from Wipro and IBM are analysed carefully, the real crux of their talent requirements is about human adaptability: how quickly and easily individuals master new technologies.

Will robots take my job?

Artificial intelligence and automation are expected to replace about a quarter of the world’s jobs by 2025. Unfortunately for HR, waiters and software programmers, they fall into this uncertain category.

Yet, upon closer examination, professionals in these industries can remain valuable if they learn to leverage technology to their advantage.

HR - With HR chatbots becoming commonplace in organisations, talent managers can add value by learning how to interpret data and even operate the programmes.

Service staff -  It is already possible for dining patrons to place orders using technology. Restaurant managers who are able to troubleshoot faulty equipment while managing unique requests will remain in demand.

Software programmers -  Robots can code faster and better than humans, but let’s not forget it was programmers who created them. Where it concerns flexibility and creativity, humans still reign supreme.

Staying constantly technology-competent is fast becoming a vital skill in itself.

This is why experts like director of Baidu Research’s Institute of Deep Learning Lin Yuanqing have downplayed fears that robots and automated technologies will “steal” jobs en-masse. He says the idea that robots could eliminate entire professions is “exaggerated”.

“Even the best robotic financial analyst is only going to prepare a report at 70% of the capability and insight of its human counterpart,” he tells researchers at MIT, though noting that the work can be produced in less time.

“This is not scary – we are not going to be replaced. (In fact) all our work lives will be complemented for the better.”

Many workers in Asia agree. A recent Randstad survey has found that fewer than one in five professional employees in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia are fearful that automation will impact their job security. Over 60% of the respondents also indicated they understood and appreciated the need to continually develop new competencies.

It is also no coincidence an overwhelming number of respondents indicated positive feelings about technology’s ability to add value to their own industries.

In a 2016 whitepaper by MIT Technology Review and business outsourcing service ADP, professional staff in the US were found to have a high level of willingness to work with technology, with the majority of the research participants viewing technology as “an enabler” of increased productivity.

Furthermore, with the mainstreaming of artificial intelligence, defined in the same study as “technologies that enable computers to simulate elements of human thinking”, it has become more crucial than ever for workers to be trained in a wide range of systems and machines. 

Embracing automation

While upskilling is ultimately an individual’s responsibility, it is employing organisations that have the resources to most effectively train people on a large scale.

Lee Tian Lee, General Manager of business analytics company SAS Singapore, notes that employers would do well to educate their employees on the benefits of skills development, which will help them increase their own individual value over the long run.

This is especially true for developing countries like Indonesia, Cambodia, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, where the impact of automation will be greater. The International Labour Organisation, for instance, estimates that 56% of all salaried roles in these countries will be displaced by automation and advanced technologies in the coming decades.

But even in more technologically-advanced markets like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, automation is expected to replace at least a quarter of existing jobs by 2025, the Boston Consulting Group has found.

“The pace of work displacement in (parts of) Asia will be at a much faster rate, because of the relatively higher percentage of low-skilled jobs in the labour force relative to more developed economies,” says Tak Lo, a partner at Hong Kong–based AI accelerator Zeroth.AI.

Still, Lee believes robotics and new technologies can also create new job functions and further elevate developed economies.

“It can enhance the productivity of jobs in countries like Singapore, and we expect it to create more knowledge-intensive jobs across industries and organisations big and small,” he says. 

Data-driven decisions

Across the world, people are fascinated, but also perplexed about the impact that machines will have on their individual jobs.

Firms, too, face extraordinary tension as a result of the increasing use of artificial intelligence in data analysis, as well as the growing threat of robotics displacing and augmenting skilled production tasks, revolutionising the work of even the most specialised employees.

Even the uniquely human skill of decision-making is being threatened, says Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School.

Gratton attributes this to the constant march of robotics along with the “hollowing out of work”, which have made management and decision-making an increasingly less clear practice.

“A recent analysis of recruitment technology concluded that (machine) equations outperform human applicant-selection decisions by 25%, though research indicates that most individuals and organisations are still reluctant to let machines make the final call (on a new hire),” she says.

While it is difficult at this point to draw firm conclusions about how exactly each technology trend will affect work in the future, Gratton says organisations can improve adaptability by considering a number of changes to their work models.

One such change is for businesses to reframe the way they view artificial intelligence, and see machines as “knowledge partners”, instead of merely something that is “nice to have”.

“With this more pragmatic view, there are the chances to: work out what great feats workers can accomplish with the assistance of robotic co-workers;  explore cases in which workers can collaborate with machines to do things that neither could do well on their own before; and understand what kinds of new jobs might be created,” she adds.

To Professor Zhang Yue, a machine language researcher at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, data is the most important resource for successful machine learning development.

“Mobile data, large in volume and rich in context, provides developers with a large amount of useful information,” Zhang shares in an MIT Technology Review paper.

This data also helps inform firms on which concepts are most alienating to their workforces, and which will require greater training efforts. 

HR in the age of AI

The indispensable human factor

In the 2016 film Passengers, an intergalactic commuter finds himself awake and alone with only an android bartender for company. While the two share long, and often intelligent, conversations, the robot is still devoid of emotions, and it is never the same as interaction with an actual person.

The film asks: can human beings truly live happily and productively where creativity, compassion and intuition are missing?

As Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, notes, focusing too much on technology can minimise all the other factors in life that are equally important.

“As we try to frame the future and prepare for it, it seems to me that Thomas Moore was right – the big questions are about how we want to live with each other, what our communities could look like, what it is we value, and how we might think about what we want to tell our children,” she states.

“So surely our questions about the future should centre as much on this as on the technology?”

Artificial intelligence is already a reality for many industries, and leaders are naturally looking at HR to ensure their workforces are technology-ready. Companies also expect HR processes to not simply follow suit in the evolution, but lead the way and set a company culture of innovation.

As John Antos, Vice President of Strategy and Marketing at US-based HR technology firm ADP, states, the HR function is likely to evolve into a broader, and more strategic, “productivity management” role. In fact, two-thirds of the HR professionals recently surveyed as part of the company’s whitepaper said their roles would encompass the management of both human and artificial talent in the next five years.

This is already happening in parts of Asia.

Last month, OCBC Bank Singapore became the first bank in the country to roll out an artificial intelligence-powered HR mobile app.

Called HR In Your Pocket, the app is a one-stop shop aimed at providing assistance to the entire workforce on any HR-related matters.

One feature that sets the platform apart is an interactive chatbot that is fully integrated with the bank’s HR information system.

Employees can ask the chatbot, named Buddy, even complex, individual questions in real-time and get instant responses. Similar to the Apple iPhone’s virtual personal assistant, Siri, Buddy has human-like conversational skills and natural language processing capabilities. It is able to interpret questions and answer them in plain English. 

HR played a key role in the development of the platform right from the start, driving the entire process and gathering feedback from staff at each stage completion, says Jason Ho, Head of Group HR, OCBC Bank.

“The internal feedback was that our apps for customers are innovative and useful, so we thought: ‘Why not channel our bank’s digital capabilities and technological expertise into developing intuitive and easy-to-use apps for our employees too?’.”

SAS’ Lee says artificial intelligence gives HR a golden opportunity to flex its muscle and show its strategic value.

“HR can analyse the company’s workforce to assess skills, risk and talent, and better understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of one’s workforce on a departmental and enterprise level,” he says.                 

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