The Robots Are Coming. What Are You Doing About It?

I hope you didn’t miss yesterday’s post about the World Government Summit and its full day Global Dialogue for Happiness.

I know it sounds like one of those subjects that if HR brings it up to the CEO, it’s back to the kid’s table for you. Yet, the Summit’s Happiness Dialogue was a sober discussion of well-being that involved some 300 government and business leaders, and academics from around the world.

One part of the article in particular stuck with me. Elon Musk, beyond doubt one of the most visionary of entrepreneurs, spoke at the World Government Summit. According to the article, he “pondered what governments will do in the face of mass unemployment that will unfold in the future.”

The article doesn’t explain why he thinks there will be mass unemployment, but I’ve read what Musk has said before on the subject so know he was talking about automation, when robots will displace humans.

The future is arriving faster

This is not a sci-fi futuristic vision of some distant time. This is happening now. You don’t have to remember too far back to know customer service calls used to be answered by people. The ATM has been displacing bank tellers for years, and B of A is experimenting with doing away with people entirely.

What’s different today is the speed with which jobs are being automated. The rapid advances in artificial intelligence are pushing automation into areas once thought immune. There’s a program built on IBM’s Watson platform doing legal research that would otherwise be handled by an attorney or a paralegal. Watson is also solving medical mysteries that have stumped the best specialists.

Just think of how many HR tasks have been automated.

Shelly Palmer, one of LinkedIn’s “Top 10 Voices in Technology,” has been blogging recently about this robotics revolution. It’s a grim, almost alarmist picture that he paints of a world in the very near future where automation will displace workers by the tens of thousands, even millions.

White collar workers will be automated

You may have read the predictions that it will only be a few years more before fully autonomous vehicles will displace today’s 3.5 million commercial truck drivers.
But what about your job? Or those of the white collar, knowledge workers in your organization?
Palmer argues that most of us, including policymakers, are either blithely oblivious to the coming transformation of work, or think we’re safe because we are knowledge workers whose jobs involve not only technical skills, but creative judgment.
If that’s you, and you shrugged off the robot lawyer and doctor examples, then read Palmer’s “The 5 Jobs Robots Will Take First.” This should be a must for every HR professional. He predicts middle managers will be among the first to be automated.

“If your main job function is taking a number from one box in Excel and putting it in another box in Excel and writing a narrative about how the number got from place to place, robots are knocking at your door.”

What other occupations does Palmer see being automated? Journalists, report writers, accountants and bookkeepers, commodity sales people (those who sell supplies, ads and similar), and doctors.

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Raising awareness

Palmer’s objective in writing about the automation of work is to raise awareness among both policymakers and white collar knowledge workers. As machines grow smarter — and they do everyday — and more and more jobs are automated, what will happen? “We won’t all lose our jobs, but a significant percentage of people will and, in the process, be rendered unemployable,” Palmer predicts.

HR’s job now

As an HR leader you need to start thinking about the potential impact. Whether you agree with Palmer about what jobs will go first, it is nothing short of malfeasance to shrug off the coming robotics revolution. What you need to consider first are the low-level knowledge tasks each of us performs, some of us, more than others. These will be the first to be turned over to robots.
The workers now doing those tasks need to be reskilled, beginning now. As their current jobs are phased out — history suggests it won’t happen overnight — you’ll be able to transition them to higher level work.
Of course not everyone will master the new tasks, or want to, which will make attritioning and layoffs inevitable, creating an additional worry for HR to consider. How will this affect engagement? How will your white collar workforce respond to having jobs threatened they consider safe because they demand both skill and judgment?
Recruiting will become even more of a challenge.
As Musk made clear, this isn’t an issue only for HR, but human resource professionals are directly accountable for the well-being of the organization and the individuals in it.

If this future of white collar jobs being taken over by robots still seems too incredible, hear what Palmer says out in his latest blog post, “Life After the Robot Apocalypse“:

As I’ve been saying for years, today we are experiencing the slowest rate of technological change we will ever experience for the rest of our lives. The pace of technological progress is not going to slow down, ever! … We get to choose what life after the Robot Apocalypse will be like. Let’s choose wisely.