Changing Job Profiles: From Human Resources to Robots

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Management theorists and economic thinkers consider this decade as the decade of sea changes, sweeping every walk of life. These unprecedented changes would have seemed unimaginable even a few years ago. Intelligent machines and robotics are reinventing the workforce. Drones and driverless cars are transforming supply chains and logistics. And changing preferences and expectations, most notably of the new generation, are altering consumption patterns and demand for everything from cars to real estate. Today’s businesses, government and individuals are responding to these changes with a mixture of caution, moderate agility and careful manoeuvre.

 

As latest technology unfolds in the form of AI, robotics, virtual reality and IoT, it is poised to take labour to a higher level, says Rajesh Nair

 

Digital and disruption have become the buzzwords in every industry. This era of technology has opened up a whole range of new opportunities to help re-strategise business models and transform customer interactions. This holds both great potential and significant risks at all levels of the business. But most organisations are yet to articulate a comprehensive digital work plan and prepare roadmaps for future. This is not necessarily a failure or oversight. To chart a digital strategy and an approach to digital governance is tough. As such there are no best business practices or a confirmed playbook to follow, but only some scattered examples. And each business will need to prioritise its approach based on its unique market dynamics and, of course, relative digital maturity.

Besides all the changes, the most ominous and the fiercely debated issue is that of the future of employment and the question ‘will robots take over?’ More than a handful of movies have made some fast and big buck exploiting the fear psychosis and portraying the destruction of humans at the hand of robots in a scale and cruelty that makes us even more insecure. Before we launch more ‘anti-machine’ tirade, it will be of help if we could take a close look at the anatomy of employment in general, across sectors. We can broadly classify nature of work into following categories:

■ Providing expertise – these cluster of jobs are for subject matter experts who have the ability to provide deep expertise in an area and most technically professional jobs fall in this tranche
■ Requiring collaborative decision-making – these are jobs where there is need for constant interaction with others, understanding data and working with people
■ Pair of hands – typical blue-collar and some white-collar jobs which are normally a regular set of activities which are detailed and supervised by others
■ Training, coaching and counselling – these are a slight variation of the first category of jobs, but the bulk of the work content is instructive and pedagogical

However, jobs profiles are not endemic to a particular category and have flavours of different categories. The immediate category which will get affected is the third one, ‘pair of hands’. The displacement of labour by technology and globalisation is hardly a new phenomenon. Technology has been reshaping work profiles since the first Industrial Revolution, which demolished trade groups and replaced artisanal craftsmanship with assembly line production and templated manufacturing. Globalisation has been changing nature of work for decades, thanks to trade liberalisation and emerging markets.

As latest technology unfolds in the form of AI, robotics, virtual reality and IoT, it is poised to take labour to a higher level. Automation has already displaced workers engaged in blue-collar jobs, from factory labourers to supermarket cashiers. To appreciate the scale of blue-collar job displacement, one needs to look beyond the driverless vehicles since driving is the single largest occupation in many parts of the world.

Disruptions will also be there in the white-collar domain. Algorithms have uprooted white-collar work in the financial sector (high-frequency trading) and are starting to do so in healthcare (mobile health apps, surgery robotics and diagnosis by algorithm). They are even expanding into spaces once considered as exclusive domain of human creativity. Already, algorithms are writing articles indistinguishable from those written by humans and have recently made even a musical composition. But these are early stages and there is the need of a new line of professionals which will conceptualise these technologies.

It is not the time to panic but the moment to realise that these are just changing norms of work and reshuffling of the traditional ethos and routines concerning employment. What we are also wishing to usher in is the ‘freelance economy’ where professionals will increasingly share their expertise across organisations and projects, rather than being employed with one organisation.

The rise of various business platforms such as Airbnb, Deliveroo, Didi and Uber has already ushered in the freelance economy in which non-employee freelancers provide labour in temporary assignments and actually form the core workforce of these companies.

The role of the government is paramount here. The new wave of startups is already challenging regulations governing the operation of hotels, restaurants, taxis and more. The trend will accelerate with higher innovations like driverless cars and medical algorithms. Workplace protections could well be challenged. In the growing freelance economy, hard won rights that have become commonplace such as collective bargaining, five-day work week, paid time off and insurance against workplace injuries and unemployment could all come under threat.

Independent contractors in a freelance economy have none of these protections. The startups disrupting work argue that existing regulations were designed for another era and do not apply nor is it relevant anymore. There is some point in that but regulation also protects consumers and workers in important ways. Governments will need to find the right balance, creating regulatory regimes designed for the future – nimble, real-time and powered by big data and smart technologies.

The smart revolution is also about the ability to assimilate, analyse and make decisions in more complex and scalable ways than ever before. Use of personal sensors, artificial intelligence and analytics to gain insights into patients’ data, even to the level of detecting subtle changes in individual biochemistry, makes it possible to diagnose diseases with greater accuracy and deliver improved outcomes.

But at the end of all this, in the near future, the ultimate resource that companies will use more efficiently will be the human resource. Labour-intensive firms everywhere will need to reinvent their business models, deploying smart technologies and using labour more productively. One result is that work will be unbundled. Just as the technology disruption unbundled music albums into songs, it will unbundle jobs into tasks, with each task performed in the most efficient manner – whether by a human resource or a robot!

(The author is Executive Director-Markets, Kerala & Tamil Nadu, EY)