The future of HR is at the human-technology interface

In a world that is becoming more techno-centric as we transition into the digital age, TomorrowToday's Ray de Villiers* discusses the future of human-centric aspects of businesses.

*Ray is a speaker and consultant who assists organisations understand trends that are influencing the future world of work. Also read his CHRO.co.za launch article: HR execs, wake up! Five ways to stay relevant

This would be the challenge we have to face in the HR sector if we have actually been human-centric in our execution of our function over the past few decades. Unfortunately, the legacy of HR is that, in many cases, Humans are often the last thing on the agenda.

HR has historically devolved into a function that is compliance, process, and efficiency driven. The people in our businesses have been the context and space within which the role has been executed, but our goals and objectives have treated what is truly in their best interests as secondary. We have defaulted into managing the process changes from the latest restructure, or working through redundancy compliance in order to manage headcount. Even programmes where we have tried to create for development - like Talent Management - have become about ticking off checklist items that are more about “management” than “talent”.

The discomfort we face at the moment around the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Digitisation, and other tech trends seems to be self-serving. It is more about the disruption to our nicely-structured house of cards, rather than the true impact on the people in our organisations.

Technology is going to have an exponentially disruptive effect on the people space of our businesses in the near future. But we can console ourselves with the knowledge that it is an extension of the disruption we currently need to manage.

The workplace of the future

It is projected that children in junior school today will be entering a workplace in 15 years' time when up to 30% of the jobs they apply for don’t currently exist. In addition, it is anticipated that AI and robotics will make one-third of today’s jobs redundant in the next decade. Assuming some overlap between these two trends, we are looking at a future where approximately 50% of the jobs and functions that will need HR support are completely unknown today. In addition, technology will be an increasingly influential factor in how work is executed.

Futurists are tracking the development of machine intelligence and its application in machine learning (listen for alternative labels like deep learning, reinforcement learning, or neural networks). From the creation of ENIAC, the first modern computer, in the late 1940’s we see the pace of development in machine learning vastly outstripping the corresponding growth of human intelligence.

At the moment there are several AI platforms being developed with the specific goal of supporting the development and learning of other AI. It is anticipated that in the next two decades machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and continue to develop at a rate we cannot keep up with. Futurists are calling this point The Singularity.

The employee of the future

How will humanity respond to this eventual leap-frogging over us? If we look back in history we know one thing about human nature…. we will push, and we will survive and thrive. One of the views being promoted to support this is called Transhumanism.

Transhumanism looks at the advances in technology and assumes that we will begin to augment our basic humanity with the benefits of these technologies.  Before you dismiss this consider that we are already talking about using “implantables” to manage and track healthcare. If you have a pacemaker or mechanical heart valve, or if you have had cataract surgery, you have essentially already augmented yourself with simpler mechanical technology. We are already on the transhumanism continuum, the steps forward are imperceptible but the momentum is certain. So, when the singularity does occur it is highly likely that we will not even notice it, and that the decisions about technology augmentation will hardly even feature on most of our radars.

What does all of this mean for the HR professional, and why should we even care? These technological shifts may begin in our home and recreational lives, but one thing is absolutely certain - there will be a migration into our workplaces. In the same way as social networking and social media began outside of the workplace but are now tools and considerations in every workplace, these other technologies will move across too. It is even likely that some of them will be dragged into the workplace due to the productivity improvements they offer. Who will need to manage the workplace impacts of these changes? HR.

HR’s need to respond to the future

The most basic HR challenge is going to be managing the impacts of the decisions made by those who choose to be augmented, and those who firmly insist on staying “organic”. Most of the technology will improve the basic human condition. Some medical tech may be used to bring an underperforming person up to average, but most of it will be used to take average individuals and enable them to function at levels beyond their natural ability.

As with every social shift, there will be those who choose not to engage. It is highly likely that our workplace will be split amongst those who actively chase the latest performance enhancements and those who vehemently refuse them. As the Human-centric function within organisations, it is probable that we will have to navigate the tensions between these two groups.

  • Will some positions expect a minimum level of augmentation?
  • Will we need to have a form of affirmative action for “organic” individuals?
  • If an augmented and an unaugmented person are competing for the same post, how will we evaluate their relative suitability?

The transhuman future of our species is an inevitable future though what it will actually look like, and when it will actually happen is the space of conjecture. What we do know though is that right now we have to start making decisions around AI, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Gamification, Wearables tracking staff activity, and numerous other tech-led changes. The decisions we make now will lay the foundation for a future that seems like science fiction, but is rapidly becoming science fact.

The future starts now

HR professionals need to ask the right questions now if we are to be worthy and effective custodians of the human-centric heart of our organisations in a tech-centric future.

  • How will this technology improve the life and work experience of our people?
  • What will they need to Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn to be effective in using the technology?
  • How can we create processes and principles in our business that use this technology to enhance shareholder value, but also benefit our staff?
  • What previously unexplored opportunities does this technology open for those whose current function is made redundant by it?
    • How can we proactively prepare our people for these opportunities?
  • Do we have people who may choose not to use technology for certain reasons?
    • How can we / should we adjust our people processes and policies to accommodate these choices?

The HR profession is at a tipping point where our old way of working is up for review. It is up to us whether we will take the easy way and default to the process and compliance ways of our recent past, or whether we will take the opportunity to be the true champions of humanity in an increasingly technology-driven workplace.