Future-Proof Your Workforce Through Upskilling

SYSTEMS & TECHNOLOGY, TALENT MANAGEMENT   |   5 minutes  |   September 30, 2019

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the nature of the workforce and how people approach and complete their jobs. Before the world saw the first automated bank teller, the complaints about machines taking over our jobs had already begun. That fear hasn’t stopped, yet Gartner predicts that AI will create more jobs than it will replace.1 AI will reportedly create 2.3 million jobs by 2020 with upskilled current and new staff, while it will replace only 1.8 million jobs. That means an increase of 500,000 jobs.2 From all the evidence, it seems this is a number that will continue to climb in the future, making employee upskilling an urgent responsibility.

Despite this, some organisations still ignore the impact that AI has on its employees. While two thirds of the organisations interviewed by KPMG in a 2018 study stated that they plan on investing more into automation, an astounding 60% of these organisations admit to not having a plan in place to upskill their workforce.3 This statistic highlights that management isn’t considering the impact of automation on their staff, resulting in pushback from employees in its implementation. Rather than shying away from the impact of AI and automation, organisations should be embracing how it can work with their workforce.

The introduction of AI as a workforce

AI and automation are no strangers to modern business and have been established in several current technologies and found homes in various companies already.4 Widespread adoption of AI is becoming more accepted as organisation leaders are pressed to use AI and automation to enhance their businesses. However, employees are left wondering what the implications are for their jobs.5

The truth of the matter is that technology is created to make people’s lives easier. AI and automation are no different, and while they may be ‘intelligent’, they cannot replace some human traits.6 The double-edged sword of technological advancement is not going to disappear. As with most change, there will always be pros and cons. Yet, this doesn’t mean that AI and automation will be primarily negative: it should rather be viewed as a positive force for both the companies implementing it, and the employees working with it.7 As Professor Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT’s Urban Studies and Planning department explains: “It is easy to count the number of jobs lost from technologies like AI, machine learning, and automation. But it is very difficult to envision what jobs will be created from them.”8 Companies with a mind for the future are called to the harder job of trying to expect and understand what jobs and environments AI and automation can create.

Professor Brynjolfsson, working with MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, conducted a study with two colleagues to better understand what role AI has in the workplace. Which jobs does it replace? Which skills does it require? Brynjolfsson discovered that “very rarely did machine learning just run the table. In most cases, machine learning was able to do some tasks, but not others, within a given occupation”.9 From 2022, one in every five employees working on non-routine tasks will rely on AI to perform their job.10 This highlights the fact that implementing AI without upskilling or retraining your staff could negatively impact your business as much as ignoring the automation revolution entirely might. One works with the other, and they each need each other to survive the future.

By 2022, Gartner predicts that the efforts of multichannel retailers to replace sales associates with AI will prove unsuccessful, although cashier and operational jobs will be disrupted.11 Brynjolfsson’s conclusion from his study agrees with the statistics. An organisation’s traditional roles will be affected by the introduction of machine learning. However, the necessity for human employees remains, as AI automation requires humans to interpret its work, and then complete more complex tasks. The motivation for companies to upskill or reskill their employees is therefore not only beneficial, but vital.12 AI can help support staff with tasks that are boring, time-consuming, or inefficient, leaving more time to solve and complete complex tasks that require a human mind.

How is AI changing workplace roles?

AI can work for you and aid your business. But do you have the skill sets in-house to programme that new machine you bought? Do you have the skill sets to analyse if the new software you bought is performing as well as employees? Can your employees even navigate the new automated systems you’ve put in place to save them time?

It’s true that companies who combine their workforce with AI allow for a meaningful competitive advantage.13 In fact, Gartner predicts that the widespread implementation of AI to alleviate employees from more tedious jobs will result in $2.9 trillion in business value and 6.2 billion hours of productivity.14 But have you considered what new roles your company requires in order to make it work for you? Is your business employing development strategies to make sure that you have the skill set to effectively use AI?

Companies that want to prepare their workforce for this AI enhancement should anticipate taking the following steps:

1. Determine the skills required in your company

Analysing what AI and automation you would implement should highlight the skills that your business will need to begin developing. Ask yourself: What skills are needed from our staff to effectively implement this technology? Are they hard or soft skills? Will it encourage leadership or disruption? Can we train current staff to work this technology, or do we need to hire someone new? Companies often focus their development solely on hard skills, but as a general rule, AI demands the development of soft skills (interpersonal traits that enable staff to interact with each other) far more.15 This is because, while AI may be able to analyse and calculate with ease, at this point in time it can not be empathetic or compassionate – a vital key to employee and customer retention.16 If automation can improve your team’s efficiency, the development of new skill sets must be examined and decided upon.

2. Calm anxieties over job losses

You cannot expect your staff to embrace automation when they fear it will replace them. Before you implement new technology, begin by educating your staff on the opportunity that exists by its implementation. Explain to them how it will not replace them, but rather that they should view it as ‘upskilling’. They will be using this advanced technology as a tool to enhance their performance and productivity, allowing them to unlock new areas of their role.

3. Implement a culture of continuous learning

Continuous learning is a culture, not a development plan.17 With intentional training and development in your organisation, employees can continue to grow as the organisation grows.18 But, more importantly, a consistent focus on development enables your workers to become comfortable with experimentation, training, and mastering new abilities. This will find your employees able and ready to learn the skills that they need to when the time comes, protecting you from blowback of AI implementation.

For organisations to successfully implement AI automation, they first need to successfully upskill their workforce. Only then will they unlock the increased productivity and revenue potential that AI promises.19 While investment in this area remains low, it is the key to success for a workforce challenged by AI and automation.20 Potentially saving your organisation millions of dollars a year (in both actual revenue and employees’ time), the preparation and implementation of AI will require a fair investment by your organisation. No company can afford to ignore the advantages of future-proofing their workforce.

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