Article by: Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Maria Romero | Published: 18 November 2017
Technology and its many uses promise to reshape society and business in dramatic ways in the decade ahead. Whether we pursue the path of using technology to eliminate the workforce or to truly unleash human potential, HR and training should be central to the business transformation process; creating new opportunities, sweet spots and stress points for HR and training professionals. Contributors Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Maria Romero, of Fast Future.
Should we wait for disruption and future shocks before we respond – or are there practical steps we can take now to prepare for a range of possible outcomes and thereby increase our resilience in the face of uncertainty? Tomorrow’s world of work will be shaped in large part by Artificial intelligence (AI) combined with successive waves of exponentially improving, transformational science and technology developments such as blockchain, big data, hyperconnectivity, cloud computing, the Internet of Everything, 3D/4D printing, synthetic biology, new materials, and human brain and body enhancements.
These could make the typical user experience of office technology far more interactive than ever before, with smart technologies that seem to respond and evolve based on users’ needs and wants. Soon, the workplace might be populated by humans, robots, digital entities (i.e. algorithms), and hybrid augmented human workers performing side by side – each with a say in how things get done.
There appears to be a lack of willingness to think deeply about the impacts and consequences; hence HR has the opportunity to step into the vacuum to start anticipating and preparing for inevitable surprises; from administering people procedures through to ensuring the organisation has awareness of and access to all the resources required to ensure future business success. This evolved “resourcing function” might have a remit that ranges from capability and workforce planning through to internal staffing, and procuring external partners, services, technologies, research, and advice. Hence the Chief Resourcing Officer might work in tandem with the Chief Operating Officer to ensure the latter has access to all the elements required to transform and run the business.
Forecasts vary of how many jobs could be replaced or created by technological disruption. Whether eighty percent of jobs are eliminated or fifty percent more created, the new jobs will require advanced skillsets and different mindsets. The transition will be dramatic, painful and require new knowledge and competences. Governments, businesses and civil society will need to rethink the assumptions and mechanisms that underpin our world. HR and training could become central to helping envision different possible futures and helping organisations get there.
Already, in business, fundamental changes are taking place in the way organisations are using technology. Many are embarking on radical digital overhauls, enabling them to deliver new offerings, enhance service, improve efficiency, and increase cost competitiveness. The emerging technologies of the corporate ecosystem will have economic, social, and environmental implications that change the workforce, work models, and people development. Digital transformation is likely to spread throughout the business world, and wide-scale automation will inevitably lead to job reductions across economic sectors – from mining and manufacturing, to transport, retail and finance.
In parallel, new sectors are emerging and creating opportunities. Under favourable conditions, the global economy could grow from US$78 Trillion to around US$120 Trillion over the next decade – over half of this could come from industries and businesses that are just emerging or don’t yet exist. No one yet knows if these newcomers will generate enough jobs to replace those displaced by technology.
We believe it is important to anticipate impending shocks and risks and act now to start putting society and business on a more sustainable footing, thus ensuring sufficient resilience to cope with the risk of large-scale technological unemployment. Here we identify five fundamental actions that forward-looking organisations, governments, societies, and individuals should be thinking about right now. These factors could occupy an increasing amount of the workload for HR and training.
Providing support for Start-Ups
While the jobs outlook is uncertain, the only thing we can assume for certain is that people will need to take more responsibility for their incomes. Many will do this through the creation of small and micro-businesses that are far more immune to the risks of technology replacing humans.
Employers can play a massive role here in providing start-up training and mentoring through the early phases of business creation for employees they are replacing with technology. The most forward thinking might even co-invest with such start-ups to help them get started and potentially provide them a route to market. A massive expansion of support for start-up creation would both generate jobs for the mentors and accelerate the rate at which people can build new businesses and create new jobs.
In addition, HR could:
Provide access to simple online platforms for business creation, marketing, networking, financial management, invoicing, accounting, and tax submission – enabling founders to focus on the development of their business. Encourage and support staff to spin out innovation initiatives from within the firm as separate businesses – possibly with financial support. Provide an incubator space and mentoring support for employees to work up new ideas in their spare time prior to starting out on their own.
Create regular showcases to enable past employees to present their business offerings to potential customers. Commit to buying a certain amount of goods and services from firms run or managed by past employees. Providing a panel of executives who could act as ongoing advisors to start-ups for their first few years in business. Provide crowdsourcing platforms where past employees could trade ideas, requirements and opportunities with each other. Provide new ventures with a blockchain based smart contract service so that contract creation and execution can be fully automated against standard rules.
The importance of education and training
Success in the future will require a smart, adaptable, and highly educated workforce. Indeed, many commentators and some governments anticipate that within a decade, most new jobs will require graduate level education at a minimum. How that is acquired may well look very different to today.
To survive and thrive in business, there is a need to understand both the technologies and the mindsets shaping the future. Mindset is key here – there are plenty of technological competitors to Uber and AirBnB – for the latter, their true point of difference is their mindset – a radically different way of thinking about how to deliver on customer desires without owning any assets or employing any service delivery staff. Job one for HR and training must be raising technological literacy. We must ensure that, throughout the organisation, leaders, managers and employees truly understand these future-shaping technologies, how they might impact different sectors and the new ways of thinking, business models, and delivery approaches they are enabling. Much of the required content is already available through free online platforms – the key is building it into the training and development agenda.
