HR Indaba draws the crowds as attendees gather for opening keynote on the future world of work

Cognizant's Michael Cook revealed an optimistic future in which new jobs and industries will be created.

“The future world of work is not just about technology. Sometimes it’s human,” said Michael Cook, senior manager for the Center for the Future of Work, EMEA at Cognizant, who literally wrote the book ‘What to do when machines do everything’. 

Michael used an example to illustrate the rapid changes in the world of work. “Let’s talk about the game of Go, and ancient Chinese strategy game. The number of possible moves in a Go game exceed the number of atoms in the known universe. Before 2016, no computer on the face of the planet could crunch those kinds of numbers. In 2014, the problem was posed to industry professionals in the field of AI, who agreed that it could be done, but would take 20 years.” 

Then Google’s team at DeepMind decided to have a go at it, and by 2016 they had come up with AlphaGo. It went against Lee Sedol, the raining global Go champion, and it beat him in a number of games over five days. So DeepMind went away, and developed a new system to beat AlphaGo, already the most powerful Go player on the planet. At the end of 12 months, AlphaGo Zero played 100 games against the original system, and beat it 100 to 0. That’s how far technology had come in 12 months. 

This will have an impact on the people you recruit, because it is not so much the skills that they have that are important in this future world of work, but their adaptability to change that’s crucial. But what about your existing workforce? 

Michael and his team agree that there will be job losses, but disagree with the Oxford University Projection that over the next 25 years, 47 percent of jobs will be lost. Instead, he says, they project job losses at around 12.5 percent. 

“But the jobs will look very different. The work done will be more impactful and more successful than ever before. All of us in this room will start to feel the change. Our rote repetitive tasks like expenses or timesheets will become extinct very soon. We will do the work that actually matters – the creativity and innovation that drives business value.” 

He adds that we will experience the Budding Effect, named after Edwin Budding, who invented the lawnmower in 1830 and freed up millions of man hours to be focused on other things, will also come into effect in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

“We are going to get 13 percent new job creation off the back of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he says. 

For his book, ‘What to do when machines do everything’, Michael and his team projected 21 new jobs that we’d be seeing as a result of this Budding Effect, and then, last year, he projected another 21 more. He outlined three categories that will define the future of human work over the next ten years. They are: 

•    Coaching – people will need to learn how to use new technologies, and the systems will need to be coached themselves. 
•    Caring – our population is ageing, and this puts the healthcare system under enormous pressure. The first people to reach 150 years old have already been born. Caring will be a significant part of the future world of work. 
•    Connectivity – people will work connecting people to people and people to machines. 

To the people in the crowded exhibition hall, Michael said: 

“HR are the gatekeepers of the future of work. You have the biggest role to play. You need to be the ones that teach, train and recruit talent effectively and make sure that you have the right people on your board.” 

However, he cautions that HR itself is going to be disrupted. 

“Look at your tasks. If it takes five decisions or less to be made, or five or less clicks to action, it can be automated right now. Employee onboarding, employee status changing, these are all tasks that can be automated right now. And things like performance reviews and learning and development can be augmented with the use of AI.” 

And, he points out that while the audience might have heard it all before, HR is going to have to become a lot more strategic. 

“Driving culture is so important. Speaking to boards even five years ago, you used to see a lot of eye-rolling about culture, but that’s no longer the case. Boards are realising the impact of culture on the working environment. And it’s not about the colour of the walls or the free food or the fireman’s poles from one floor to another – it’s how you encourage, motivate and recognise.” 

And, he says, innovation must be the cornerstone of everything that you do – it can’t be limited to an innovation hub, but must be demanded of everyone in your organisation. 

“Think about how you incentivise your employees. Think beyond silly KPIs. One of the main metrics in call centres is average handling time, which is ridiculous when you are trying to drive a customer experience. Think of outcomes, profitability, business experience and customer experience in a customer-facing world. Yes, you can measure KPIs, but don’t incentivise on KPIs.” 

Another important factor he mentioned was where employees get to work. Studies show that companies that allow people to work from home have an 80 percent lower attrition rate than those who don’t. And for when people come into work, there should be a variety of spaces where they can sit, relax or mingle with management. 

“Drive office design based on positive friction. People bumping into one another creates chance encounters, new collaborations. This is the cultural imperative.” 

And finally, he says that learning and development is going to make or break organisations. “We did a study into some of the major tertiary education institutions around the world. It turns out that 85 percent of them only update their curricula every two to six years. Who had heard of blockchain six years ago? And AI was science fiction. So it falls to us in the private sector to make this kind of education happen.” 

This business education needs to be the product of the skills you already have in your organisation, but content that is dynamic and personalised for the task and the individual, and then it needs to be delivered in a way that is dynamic – for instance through online courses.

The audience, given much to consider about their own roles and the future of their own workplaces, continued on to other presentations, learning experiences and networking opportunities that the HR Indaba has to offer over the next two days.