This June I was asked by Business Leaders Malta to deliver a keynote about the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Human Resources (HR) industry. In many ways, AI has disrupted the way we think about, and conduct, business. It’s no surprise that the opportunities for transformative change in people-management are both significant and pertinent.
We’ve made huge strides forward since the Deep Blue-Kasparov challenge in 1997. But the most significant advances have not been in computing ability (though they are certainly mesmerising), but in our ability as a human race to collaborate with AI and augment our own skills.
It’s no surprise that for many years, the ‘State of The Global Workplace’ study by Gallup reported a disengaged workforce. Italy, notorious for its struggling political and economic forces, reports 90% of its workforce which is not engaged or actively disengaged at work. And it is at this juncture that we realise the urgent need to use AI to remove ‘bot processes’ (humdrum repetitive work) away from humans, and AI to assist HR executives in creating compelling work experiences.
AI comes with the promise to assist us in very specific, dedicated applications. The successes (and a few blunders) of IBM Watson are a testament to this mission. But today AI is less about the big blue-chip brand activities, and more about small yet superb performance that aids and accelerates the activities of many micro-companies around the world. And this is the nature of AI as the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it (Weiser, 1990).
The velocity at which business-change aided by AI is occurring, is increasing. It took an average of 200 years in the late-modern period to go from one tech-revelation to another (Gutenberg’s press in 1439 to Lippershey’s telescope in 1608). We’re now doubling the speed and capacity of what we do every eighteen months (Moore’s law). But how is this momentum affecting work and the workplace? How should an HR leaders look at this transformation?
- Any company, whichever its ‘native’ industry is a tech company. Due to the pervasiveness of ICT, the opportunity to optimise operational processes is available to all. Subsequently ICT becomes the key competitive strategy and HR is part of this shift. Whether you’re in manufacturing or banking, health or logistics – your ability to compete internationally will correlate directly to your agility to adopt ICT and AI.
- What’s making AI transformative is not the geekery behind the technology, but the fact that its price is plummeting fast. What was inaccessible for most firms last year is affordable this. The increasing affordability pushes companies to constantly re-evaluate their needs and their budgets and prompts them to swiftly onboard AI to produce better-informed people decisions.
- And at the core of AI lies its ability to make great predictions. Predictions forecast the future (perhaps a prediction about which book you’ll enjoy reading next or which APP is best suited to your lifestyle), but they also peer into business choices (…will this candidate fit our organisational culture? Will this recruit assimilate our induction material fast enough?) As our tools become better at understanding our world, they bring a degree of clairvoyance into the HR ring which we must embrace.
- The law will keep playing catchup. We’re still understanding how to legislate for a mixed bot-human workplace. Some MEPs also believe that bots should be awarded legal personality (the ability to sue and be sued) and their masters asked to pay social security! And legal issues emerge already: what if your AI leads to a discriminatory and illegal hiring decision? Our entire legal framework around liability may need to be re-examined. The first inkling of the law playing catch-up in this arena is seen in Article 22 of the GDPR which ascribes a right to a (human) data subject ‘not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing’.
- And inevitably some jobs will go. Contact centres are likely to move some repetitive Q&As to bots (that’s what EBO is touting). Associated Press already publishes thousands of financial reports using a bot rather than a human. EY hires more data scientists than Google. That’s why employability is less about what you already know and more about your capacity to learn and adapt.
- HR leaders need to make peace with AI if it is still an alien concept to them. Certain tasks in the HR function (such as analytics and metrics, talent acquisition, performance management, retention …) are hugely popular and will benefit from the objective input which AI could bring.
Click here to watch an extract from the keynote if the video above doesn’t load correctly.
And in the words of Robert Pirsing; ‘if you run from technology it will chase you’. We need to embrace AI in the workplace and positively disrupt old work practices and processes. We need to unify the rational world of computer science with the intuitive realm of human, emotional intelligence.