People will also need support developing higher level skills that will help them learn rapidly and transition into jobs that don’t even exist today. These skills may include collaboration, problem solving, navigating complexity, scenario thinking, and accelerated learning. Hence, we believe a massive increase is required in the provision of free adult education using existing facilities in businesses, schools and higher education institutions. Most teaching spaces in these facilities are unused in the evening; why not put them to use for continuing adult education?
Pupil-teacher ratios at school level will also need to be reduced to increase personalised support – the evidence is clear on the impact. This also means re-evaluating the expectations for students pursuing higher education: A well-educated workforce is needed to propel the country forward, and while many other nations provide free degree level education, the UK needs to develop a sustainable solution that doesn’t leave future generations demotivated, disillusioned, and saddled with debts that many cannot repay. Employers can play a big role here in lobbying government to think about the financing of higher education.
Education and work have shaped the way society functions. Redefining both of these fundamental institutions will generate a series of opportunities for HR including:
Life-long and life-wide learning paths could be developed by HR to support employee education beyond the organization itself. Growing such programmes to include workplace coaching and training in diverse life skills and knowledge such as accelerated learning, problem solving, career path planning, and collaboration.
Compulsory participation in technology awareness programmes for those seeking promotion.
Providing immersions on critical technologies and their possible impacts.
Embracing such “life-wide” learning programs might incorporate the accrual of education microcredits or nano-credits, which would be similar to video game badges. Sensors and self-quantification would certify achievements in and out of the classrooms, so the nano-credit system could become completely automated.
Developing closer workplace-school relationships e.g. workplace experts instructing vocational classes at schools, students visiting workplaces regularly, providing physical community learning spaces, and involving corporate HR teams in the development of schools’ curricula.
Guaranteed Basic Incomes and Services
Firms pursuing high levels of automation will need customers to buy their goods and services. Widespread automation could dramatically reduce employment and societal purchasing power. Hence, many in Silicon Valley in particular argue for some form of automation tax to fund the provision of unconditional basic incomes (UBI) and services (UBS) across society.
Some governments reject the idea on ideological grounds because they think it reeks of communism. However, others recognise that something needs to be done to avoid large-scale social decline and potential citizen unrest. Countries including Finland, Germany, and Canada are undertaking UBI experiments to understand the concept, test out different options, assess the social impact, measure the costs, and prepare themselves while they still have time.
For HR, this could mean:
Assessing the potential business impact of automation taxes based on different workforce scenarios. Taking the lead role in modelling alternative future workforce strategies. Educating the workforce on the importance of taking control of their own earning capacity. Lobbying governments to conduct early pilots of alternate UBI / UBS models to avoid being caught flat footed when technological unemployment starts increasing. Providing support to help displaced workers access new skills and jobs.
Research and Development for the betterment of society
A competitive economy demands cutting edge innovation. Not all R&D lends itself to assessment based on the return on investment – some just has to be undertaken for the betterment of society. Hence, expanding research funding, and the number of research institutions, are important enablers of tomorrow’s job creation. While the firm’s core R&D agenda will be driven by other functions, HR might play a key role in ensuring government understand the knowledge base and skills sets required to feed to future of business. The pace of change within organisations also opens a role for HR and training to lead research into the capabilities required to run and grow tomorrow’s enterprise. These might include:
Mastering the skills required by the leadership of the future – foresight, collaboration, empathy, soft skills, and comfort with complexity and uncertainty.
How best to educate and train leaders, managers and employees on critical technologies and their applications within the business. How best to manage and mentor in environments populated by humans, robots, AI, and augmented individuals. Researching the possible future evolution of their core business and adjacent sectors to identify the skills that might fuel the industry.
Exploring what other new knowledge sectors need to be developed.
The Mental Health Challenge
Across society, the scale and severity of mental health issues is rising, a trend that large-scale job displacement is likely to increase. An enlightened combined approach for government and business would be to fund people to train as therapists while still working today so that they will be ready to help when the challenge becomes a major problem in 2-4 years’ time.
For HR, there are clear priorities here:
Increasing the provision of mental health support in the workplace, especially in the run up to and during massive layoffs. Reinforcing the importance of mentally healthy employees and discouraging the workaholic culture. Providing multigenerational therapy to cope with conflicts that emerge from divergent generational worldviews in the workplace.
Encouraging employees to develop interests and personal identities beyond their occupation. Tackling areas where the management style and operating culture increase workplace stress. There’s clearly a cost associated with enabling all of the five activities, but the question must be raised: what might the risks and potential costs of inaction be? A short-term focus on cost control could lead to a very long-term increase in the cost of funding unemployment benefits and policing a society that feels let down.
The future could be a very exciting place where society will tackle current challenges and create new opportunities. New industry sectors such as laboratory grown food, vertical farming, autonomous vehicles, clean water technologies, renewable energy, and synthetic materials all hold great possibilities for humanity. However, these businesses will be highly automated from the outset, and will require very different capabilities and a highly skilled workforce. The transition to these new roles will not be smooth but, as Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” For HR and training, there is tremendous potential here to play an enhanced strategic and operational role in ensuring a very human future.