When employees hear the terms automation or digital transformation, they tend to panic. “Our jobs are being replaced by robots” is a common refrain whenever these topics come up due to sci-fi pop culture, the media, and a disconnect in industry communication. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced and less detrimental. Digital transformation is the integration and adoption of modern technology into all areas of a business to help companies maximize efficiency and stay competitive. It is a complex process that also represents a cultural shift in rethinking existing operating models and notions of jobs and career paths. Digital transformation means looking at the people, process, and technology to help prepare for the future of business. But how do you cultivate talent in the age of automation? What new approaches and tactics should talent development professionals apply?

Being a strategist in the AI industry, an educator at a business school, and serving as an advisor to an HR startup, I’m constantly observing the philosophies from several perspectives on these matters. I recently delivered a keynote, “Cultivating Talent in the Age of Automation” at the Top Talent Summit in Vancouver, BC, to take a step back and focus on people and their jobs. Here are a few of the highlights from my presentation and 5 ways we can prepare the workforce for the future of work.

1. Understand the nature of work

To begin, I’d like to pose this question: What is the purpose of a job?

By external measures like promotions and accolades, it would appear that the quadrants on the left—effectiveness and efficiency—tend to be the most valued attributes. But when we consider when our employees feel most valued, it’s when they’re providing originality and expertise. And that should be the purpose of a job.

An Oxford University study predicted that 47% of jobs in the United States could be automated by 2033. And generally, efficiency and effectiveness are the areas where automation occurs. Consider routine tasks like answering frequently asked questions from customers or gathering data from a form. What this means is that innovation, expertise, and judgment will continue to be valued—these are the skills we should develop in our employees since there is little risk that they will be automated. Learn how [24]7.ai automated routine calls while upskilling employees in leadership and emotional intelligence.

2. Empower and reskill your workforce

Despite the common sentiment that technology will destroy jobs and displace humans, our current digital transformation (also sometimes referred to as the “fourth industrial revolution”) is well underway and is not the first case of technological disruption. We have ample historic precedence from 19th-century industrialization and 20th-century computerization. While in each of these cases, technology redefined jobs, it also created new jobs at the same pace. As HR and L&D professionals, we should shift the automation conversation to empowering and reskilling our workforce. We can reframe the automation dialogue to be about career progression and new growth opportunities for employees, rather than fear about losing jobs.

In fact, a recent study by Joseph Fuller, Professor at the Harvard Business School, found contrary to popular belief, “employees are excited about new technologies and willing to be trained in new skills. But they don’t always know what they need to learn or how to access and pay for it. Organizations can do a better job of identifying the skills gaps they will have or will face and using their existing workforces to fill them.”

There is a lot of work to be done to keep up with this large-scale change in workforce skills. Significant education and skill gaps exist, making it difficult for individuals and organizations to compete in the new economy. As a Learning & Development professional, you have an opportunity to empower and prepare your workforce for this transformation. For example, according to the World Economic Forum report Towards a Reskilling Revolution, accountants are roles that will likely be automated, yet new roles in data analytics are on the rise and will require similar quantitative skill sets. L&D can play a role in reskilling accountants at their organization for new data analytics jobs, rather than laying them off. Silica, a South African-based financial services firm, automated data entry roles but created a Digital Academy to upskill their workforce for new, growing roles in project management and data analytics at their company.   

As a leader, your responsibility is to understand which skills are needed to maximize long-term performance. The key is to look at your future business needs without mapping them to existing skill sets. We have to be imaginative. We have to understand how knowledge work is carried out in our organizations, where time and money are spent most, and where the most value is generated. At that point, you can identify where to course correct—whether on soft skills surrounding procedures, collaboration, agility, emotional intelligence, or hard skills like machine learning, programming, or data science.

3. Magnify diverse, indispensable human skills

The macro challenges businesses face today are global, systemic, and complex. They require a keen consciousness of the global environment, holistic awareness of problems, and a comprehensive understanding of moving parts and dimensions. As a collective, we can begin breaking down the complexities and uncertainties by developing work cultures that magnify the human-centricity that yield innovation in a variety of areas—creativity, learning, and problem-solving. The Humanizing Learning Report from Udemy highlights a set of soft skills where humans excel: envisioning a different future, storytelling, collaborating, and using tools to change our mental and physical spaces.

What is also indispensable is the cognitive diversity that comes from multiculturalism, individualism, and perspectives shaped by varying backgrounds and lifestyles. Research from McKinsey, for example, shows that ethnic and gender diversity are clearly correlated with profitability. Environments that encourage sameness are ripe for disruption. Uniquely human ability will shine the more we intend to be inclusive and diverse. We need more work environments to reflect the global environment. Unconscious bias training and recruitment practices can help build a diverse workforce that is far more likely to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.

4. Augment talent development with AI and immersive tech

Advanced technology is transforming the way we develop talent, too, as it can augment a lot of the work already being done. A recent HR Dive article puts it this way: “The speed at which technology can process volumes of data frees up HR to work more closely on developing talent and growing workforces.” There are a number of ways this is already occurring. HR professionals have begun to use chatbots and AI-powered technology to screen applicants and sort through candidates more efficiently. L&D teams are using AR and VR for new hire onboarding and ongoing training. See How Digital Transformation Is Disrupting Learning for more on how The Home Depot and Delta Air Lines are using AR and VR in an L&D context. And machine learning can power a learning experience that’s tailored to each learner. For example, Udemy’s Smart Recommendations are based on billions of learning interactions unique to Udemy and Udemy for Business and drive personalized recommendations for each individual. See how Udemy for Business delivers personalized learning to individual employees.

5. Create an adaptable workforce that focuses on the possibilities

To break pop culture stereotypes on robots and negate the fear of the future, L&D has to fill some of the gaps of public and private sector miscommunication on automation to encourage individuals to reconsider their views of technology. Automation is an opportunity to allow computer advancements to take care of the mundane tasks so we can focus our attention on more creative, strategic, and more fulfilling future-oriented work. This might involve sharing success stories of employees whose mundane tasks were automated and who then had the ability to focus on more creative work. If a team within your organization has already had early success with an element of automation, ask them to share their experience and answer questions from their colleagues. If you don’t have any stories from within your organization just yet, you could look to other companies and industries to see how they’re being positively impacted by digital transformations.

There are some changes that are already underway. In healthcare, AI could automate medical record reading, X-ray analysis, and cancer diagnostics while predicting downstream healthcare needs. This saves time, cuts costs, and improves physicians’ decision-making and bedside manner. In financial services, using AI to automate the information-gathering process or document analysis in compliance with industry regulations could allow bankers to focus on conducting accurate portfolio assessments to tackle new ventures while also saving time and lowering risk.  There are countless examples of adaptative outcomes when we focus on the possibilities of the future of work supercharged by technology.

Lessons for L&D teams

The irony of succeeding in the digital economy is that it’s less about the technical acumen and more about uniquely human elements. By providing consistent opportunities for people to learn and centralize the humanism in their roles, you’ll be preparing them for the future and ensuring the long-term success of your organization in the age of automation.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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