Insights & Ideas

How HR should respond to workforce automation

The adoption of technology that is displacing people is accelerating.  It is your obligation as an HR professional to prepare your company and your colleagues.

In May 2016, the BBC reported that Foxconn, a manufacturer for Apple and Samsung, replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots. In October 2016, ING announced that it would cut 5,800 jobs, replacing them with machines. Earlier this month, Infosys, India's second largest software developer, slashed 5,000 jobs, made possible by automation.  

The displacement of people on a large scale has commenced. 

So, how should you respond? It’s a good question, and one that requires debate. I will try and attempt to provide a starting point that serves everyone. 

For starters, it’s critical to assess the current level of automation in your your company or organisation.  Many industry commentators are looking at what roles are at most risk of disappearing due to technology such as "low-skilled" vocations at manufacturers. 

This is understandable but not helpful in order to measure the full impact of automation. A better barometer is looking at the activities of employees, which will enable you to identify trends that show which manual processes can (or are likely to) be replaced by machines.  

This is important taking into consideration that McKinsey estimates that 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.

By being proactive, by identifying trends, you will be a stronger position to advise executives on the current changes underway in your company brought on by automation. You will also be more informed than before to help employees start to move into other roles, which may require significant investment to fund the retraining of people.

How do you go about identifying which activities are, can and should be automated?  You have several options based on the type, amount, relevancy and immediacy of data available to you: 

  • If your organization leverages time tracking software, you should be able to obtain a view of the effort employees are taking to accomplish activities. Of course, visibility depends on the detail people are adding to the system. 
  • You could conduct a survey, asking employees to provide information about what they are doing and how long it’s taking them.  There are pros and cons of doing a survey.  On a positive note, you’re engaging colleagues.  On the downside, people may not feel comfortable telling you how much time they are taking due to a fear of being perceived  as not being efficient. 
  • Another option is to hire a consultant to come in and assess the performance and productivity of your workforce with an eye on the role of technology on organizational behavior. Coupled with an external employee benchmark data such as from Willis Towers Watson, you would have a holistic view of which activities in jobs across geography and industry are being automated. However, this can be costly and take time. 

So, what do you do after you have data?  It’s time to use analytics to analyze and recommend to executives how to best prepare, plan and transform your workforce for automation. 

To assist you, ideally, data collection, aggregation and analysis efforts should be on a continuous basis.  This will empower you to monitor and quickly respond to potential issues in employee performance and productivity caused by the rapid - and often unforeseen - introduction of advanced intelligent technologies.  

I believe it’s important to view workforce automation not as a threat, but as an opportunity.  Let’s face it: no one wants to do a time-consuming work if it can be completed faster and better especially when it’s mind-numbing.

Furthermore, you’re doing people a favor by providing transparency about the work activities of employees. You are also helping to align employees, and their skills and capabilities, to corporate objectives. This can only come about by having actionable data and sharing insight with colleagues. It is taking employee engagement to a heightened level. 

Communications has always been dear to human resource professionals.  This will become more important than ever before in the age of automation.  Your colleagues will not only want it; they will expect to be kept informed about how their company is evolving as new technologies enter their workforce and forever change how they work (and live). 

To be prepared is to be informed with data. 
 

 

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