Are you ready for the cognitive era?

Written by
Robert Bolton

14 Dec 2016

14 Dec 2016 • by Robert Bolton

Digital labour, the application of cognitive and robotic technologies, is already changing the way we live our lives as consumers. In the workplace, it has the potential to touch every stage of the employee lifecycle and every aspect of work, offering the opportunity to automate lower-skilled tasks, reduce costs and free up employees to carry out more creative assignments.

The World Economic Forum has estimated that as many as 5 million jobs could be lost to disruptive labour changes by 2020. However, at the same time, many new roles will be created to support and complement the rise of automation at work, and this will require you to adapt your approach to workforce planning. 

Shift in skills requirements

New roles will not just be in technical development; businesses that seek to make the most out of cognitive automation will need to build skills in areas such as process automation and mapping, in project management, more advanced customer interactions and in change management.

It’s important to scrutinise your learning and development agenda to ensure your current and future workforce is prepared for the new roles that will emerge across your business, as other roles are replaced by digital labour. Workforce planning must also become more agile – a dynamic, ‘workforce shaping’ process that is ongoing rather than a once-a-year exercise.

Our 2016 Global HR Transformation report revealed that while cloud HR has become a leading delivery model for HR systems, the benefits have not always matched up to reality, often down to poor change management or process mapping. The same applies to HR’s response to cognitive automation. It is critical to work with other departments to identify the processes that would benefit from automation, and the end results you expect.

Some organisations are looking to set up centres of excellence where they have teams trained in identifying opportunities for digital labour in the business. Human employees will be the ones to ‘train’ the robotic workforce and ensure these processes run smoothly – so you need to plan how recruitment, training and reward will reflect these new aspects of human roles.

The employee experience

Getting the digital employee experience right will be crucial to the success of cognitive automation. Employees will already be used to automation as consumers (using Siri on their phone, for example), so will expect to interact smoothly with this sort of technology at work. At the same time, as the more mundane aspects of certain roles are automated, employees will be freed up to carry out more enriching work. Plan these new roles and responsibilities carefully, and there could be a positive pay-off in terms of engagement and retention.

Developers have already created intelligent hiring ‘bots’ that can apply algorithms to selecting the right candidates, and this is an area that will continue to be at the forefront of cognitive automation. It will help to stay abreast of these emerging, consumer-grade automation tools that can support HR in attracting, engaging and retaining high calibre talent.

As the gig economy becomes more prevalent and HR sources its human labour in different ways – for example through skills marketplaces or freelancer networks – this will also impact how cognitive automation fits into workforce planning. Work with managers to get the balance right between hiring in specialist skills and identifying those tasks that can be automated, accepting that this will be fluid depending on your organisation’s goals at that time.

Streamlining HR

HR systems providers are still looking at how they will integrate cognitive automation into their systems – for example in supporting HR service centres or streamlining basic HR tasks. Businesses that have already moved to cloud-based HR systems will arguably have a head start, offering an agile platform that should make it straightforward to introduce automation.

Developments in cognitive automation technology are happening faster than the legal and policy framework can catch up. As HR, you have an opportunity to help to set the tone, considering issues such as how to store or handle biometric data, educating managers to build complementary teams of human and digital labour, and supporting their existing workforce to deal with changing roles and goals. 

HR will also play a crucial role in facilitating conversations between business leaders and government about the societal impacts of automation technologies. HR will see the immediate impact of how automation impacts workers on the front line, so can lead the wider debate on areas such as lifelong learning or concepts such as universal basic income. 

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