How to Prepare Your Organization for Robot Workers

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

Do you hear that sound? It's the collective gasp of the millions of workers threatened by the likes of artificial intelligence, machine learning, drones and even autonomous vehicles.

Recent headlines like "Robots Are Coming for Jobs of as Many as 800 Million World Wide" and "Workers at Risk as Robots Set to Replace 66M Jobs" deliver a dire forecast of imminent job loss—a robot apocalypse where human workers become redundant.

While it's true that as each advanced technology gains traction some jobs will become extinct, exactly how many jobs will be affected is not an easy number to peg down. No matter the number, it's unlikely humans will become obsolete in the advent of these robot workers. The more likely scenario is that most of our jobs will be reinvented rather than replaced.

This reinvention creates an opportunity to adopt new skills. To do this, both employees and organizations should embrace a culture of learning and accept the reality that they must work with emerging technology, not against it.

The 21st Century of Work

Even though many job titles will remain intact in the future, at least 60 percent of all jobs can be 30 percent automated. That means the skills needed to do almost any job will be different and more complex.

Unfortunately, a large segment of our current workforce is ill-prepared. One in four adults report a mismatch between the skills they have and the skills they need for their current job. And according to Edward Gordon, less than 50 million American workers will eventually qualify to supply a demand of 123 million higher skilled jobs.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: the job opportunities that are available today are 21st-century jobs, but the way most people perform these jobs is still stuck in the previous century. The half-life of a job skill is about five years, meaning every five years, that skill is about half as valuable as it was before. And skills shortages are already affecting business—92 percent of employers surveyed saying the shortage has a negative impact on areas such as productivity, staff turnover and employee satisfaction.

Embracing a No-Collar Workforce

So what are companies and workers to do as new technologies and robots proliferate in the workforce and employees start to lack the necessary skills to adopt?

In order to adopt a cultural shift around how your organization and its employees view the "rise of the machines" and learn the necessary skills to work with them, HR and management should start by asking the following questions:

  • What human skills will be required to manage emerging technologies?
  • What jobs in our organization should we be planning to fully automate in the next 5 years?
  • What tasks will automation not be able to perform better than humans?
  • Which workers will be most severely affected?
  • How many current employees have the ability to step-up and fill the growing skills gap quickly?
  • What new skills will human workers need to acquire to remain valuable members of the changing workforce?

Organizations stand at the intersection of man and machine. What was fiction in the 50s and 60s is reality today. At the heart of this phenomena emerges what Deloitte calls the no-collar workforce. Instead of robots versus humans, think "co-bots" or collaborative robots. Picture hybrid teams of machines or "augmented humans." This shift presents the formidable task of redesigning jobs and reimagining how work gets done.

Instead of technology helping humans become more productive, future work will be completed through the synergy and symbiosis of humans and robots working collaboratively. Each will contribute specialized skills and abilities. Yes, robot workers will help humans become more productive, but humans will also help robots function at peak performance. Unlike past technology that didn't get smarter or learn on its own, new technology will improve spontaneously and instantly. As technology gets smarter "on the fly," its human partner will need to get smarter, too.

Photo: Creative Commons

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