The future is AI webinar

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There’s no time like the present for HR to get prepared for a future of AI and automation, our webinar found

“We don’t think this will happen in three to five years.” So said Rob McCargow, director of artificial intelligence at PwC, during HR magazine’s recent webinar in partnership with Sage Business Cloud People on ‘Embracing a future of AI and automation: HR’s role’.

“We think we’ll go from the stage of technology assisting our lives through to the augmented phase where humans and machines work together, before technology that is fully autonomous and where there’s no need for humans making decisions. This could happen but so much needs to happen first before this can take place.” The risk, he said, is “to underestimate the short-term impact but overestimate the long-term impact”.

Ultimately, it will be between five and 15 years when the latest technological revolution makes a significant impact on jobs and ways of working, McCargow said. Which, given the results of the surveys conducted during the webinar is perhaps welcome news.

Almost half (44%) of respondents said their organisations are not very prepared for potentially dramatic technology-driven change. Meanwhile, a similarly worrying figure (46%) said their HR functions are not sophisticated at all in terms of automating processes and introducing new technologies, with just 2% saying their functions are very sophisticated at this.

So it seems HR needs all the time it can get to prepare both the function and the wider business for the changes coming its way. It was these changes and the preparations HR must make to deal with them that speakers at the webinar turned their attentions to.

Predictions

The panel explored the types of technologies likely to have the biggest impact on businesses in the future.

McCargow cited eight technologies: artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, drones, virtual reality, augmented reality, Internet of Things, robotics and 3D printing. “I think AI sits at the heart of all the other technologies though, which is why businesses need to get AI right first before they can start seeing the benefit of those other technologies,” he explained.

Chatbots will also play a key role VP of Sage Business Cloud People Paul Burrin suggested, because “people are used to these already with things like Alexa and Siri, so relate to them more”.

In HR specifically, AI is already fairly widely used in recruitment to assess candidates, said now former group HRD at SIG Linda Kennedy-McCarthy. But it will be increasingly used in admin tasks, she said. “Blockchain technology is also coming through where data is date-stamped and audited, making it difficult to falsify documents around things like identity and right to work,” she added. “I think we’ll see that technology progressing as well.”

The audience poll concurred that these technologies could significantly disrupt businesses, with 51% of respondents citing that the impact of the latest tech revolution on the world of work will be significant and 32% that it will be hugely significant.

Levels of preparedness

But most organisations today are only as far as the automation stage, commented Roffey Park’s head of research and chartered occupational psychologist Julia Wellbelove. “How many are being brave and courageous and taking organisations into the future by using all the other AI systems we’re talking about? I’m not so sure,” she said.

Wellbelove pointed to Roffey Park research that asked leaders how prepared they are for technological change and whether they see it as a challenge.

“Only in the past year have [leaders] said it will be a challenge coming up in the next five years, and that is a massive concern and explains why leaders aren’t feeling prepared now. They clearly haven’t been putting it on their agenda,” she said.

Our poll findings indicating a lack of business preparedness don’t come as a surprise, agreed the panel.

“There seems to be a gap between intent and where people are actually at in terms of preparing for change,” pointed out Burrin.

There’s “a real piece in there for leaders to be clear on what it means for their workforce,” said Kennedy-McCarthy. She cited the example of supermarket employees adapting to self-checkouts, which shows that this revolution is already happening in some industries, “whereas others are perhaps still burying their heads in the sand”.

Getting ready for change

To tackle a worrying lack of preparedness to date, the panel recommended several ways HR can and should ready themselves for this future technological revolution. Wellbelove said that the single most important step is to start the conversation with the rest of the business. Kennedy-McCarthy agreed, but added that there is perhaps a greater need to prepare for the “behavioural shift” this change will demand of the workforce.

“Working with AI in businesses, whether it’s an automated till or in the manufacturing industry, will be different for employees in terms of the way they will interact with their cobots – their co-robot workers,” she said.

This means focusing on the skillset and capabilities needed, what has to change and how HR can support that change.

Another step is for the HR function to adopt the emerging technology itself so it can role model this for the rest of the business, McCargow suggested. “There’s remarkable opportunities now to apply things like robotics and AI to recruitment, to L&D and other parts of HR, so HR can role model how to adopt these,” he explained.

HR is changing anyway and moving away from a transactional approach, and this shift to AI and automation is “just part of this bigger picture”, commented Burrin.

But it’s not just HR that is waking up to this change, McCargow added, reporting an “explosion in interest” from the government to help the UK become “the ethical leader of the application of AI”.

“We now have an awakening of policymakers so need to see all parts of the business taking this seriously, and we also need to think about public awareness of this technology,” he said. “The way we talk about this tech is still reduced to fairly basic concepts and Terminator imagery.”

Balancing act

While the panel spoke of the need to embrace change, they agreed that HR must find a balance between the technology it requires today and embracing future innovation.

It’s not as simple as just upgrading HR systems, Burrin asserted. “The system is almost the last thing you need to worry about,” he said.

The most common issue with new technology is that if the data is poor then cleaning it up must be the starting point before doing anything with systems, he explained.

Kennedy-McCarthy agreed, citing the evolution of mobile phones. “We didn’t suddenly move from one mobile to another. It was progress along the way and attitudinal changes as well… it’s a gradual change,” she said.

HR will need to become a more data-driven function to support this change, she continued. “HR typically in the past has been the human part of HR and hasn’t always been good with data and analytics… this is all part and parcel of upgrading HR.”

Ethical considerations

AI presents many opportunities, the panel agreed. But its increased sophistication poses a new wave of ethical concerns.

“I think sometimes there’s an automatic view that AI will be unbiased as it’s just data and has
no emotions, but we’re actually starting to see tests showing that’s not the case as unconscious biases come into it. This comes down to the fact our datasets are being developed by people who perhaps have these biases themselves,” warned Wellbelove.

For McCargow the important point is that “we aren’t ceding control of ethics to the system”. There’s the upside of being able to make processes such as recruitment and work allocation fairer, he explained. “[But] on the flip side there’s a perfect storm where if you don’t put the right checks, balances and transparency in place it can erode and make things even worse.”

But rather than this eventuality being something to be feared, it creates another opportunity for HR to hold the organisation to account, our speakers agreed.

As Kennedy-McCarthy put it: “HR needs to [be] the custodian of the value and the custodian of the ethics in asking questions such as: ‘it’s great we have this technology and it’s great what it can do for us, but what should we actually be doing with it?’”

A recording of this webinar is available here for those who missed the live event

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