In conversations about technology in the workplace, humans seem to wield little power in the face of advancements like AI and automation.
Often, we hear talk of robots replacing human employees as if the machines themselves are plotting to take jobs from unsuspecting workers. The trend toward automating tasks, likewise, sounds like an inevitable doom.
But according to future-of-work expert Gary A. Bolles, these are misleading narratives.
"Robots and software don’t take jobs; robots and software automate tasks," he says. "It’s a human’s decision if a job goes away, and we can make different decisions."
Still, with the rise of technology, the HR field finds itself at a "particularly pivotal time for the ’people’ part of organizations," Bolles says. And he would know. Self-identifying as a "recovering journalist," he served as the editorial director for five technology publications. And, as a "serial and sometimes parallel entrepreneur," he has held various roles in start-ups—including Chair of the Future of Work at education company Singularity University, co-founder of the software company eParachute and partner in the consulting agency Charrette, which takes on projects related to the future of work, the organization and communities.
Bolles’s areas of focus have given him what he calls a "macro view of some of the major trends."
1. Humans have control.
Because humans are the ones implementing these job-threatening technology initiatives, it’s the human’s job—specifically, the humans in HR—to be their own advocates, Bolles says.
"A human-centric HR will be dedicated to the process of helping the organization to build the kinds of commitments and practices that continually keep humans at the fore and at the top," he says.
An effective HR department will continually ensure that human workers remain relevant, he says, even in the face of pressure to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Bolles advises organizations to stray from "the continual mentality that you don’t have the skill set you need in your organization, therefore you must discard these humans." Instead, help workers through times of transition and give those workers impacted by automation the resources and training they need to leverage those tools.
2. It’s about continually managing change.
In the current climate, planning for some future, static state of the organization is not effective, Bolles says. One can plan for state "C," for example, but "by the time you get there, it’s going to be state F." And so developing strategies to manage change as it comes is integral.
Bolles says he expects the pace of change to increase, as he sees technology-fueled change picking up. The companies that will fare best are those with "nimble" cultures.
"Organizations that are becoming much more agile and nimble in their thinking, that are following more of the kinds of adaptive processes that help the organization to continually change, are going to be the ones that are going to be in the most advantageous position," he says.
3. HR needs to adopt network thinking.
Bolles imagines the old hierarchical structure of organizations—the one HR has historically been charged with managing—as a box. There is scarcity inside and abundance outside, with hoards of workers clamoring to get in and just a few available slots. HR acts as gatekeeper, he explains: "How do you manage scarcity, and how do you stave off abundance?"
But the "box" model is going "the way of the dodo," he says. Replacing it is a network of vendors, gig workers, gig platforms, customers and partners.
"You have a range of different humans, all of whom can and do contribute to the value that the organization creates," he says. Picturing that network and figuring out how to manage what Bolles calls the "soft walls" of the organization is a great challenge for HR departments.
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