Remember You Read It Here! The Next Big Surprise in Talent Management Is ‘The March of the Robots’

Should You Hire an Employee, a Robot or an Algorithm?

You have been warned: a robot is about to take not just your job, but most jobs!

Few in talent management or HR are prepared for the robot takeover, and in most cases, the issue is completely absent from the agenda of executives. Literally, while you are reading this, whole categories of corporate jobs are being replaced by some form of technology. The two-fold surprise is 1) that this “March of the Robots” is coming so quickly and 2) the large-scale selection of “technology over employees” will cause an unprecedented level of employee unrest that will be almost impossible to manage.

Talent executives need to prepare for the upcoming decade of the robot because the level of resistance from both employees and customers will literally be unmanageable with existing business processes. The resistance will be so powerful because as many as 50 percent of employee jobs will be done by technology. And unlike in the past, the loss of jobs will be at every level in the corporation. As a result, the severity of the resistance will be a shock to almost all executives. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has even argued that a large number of permanently displaced workers will have to “ultimately will be sustained by payments from the government.”

Most Are Not Prepared for the Wave of Resistance, Strikes, Unions, and Sabotage

The real news here is not the growth of technology, but the scale of the upcoming resistance to it. The primary cause of the unprecedented level of employee resistance will be the uncertainty and the dramatic rise in stress levels that will be caused by the insecurity about every worker’s future employment. Employee stress levels will be extremely high because 50 percent of the jobs will no longer be available to humans across all industries. There will be little chance of getting a similar job at another company because the jobs themselves will no longer exist. And, unfortunately, when large groups of workers fear being replaced, they are likely to resist, stall, and even sabotage new technology implementations.

A resurgence in unions is also likely to occur because in the past unions have proven to be effective in slowing the replacement of workers with automation. I predict that tension levels will rise among different groups to the point of violence, because unlike layoffs, being replaced by technology may be permanent. The traditional option of employee re-training to the required higher level skills may not be feasible either given the difficulty in learning sophisticated tech skills and the fact that the skills will be needed so quickly.

Over many years, there will be continuous layoffs, which will likely make the work environment dreary at best. Talent leaders will need to be prepared for conflicts and even violence among the employees being replaced and those managing the technology implementation. Employee turnover will obviously be an issue because the smart employees will likely find another job externally before they are forced out by the new technology. As a result, HR may need to learn how to offer “stay until the end” bonuses or employment contracts to maintain operations until the new technology takes over. And because robots need much less space than humans, the physical workspace may become eerily empty. And if your firm decides to use radio tags for the continuous tracking of where employees are at any time, be prepared for serious privacy concerns.

Finally, HR needs to be aware that if the public suspects that if a firm is treating workers unfairly during the transition, there will be a negative impact on your sales (shifting the ROI balance away from technology).

Why The Adoption of Robots Is Accelerating at Such a Rapid Pace

Why is everything occurring so fast? You can start by blaming ATMs, the Internet, globalization, and more recently the “Internet of things” (IoT) and those phone apps that seem to multiply like rabbits. Because of these previous “people-less” technology successes, users are now more accepting and even welcoming of new technology. In addition, the recent surge in the minimum wage is driving the successful expansion of technology into most hourly jobs. But once people-less technology usage reaches a key inflection point, watch out because then the workers will quickly realize that the employee replacement tsunami is imminent.

Job Losses to Robots Will Be Huge and at All Levels

You might think, for example, that Ph.D. medical research scientists would certainly be exempt from being replaced by a robot. However, IBM’s Watson has proven to be much more adept at scanning through millions of research papers to find potential cancer cures than the existing human medical staff (30 percent of the time it finds key elements that humans missed).

Already, driverless vehicles are replacing Uber. Call-center people are replaced by IVR systems, and cashiers are being replaced by a scanner or a touchscreen. I estimate that up to 50 percentof all jobs will be impacted in the next decade, and there’s already a calculator that allows you to determine the probability that your current job is at risk. Losing workers will also mean that the pool of prospects that can be promoted to manager will be extremely small, so firms could end up with a weakened management capability that would struggle to manage both robots and employees simultaneously.

Will HR Even Be Involved When Technology Decisions Are Made?

Currently, talent management is barely involved in decisions covering when technology will end up replacing humans. And even when HR is involved, our arguments often carry little weight. That is because those who support technology come to the table with precise metrics and ROI calculations that show the economic advantage of technology. Unfortunately, HR seldom has any data to support the superiority of having human workers, even though it does excel in empathy, relationship-building, and innovativeness. In fact, there are many cost and capability disadvantages that humans have (but that machines don’t) including:

  • They can’t work 24/7 or 365 days
  • They require a manager/supervisor
  • They demand pay, overtime, and benefits
  • They get sick, and they are often late and absent
  • They get tired, hurt, and they need breaks
  • They can’t work in dangerous situations and in bad weather
  • They steal and can reveal company secrets
  • They arrive at work high, sleepy, or drunk
  • They can create interpersonal and robot conflicts
  • They have a high error rate when compared to machines
  • They expect retirement pay till they die
  • Their skills quickly go obsolete and upgrading them is difficult

HR Must Be Involved in Determining the Criteria for Selecting Humans Versus Robots

Talent managers must develop a partnership with IT, technology, production, and customer service in order to ensure integration and that objective criteria are used when decisions are made about whether to use technology or humans. Obviously, those selection criteria should include performance and the range of capabilities. Also, the danger of the work, the required reliability, and accuracy rate and even vendor reliability will need to be considered. And finally, potential customer or user resistance to technology will need to be considered.

Talent management will also need to be able to hire and manage the large number of gig workers who will be needed to implement and maintain the new technologies.

Technologies Most Likely to Replace Employees and Managers

You might think that the technologies that will replace employees will consist mostly of the drones and driverless vehicles that you’ve seen on TV, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Expect robots to take the jobs of drivers, cashiers, customer service, warehouse, production, and agricultural workers and almost all clerks and researchers just to name a few.  Watch Amazon and the U.S. Army if you need to get a view of the robot future. Firms must be prepared for an ever-expanding array of technologies that will include:

Software that will replace human employees

  • Phone apps (the internet is shrinking)
  • Decision algorithms using artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Predictive analytics
  • Chatbots and IVR systems
  • Virtual reality and video instruction
  • Voice recognition apps
  • Buying pattern and recommending another purchase apps
  • Sophisticated search engines
  • Online self-service apps

Hardware that will replace human employees

  • Driverless vehicles
  • Physical robots
  • Lasers
  • Delivery drones
  • Computer hardware/software combinations (i.e. Watson)
  • Employee tracking and GPS location devices

Final Thoughts

In order to be an equal participant, talent management and HR will have to change dramatically. The first necessary step will be shifting HR to data-driven decision making. The second step is to require all new HR hires to be tech and data savvy. And next, there must be strategic workforce planning that of course includes a “robotforce planning” component. This planning must focus on the likely employee problems and backlashes that are inevitable when the tsunami of technology replacements begins rolling in.

Of course, it’s easy to assume that this “March of the Robots” is a future problem that can be put off, but that assumption would be wrong. Executives and managers in all areas need to be aware of its staggering impact and the fact that it is already occurring today.

It’s your choice. You can be prepared or you can be surprised (and being surprised by a robot that wants to take your job might not be a pleasant experience).

If you found this article helpful, please connect with me on LinkedIn Facebook and Twitter.

As seen on ERE Media.  


About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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