Digital vs. human labour: the rise of the humans

in Industry Insights, Technology, 10.10.2017

Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without apocalyptic warnings that robots in the workplace will create a dystopian destiny. Indeed, we seem to receive gloomier and gloomier statistics nearly every day, according to which labour performed by robots, or digital labour, is going to put half of the active European population out of a job in the next 5 to 10 years.

The convergence of artificial intelligence, robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning, and cognitive platforms is indeed so disruptive that Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, calls it the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” This fourth revolution sees automation, which once pushed farmers to become manual workers in factories and then later urged the very same manual workers to join the tertiary sector, has now reached the tertiary sector itself—meaning that employees seem to lack further options since, after agriculture, industry, and services, there is no other “sector” left to run to.

So is the situation that worrisome? Will the prediction of John Maynard Keynes come true, where he foresaw in the ’30s that the workweek would eventually be reduced to 15 hours thanks to technology and economic growth? Are robots really going to steal all our jobs?

Steal our jobs, not necessarily, but significantly change our jobs, undoubtedly!

Digital labour comes with many obvious advantages, such as enhanced productivity, reduction in costs, process streamlining, and the limitation of operational errors. And yes, these robots will have an impact on a certain number of routine and repeated tasks with limited added-value. But while this can seem scary, there is another, brighter side to the coin too. There are at least three reasons to remain optimistic about the future:

  1. Automation will free human workers from limited added-value routine activities and allow them to focus on more interesting and exciting jobs. For example, why not transform an administrative operator into a business analyst in charge of assisting in the design and maintenance of the robots that will perform the activities he/she once performed? Such a role would add much more value. Or, take chatbots: although these bots will probably incur the reduction of positions in call centres, human beings will nonetheless remain needed to supervise them or take over when human interactions are called for.
  2. Many jobs that exist today did not exist 10 years ago (e.g. chief data officer, data scientist, social media manager, user experience designer, cloud service manager, etc.) and, according to futurist Thomas Frey, “60% of the jobs in the next 10 years haven’t been invented yet.” Thus, if certain jobs disappear, others will certainly come to life. Our above-mentioned administrative-operator-turned-RPA-business-analyst comes as a good example.
  3. Though it might seem paradoxical, digital labour will reduce the appeal of sending activities offshore: with outsourcing showing some limitations because of (among other things) increasing costs and communication issues, digital labour offers similar cost reductions but with enhanced control—for example, the control performed by our now-famous administrative operator.

Having said that, optimism comes with a cost: the challenge for senior management and HR managers is to be able to integrate and make the most of both kinds of labour—human and robot. Here are four suggested steps for organisations to better understand the implications of digital labour on their workforce:

  • Translate business strategy into people implications. Organisations need to think about where they are headed and how cognitive technologies can help execute their strategy. Then this strategy should be translated into implications for people.
  • Design the workforce of the future. The size and composition of the workforce needs to be shaped in both short- and long-term perspectives through a detailed blueprint of how human and digital labour can be optimally integrated.
  • Embark on the journey of moving to the new workforce. The necessary change management needs to be carried out (using the five phases: make it clear, make it known, make it real, make it happen, and make it stick).
  • Monitor progress. Alternative scenarios should be considered and agile responses to potential risks should be prepared. Items to monitor should include the supply of talented people, how engaged and committed the workforce is, the organisation’s levels of innovation and agility in exploiting new business opportunities, and continual learning and development to support reskilling and career relevance over time.

All in all it comes down to the organisation’s capability of having a clear view of its business strategy and consequently of enhancing the agility, flexibility, and employability of its human resources to meet business objectives. Ultimately, it is nothing less than a call to arms for senior management and HR managers to take principled and proactive stands, as they need to lead the conversation and pre-empt, understand, and manage the changes.

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