Is HR ready for accelerating automation?

Is HR ready for accelerating automation?

In three years’ time, more than one fifth (22 per cent) of all work could be automated, compared to just 12 per cent today, according to a new study. Worryingly, the Global Future of Work Survey by Willis Tower Watson, a global advisory, broking and solutions company, reveals that less than seven per cent consider their HR functions are fully prepared for the changing requirements of the digitalisation.

Say it quickly and it might not seem significant but with an average of 22 per cent of work being automated, this amounts to a large proportion of a company’s operations.

What’s more, the survey also finds that the percentage of employers automating work and seeing an increase in skills requirements is expected to rise sharply from 27 per cent currently to 45 per cent over the next three years.

On reading the findings, I tried to think of a parallel from the first industrial revolution that would resonate with this. Maybe it was failing to recognise the impact of James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny that drastically reduced the labour required to produce cloth.

Reportedly, the jenny made it possible for an individual to work eight spools at once and then 120 as further technological advancements were made.

Leaders cannot afford to under-estimate the impact of automation. George Zarkadakis, digital lead for Willis Towers Watson’s talent and rewards practice, sums up the situation well when he says that, on one hand, the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, free agent workers, contractors, consultants and part-time employees brings with it HR challenges that only few organisations are prepared to tackle and on the other hand, many companies recognise the need for breakthrough and innovative approaches and are reinventing work and how talent and skills combine.

Indeed, the survey finds that some companies are putting plans in place for a more automated future. Almost one third (31 per cent) of companies have taken steps to address talent deficits through workforce planning and actions while a similar proportion (32 per cent) of companies have taken action to identify the emerging skills required for their business.

Meanwhile, 29 per cent have taken action to match talent to the new work requirements, and 27 per cent have taken action to enable careers based on more agile and flattened organisational structures.

Additionally, Willis Towers Watson reports that half of respondents are either planning to take action this year or considering measures to prepare for the future, such as deconstructing jobs and identifying which tasks can be automated and identifying reskilling pathways for talent whose work is being subsumed by automation (48 per cent).

Employers are also taking action to identify “skill and will” gaps as automation changes skill premiums (50 per cent) and to reconfigure total rewards and benefits to fit a radically different workforce (53 per cent).

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According to Zarkadakis, most respondents acknowledge that automation will have a significant impact on leaders and managers in the next three years, underscored by the percentage of companies that say automation will change how managers educate workers on the impact of automation on their jobs: (32 per cent this year compared to double (61 per cent) in 2020. In addition, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) say leaders will need to think differently about the requirements and skills for successors and succession management as a result of automation.

“Management and leadership development will be a critical issue for companies of all sizes over the next three years,” he adds. “We know strong leadership is a key driver of employee engagement and retention. But in the face of rapidly changing work automation, companies will need to develop leaders and managers who can orchestrate a radically different work ecosystem while keeping all of the talent in their workplaces fully engaged.”

Zarkadakis is on the mark to highlight the deep-rooted changes needed to prepare for the future. Returning to the earlier parallel with the first industrial revolution, it was, after all, the spinning jenny that was instrumental in starting off the factory system of working.

But just like automation, it was accompanied by a fear factor on the part of workers and brought a raft of challenges. Leaders who miss the vital cues being given relating to the future of work do so at their peril.

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