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Sharpen the human edge to work in tandem with robots

There’s a skill gap that’s being overlooked in all our conversations about HR adapting to the changing worksphere
Automation, robotics
Robots carry trays of food at a restaurant in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China, in 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

By Suanne Nielsen

Over the past two years, HR leaders have been poised to take on the digital revolution and lead their organizations in the exploration of new AI platforms, technologies, bots, and ways of transforming work. Much has been conjectured, hypothesized and proven.

The time has come for HR to sharpen its human edge so it can work in tandem with technology.

At the April 2017 HRPS Conference in Miami, Diane Gherson, CHRO at IBM, talked about how IBM is re-imagining workforce strategies through design thinking and co-creation. She stressed how employee expectations are being shaped by consumer experiences. IBM is responding by using AI in the form of digital assistants for self-service human resources support and to create personalized learning paths for employees.  

The recruiting function of HR has drastically changed where leading corporations are early adaptors of chat bots that allow job seekers to make decisions about their career without having to go through the process of traditional job applications and pre-hire screening calls. These tasks are now being replaced by automated conversations that do not require “human” input.

Imagine a learning partner where a digital device suggests training courses for your professional development. Based on your course selection and the algorithm underlying it, the device helps you make decisions on which career path to choose. This puts prospective and current employees ahead of managers. There’s never been a time when so much is changing, and leaders need to keep their eyes on the technological imperatives to adapt quickly.

Through my work at Foresters, I’ve seen how our industry has been impacted by bot brokers. While bots such as Google Bot facilitate online operations positively, there are a whole host of bad bots out there that pose potentially huge risks to businesses.

In their book Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson suggest AI machines have an error margin of four per cent. This means these machines are not foolproof yet. When these errors are made, the company’s personnel are liable to its customers.

According to them, “the task that’s becoming increasingly critical for experienced humans, i.e. managers, is to help explain why the machine did what it did. The factors that drive machine based decision-making need to be explained better, and humans have an edge over machines in this aspect.” European insurance companies are already ahead in working on ways to sharpen the human edge.

Clearly, there’s a skill gap that’s being overlooked in all our conversations about HR adapting to the changing worksphere. That gap exists between hard and soft skills. Of all the job categories that are impacted by the advent of AI, those that are driven by creativity and complex, multi-layer planning processes will have an edge in the survival game. Managerial roles such as coaching, advising, motivating and nurturing will become critical in harnessing the human connection in the market.

Leaders need to focus on aspects of growth that will drive interpersonal skills, build high-performance teams, foster innovation and champion change. Building trust and clear lines of communication will help sharpen the human edge. There needs to be a communion of managers and machines, where managers can efficiently interpret that which the machine has performed.

At the next SCNetwork event in October, titled “The Robots are Coming: How AI Will Change Work, speakers from SalesForce, Apple and IBM will guide attendees through a deep dive into how they are adapting to digital, mobile and AI technologies, and help understand the evolution of HR practices.

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Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit
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