Q&A

A Frank Look at Automation in HR

Every HR professional has heard of the danger of automation by now. Many are already loading various automated systems. Automation raises questions. What role will automation play in all of our futures? Will automation lead to me losing my job? Will humans even be involved in HR in a decade? Today we are joined by Michael Lotito, an expert on the subject and the co-chair of Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute.

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HR Daily Advisor: Experts often seem divided on the issue of automation and its impact in the future. Some believe it will be disruptive, and some believe it will be beneficial. Which way do you lean? Why?

Lotito: There are studies that will substantiate almost any position. We believe artificial intelligence (AI) will be both beneficial and disruptive. For example, working with a “co-bot” (a robot designed to work collaboratively with a human worker in a shared work space) in a kitchen may limit the number of burns a worker might get touching a hot griddle. Trained workers using a robot to determine if a backpack contains a bomb or a bottle of water is going to be far more efficient than their doing it on their own. Having a human direct a drone into a mine to take air samples beats a canary any day. On the other hand, there will be jobs, particularly those around highly repetitive tasks, where the work may be more effectively done by a robot alone (think of making a hamburger or assembling a widget) or where AI may provide better evaluation and analysis. There will be some disruption around these jobs and the need to transform. We refer to this transformative workplace process as TIDE—technologically induced displacement of employees—which is not the same as technologically induced destruction of employment.

HR Daily Advisor: I’ve heard it argued that automation will free up the grunt work for professionals, leaving them more time to do higher-level work. What’s to prevent them from taking that time back by scaling back hours or firing “extra” employees?

Lotito: Some analysis and job tasks may well be done more efficiently by devices, but others will always require or be best done with human involvement. Where AI is more effective or efficient, skills will need to adapt. For example, in some hotels, you now check in without human interaction, obviating the need for a front desk clerk. But that former front desk clerk may now be a guest concierge taking you to your room, arranging for dinner reservations, and seeing if you have the right kind of pillow. That enhances guest experiences. The job of the front desk clerk has evolved, and different skills such as knowing about local restaurants and attractions now become important for job success. Still other jobs—particularly those requiring creativity, flexibility, and adaptability—will continue to be done with skills only human workers possess.

HR Daily Advisor: Can you help our readers understand the various levels of exposure to AI that your research was centered on?

Lotito: We are about to embark on an examination of industries to determine current job skills, which ones are at risk, what skills will be necessary going forward, and how to design a curriculum around that skill enhancement and then deliver a course to the student. We believe this is best done on an industry-by-industry basis, and the recent study by Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program offers some broad examples. An industry-by-industry basis is more cost-efficient and encourages industry cooperation. Of course, across industries, a major culture shift needs to occur so that students and workers are willing to invest in lifelong learning and employers are willing to help provide those tools without fear that the people will then leave. An industry-based focus helps foster the idea that we are all in it together, which, indeed, we are.

HR Daily Advisor: Can your research help us understand how automation can support humans and create new opportunities for them?

Lotito: Yes. If we do the proper skill analysis and match it by region, as some studies are beginning to do, we can help design very effective tools tailored by industry, geography, and needed skill sets. To be sure, who is going to pay for all of this is another matter. The dialogue around reskilling, “upskilling,” and lifelong learning is finally beginning to happen. We need to look at this in the biggest-picture, long-term way. I believe it is much more important to have a lifelong learning account than a $15 minimum wage for long-term job success and financial security.

HR Daily Advisor: Do you think that automation would be more successful at helping professionals if everyone just calmed down and let it happen?

Lotito: No. I strongly believe in the age-old adage “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will take you there.” America has no plan—other countries do. This fact keeps me awake every night. I founded the Emma Coalition for this very reason—to preserve American capitalism and to reinvent the American workforce to ensure that the 21st century is another American Century. The automation revolution is as important as, if not more important than, any other issue of the day like climate change. If we “calm down,” the Chinese will eat our lunch—that’s a “plan” that ensures America’s best days are behind it. I will not accept that notion, as we have a moral obligation to those in the workforce today and those who will come after us to make sure America’s best days are ahead of us. Hoping that will happen is not a plan—it is a fantasy.

HR Daily Advisor: Do you think that automation will exacerbate certain biases?

Lotito: Garbage in; garbage out. I am not a scientist, but I do know that if AI is developed with bias, it may be continually retraining itself to perpetuate it. The good news is that we have the capacity to ensure that AI and algorithms are designed to exclude exterior bias. AI experts are well aware of these issues and are actively concerned about them. And we all should be.

HR Daily Advisor: Are there any other ethical considerations that we should all be aware of when it comes to automation?

Lotito: Ethically, morally, what responsibility do we have to the existing workforce? To the future workforce? Who is going to pay for that effort? How do we foster lifelong learning? How do we make the transition? How many voices need to be heard before the plan is adopted? It has been said that a dictatorship can better plan for TIDE because there is only one decision-maker. But we are a republic, which will benefit from many diverse voices speaking intelligently to get overall buy-in. We have an ethical obligation to understand that this new industrial revolution is our Sputnik moment. If Jack Kennedy were alive, he would tell us with great confidence, “We will reinvent our workforce. We will provide for the future generations. We will ensure this is the next American Century. We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard. But we will succeed.”

Where is that voice?

HR Daily Advisor: What would you tell someone who is most likely to be replaced by automation? What can that person do today to survive tomorrow?

Lotito: Take responsibility. You are your own best asset—use that to its full potential. Starting right now, open yourself up to skills that you may call upon or acquire to adapt to an ever-evolving workplace. Change is scary—but the consequences of ignoring change are far scarier.