Automation Presents Threats, Opportunities for HR

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

They say the Chinese character for “crisis” combines the symbols for “threat” and “opportunity,” which seems appropriate as HR eyes the workforce impact of increasing automation.

“This really broadens HR’s role so that it’s not just how do we fill the seats and find the people, but which roles actually require people and which are better done by robots,” Mary Young, principal researcher at the Conference Board, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 21.

“Previously, the impact of robotics and automation had been limited to those performing routine or manual tasks,” David Bernstein, a human capital technology industry analyst, told Bloomberg BNA in a Feb. 21 e-mail.

But thanks to wider use of artificial intelligence and robotics, he said, “work across every industry that has traditionally been the domain of white-collar, knowledge/expert workers is now becoming an opportunity for being replaced by this disruptive technology. The pace of this disruptive technology, [which] is encroaching into the knowledge worker jurisdiction, is only likely to accelerate given the exponential increases in computer power, and how rapidly software solutions can be deployed.”

Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of “in-house legal and business leaders” expect automation and artificial intelligence to reshape their workforce over the next five years, according to results of a survey from management-side law firm Seyfarth Shaw. Of the remainder, 24 percent expected these technological trends to lead to staffing cuts and 4 percent to staffing growth. The survey was conducted online and had 717 respondents in December and January, with results released Feb. 13.

How HR Can Rise to the Challenge

In the new world, employers don’t have to “operate on the assumption that people are always the best way to get work done,” said Young, who was not involved with the survey. The catch for HR is that it’s necessary to become “more collaborative” with other departments in planning the optimal use of the organization’s people, she said.

Such strategic planning is related to how employers might decide to use contingent workers, for example, Young said. New platforms and new search technologies “allow companies to tap into sources of talent,” both internal and external, and look for “very specific things” in ways they never could before, she said.

These electronic platforms can help employees in very similar ways, advancing everyone’s interests. Some years ago, Young said, IBM found that employees were leaving because they felt there were no career growth opportunities at the company. “The opportunities were there, but they couldn’t see them,” which IBM addressed by creating an internal job search engine. These kinds of technologies can suggest training an employee might need to advance and even point to specific people the employee can talk to for advice, she said.

Bernstein, who also wasn’t involved with the survey, outlined three main ways HR must adapt to the effects of automation and artificial intelligence: focusing workforce planning and hiring on “ensuring that the workforce is both flexible and adaptable"; supporting employees through the “rapid upskilling of the existing workforce that will be required"; and taking “a more holistic view of the work and the workforce.”

“Today, increases in collaboration technology enable a company to mobilize a workforce that is both onsite and remote, as well as long-term versus contingent,” he said. “Developing a workforce and hiring strategy that enables organizations to tap into the right skills and competencies, in the right places and right times regardless of where that talent resides or the duration that the talent is needed, will be key.”

Employee morale must be kept high during this process. “If you are in an industry that’s being automated, every employee is worried about his or her job,” Young said. So the question for HR becomes “how to keep them engaged and help them with career development and what they would need to get there.” Technology can help address the fact that “often, employees can’t see what’s beyond their own field of vision,” she said.

“It’s a huge opportunity for HR,” Young said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

For More Information

The Seyfarth Shaw survey is available at http://src.bna.com/mox.

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