Posted by  Lance Mercereau  Published on  22 Nov 2016
  • Workforce Management

"The future need not be pessimistic. Just the opposite.  What is required is active debate"

What does automation mean to companies and to the individuals that work for these companies? A lot, frankly. More so than most people think. 

Automation is seeping through all aspects of corporate life, more than we can see at the moment.

This is a serious issue.  People's lives will be changed as jobs are eliminated as many bank tellers and grocery clerks have been replaced by technology.

In a study published in 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerization for 702 occupations and found that 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation.

Technology companies are not the guilty party.  Business leaders are under pressure to hit their financial numbers, and technology delivers efficiencies.  Automation also improves the delivery of goods and services expected by customers.  

The good news is that, as in the past, jobs will be created, with employees retrained and redeployed elsewhere in the workforce. However, it will cost money and someone needs to pay.

The role of HR will be at its greatest, to help and advise senior executives on the right course of action regarding workforce preparation, planning and transformation.  They will need to work closely with a range of internal and external stakeholders including businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations.

Yet, HR will not be the sole savior.  Chief executive officers, the face of companies, must bring new ideas and approaches to solve this human resource issue. A new level of compassion, coupled with superior communications skills, will be required to engage and manage the expectations of employees seeking full employment - however that is defined in the future.

We already see business executives looking ahead. Carlos Slim, Mexico's richest man, predicts employees will work three day weeks, allowing more people in society to be employed as the world's population exceeds 7.4 billion. (The United Nations estimates it will further increase to 11.2 billion in the year 2100.)

Governments, already under pressure from electorates, must plan for a future that is likely to be socially, economically and financially uncertain.  How should elected leaders plan for a future populace that will expect the same level of public services at a time when governments will have less money due to higher unemployment and lower tax revenue per citizen (after all, wages are going down)?

Successfully addressing the unprecedented displacement of people will require blue sky thinking and investment. It will also entail unprecedented engagement by governments as they take on the financial burden and potential social unrest of mass unemployment. 

Governments cannot do it alone.  A new form of private-public partnerships will be required where companies are more involved in the economic planning of society.  Most importantly, all entities will need to work with people.  They are not only impacted by automation.  They will provide the thinking and energy to solve one of the greatest social issues of the day.

The future need not be pessimistic. Just the opposite.  What is required is active debate.  HR professionals are best positioned to play a central role but it will require deploying the full armoury of knowledge, capabilities and tools including (perhaps, ironically) technology to get ahead of the automation curve, creating a contingency plan for what the future workforce, and society, will look like. 

This will require developing new personal and professional skills, resulting in the necessary redesign of the role of human resources to ensure its contribution in the successful evolution of companies. 

To help, here are a handful of questions to consider as you start to think about the impact of automation and what you can do to prepare yourself and your colleagues:

  • What jobs in your company are already being automated, necessitating the possible redeployment of employees?  
  • What technologies should you be investing in to better understand, predict, track and respond to workforce-related issues? 
  • As people are redeployed or laid-off, what social responsibility does you company have?  Are you ready for any negative public opinion? 
  • How will you work with external stakeholders including governments and public sector organizations such as schools to ensure that your company has the necessary skilled employees for the future?