Who Will Be Replaced By a Robot? What Businesses and HR Leaders Need to Know

Michelle Moore Article

As the barriers between man and machine continue to dissolve, how work gets done and who does it will continue to change dramatically. To prepare for this significant revolution, business and HR leaders need to understand how to leverage technology to replace or complement the human workforce in order to improve productivity and business results. They also need to be prepared to manage the impact of change associated with the changing nature of work and the workforce.

How Technology Can Impact Jobs

Technology has the ability to positively impact jobs in three ways, each of which provide potential costs savings as well as opportunities to better leverage human workers (see Figure 1 – How Technology Improves Job Performance).

 1. Replacing human workers

The first way that organizations can use technology to improve the outcome of a specific job function is by completely replacing certain jobs with technology. In these situations organizations completely automate most or all of the tasks associated with a particular role. The workforce is either reduced, or people are reallocated to higher value jobs. For example, driverless trucks are now able to deliver goods to customers.  In the short-term drivers will still be in the truck, but they spend their time doing paperwork and other higher value activities versus driving. Another example of jobs that have been replaced by technology can be seen in retail organizations and hotels who are turning to life-like robots to greet guests and perform certain service-oriented duties (e.g., concierge). While using robots to replace human workers is not new, in the past the types of jobs that were replaced were usually physically intensive, and in today’s world of advanced artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, more knowledge or customer service jobs are being impacted.

2. Automating specific tasks of a job

The second way organizations are changing jobs is by using technology to automate certain tasks. In this scenario other tasks associated with the specific job are still performed by a human worker, and in some cases the worker may supervise the completion of the automated tasks. Organizations may consider automation as an option in effort to:

  • Complete certain tasks more quickly or accurately,
  • Eliminate low value or unenjoyable work, and free up time for higher value work,
  • Reduce the number of human workers required,
  • Increase overall productivity of the human worker.

For example, at Lee Hecht Harrison we have developed an Artificial Intelligence based chatbot called Ella, designed to automate a very labour intensive task in the job search process – the research and identification of available jobs. This allows job seekers to spend more time on higher value job search activities like networking. Another example of using technology to improve the performance for certain tasks of a job can be found in the luxury industry, where artisans now use computers and digital cutting tools to cut out patterns on raw materials like fabric or leather. The artisan oversees the layout and laser cutting, and uses their expertise only to ensure that an abnormalities in the material do not impact the quality of the item. This technique has significantly reduced the amount of raw material waste and improves productivity of the artisan.

3. Enhancing employee performance

Finally, organizations are also using technology tools to specifically enhance or super-charge the performance of human workers. For example, IBM Watson (a cognitive-based computer) is being used by physicians to identify the best cancer treatment at an individual patient level. Watson combines attributes from the patient’s file with clinical expertise, external research and data, and identifies potential treatment plans for a patient that the doctor may not have otherwise been aware of. The doctor then considers the treatment options provided by Watson and makes a final decisions for the individual patient. 

What Leaders Need to Do

While many of these changes to the nature of work have already begun, the pace of change will only increase. Leaders need to think about how this next revolution – one where the barriers between man and machine are eliminated – will impact their organizations, and identify what they can do both short and longer-term to capitalize on the opportunity.

Leaders must first understand the types of jobs that exist at all levels of their organization. They then need to look at the tasks associated with each job to understand the capabilities required to complete the task as well as the time spent on each task. They can then start to identify jobs, and or activities that technology could help with. It may be tempting to only look at lower level jobs, but research by companies like McKinsey has shown that even at the CEO level up to 20% of job tasks can be automated to produce better results.
After identifying potential jobs or tasks, the feasibility and business value of using technology to change the way the work gets done must be considered. Leaders need to answer questions like:

  • Is technology to replace the job or automate tasks readily available?
  • How easy/hard is it to find the IT talent to implement the technology?
  • How much will technology cost (versus the cost of human workers)?
  • What is the longer-term viability of the job or task?  Are there changes occurring in the market that would eliminate the need for the job altogether?
  • What are the regulatory implications?
  • How easily would technology be accepted? What are the social implications of making the change?

It is important for leaders to remember that although technology may improve productivity or performance for certain jobs or tasks, it still may not deliver significant business value. There are some jobs where meeting a certain standard of performance is good enough, and exceeding the standard has little or no positive impact on business results or brand reputation. For example, as part of their job a pilot has to land a plane. The performance expected is a safe landing that complies to regulations and company standards. Investing in technology to eliminate 100% of the bumps on landing would not provide any significant return to an airline, because passengers really only care that they have landed safely.

Don’t Forget the Humans

While many organizations focus solely on how technology can improve job performance, it is important for leaders to remember that performance can also be improved by continuing to invest in developing the more human skills and knowledge that are less likely to be replaced by technology – e.g., creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking and agility/flexibility. For example, teaching employees how to apply creative thinking techniques to solve problems or generate ideas for innovation can also positively impact business results and drive growth. By taking a balanced approach leaders will be able to ensure humans and machines can work together to achieve better results than either could achieve on their own.

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