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Digital culture shock: HR’s new role in the age of automation

 Vice President, Sage Enterprise Africa & Middle East,Keith Fenner.
Vice President, Sage Enterprise Africa & Middle East,Keith Fenner.

By KEITH FERNER-WE are on the cusp of a brave new world as technologies such as 3D printing, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things reshape the workplace. Smart algorithms and machines are taking on more and more of the tasks that humans used to do on factory floors, in financial call centres and even in hospitality and retail.
In manufacturing, we see the advent of Industry 4.0 – a fourth industrial revolution driven by connected devices and sensors, cloud computing, advanced robotics, intelligent software, and a range of other technologies. Companies like Tesla produce complex products in a smooth, automated process using specialist robots with very little human input.
Autonomous driving vehicles that use computer vision are prowling the streets in pilot projects in many of the world’s largest cities. Within a few years, driverless vehicles will be commonplace in the transport and logistics centres. And natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning are already enabling wealth management companies to build chatbots that offer basic financial advice to their clients.
Against this backdrop, where many traditional job roles will change or disappear, human resources (HR) departments need to become digital champions for their organisations. Their role is to help people manage a digital culture shock as they adjust to a rapid change in their roles and in the way their organisations operate.Here are four imperatives most HR departments will face in the years to come.
Coordinating a blended workforce
The workforce of the future in most companies will comprise of a pool of full-time employees, a growing contingent of freelances, contractors and on-demand labour services, and machines and AI. Using collaboration tools like Slack and videoconferencing, people from around the world will work together on projects.
This model already exists in many multinational technology companies, but it will become familiar in other sectors, too. Rather than having a job for life, workers will often be brought together into teams to complete a specific project, before moving onto the next one when it’s complete. Business teams may use on-demand crowdsourcing and labour platforms like Kaggle and Upwork to access skills as and when needed.
HR’s role:  synthesising such a workforce where the old hierarchies and job descriptions no longer exist. The focus will be on harnessing the combined power and skills of a diverse workforce, rather than on executing processes.
Managing change and reskilling employees
Technology change is accelerating, leaving many employees and their skills behind. Process workers, especially, need to be reskilled for a world where they’ll need to be entrepreneurial and creative rather than simply able to follow instructions. Human qualities such as emotional intelligence will become more important than technical skills.
HR’s role: to help build a workforce equipped with the digital skills we’ll need tomorrow—user interface design, customer service, strategy and innovation are some areas where people still outperform machines. HR will also need to help existing employees transition to new skills, new technologies and new corporate structures.
Some of the questions that might arise in the next few years will be profound. Should we downsize people to a three-day working week because of productivity advances we have reaped from automation? How do we strike a balance between privacy and control when we can monitor employees 24/7 through wearable computers?  Will people happily take guidance from an AI “boss”? It will be up to HR to guide the workforce through these changes.
Analytics-powered decision-making
With access to a growing pool of data about employees and organisational performance, HR is following the example of marketing and becoming an analytics-driven discipline. HR professionals are using data to get better insight into every HR process, from recruiting to training and retention.
HR’s role: leveraging data about workforce behaviour to drive better performance across the business.
Today, in addition to historic reporting, HR professionals are using data for predictive analytics. It’s not just about tracking historic performance indicators, but looking to the needs and trends of the future. What skills will the business need to support its growth? Where did it recruit its best-performing people?  How many people will we need in our service department to support our forecasted revenue growth of 10% for the next financial year?
Higher levels of process automation
Many organisations have already automated many of their HR processes.  A solution such as Sage X3 People, for example, allows them to achieve more efficiency and more control over the cost of their workforce. It lets organisations store full records of their employees, manage their contracts, forecast and efficiently track working hours, absenteeism and bonuses. These solutions offer powerful reporting and can be accessed anywhere through the cloud. They also offer employee self-service features.
HR’s role: implementing technology platforms and processes that give employees a great experience and also empower managers to maximise employee satisfaction and performance.
We’re already seeing the first intelligent HR bots coming to market. They can support colleagues with answers to routine questions such as: “When will we close for the Christmas break this year?” and assist with processes such as on-boarding. This gives HR more time to focus on human interactions that add value than on routine tasks.
Closing words
The impact of automation on the workforce is passionately debated, with many fearing that technology will put millions out of work. I am optimistic that technology will create new work as it changes our world and destroys old jobs. Indeed, Deloitte estimated in 2016 that 800,000 jobs were lost to technology in 15 years, but that it seems that it also created 3.5 million new, higher skilled, jobs.
That doesn’t mean that HR departments and employees are not operating in a challenging (albeit exciting) time. It is up to every HR department to seize the opportunities the next wave of digital disruption offer to serve the workforce and the business, and to help the business use the newest tools to maximise the potential of its people.
Fenner is Vice President: Sage Enterprise Africa & Middle East

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