How will cognitive automation affect the HR function within large enterprises? Oliver Franklin-Wallis considers the way ahead with Robert Bolton, Partner at KPMG’s Global HR Centre of Excellence, and Mark Williamson, Lead Partner within KPMG in the UK’s People Powered Performance division.
So far, public discussion of cognitive automation has focused on the technology’s impacts on human employment; but according to Robert Bolton, Partner at KPMG’s Global HR Centre of Excellence, these concerns are overplayed.
“Throughout history, when there is technology that starts to be adopted at a significant level, we have all this talk about jobs losses. And so far, we’ve never seen that,” he comments. “Computers have come in and it’s created work. Steam engines created work. Industrialisation created work.”
The "leveraged professional"
Instead, the office of the future will offer an explosion in collaboration between smart tools and people. “Our belief is that it will help people to make better, higher quality, more accurate decisions, more quickly,” says Mark Williamson, Lead Partner within KPMG in the UK’s People Powered Performance division.
“We’ve called it the Leveraged Professional.” For example: paralegals working in concert with artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can comb through decades of court rulings to establish precedent and suggest relevant legislation, or AI programs such as IBM’s Watson, that can already help doctors narrow down diagnoses. “So, if you think about that overall, that is a huge release of capability,” says Williamson.
Rethinking career development
That release – letting individuals do far more, with less – will mean future organisations and individuals need to rethink traditional notions of career development.
“We’re still reasonably used to vertical career ladders. You might want to think about career lattices – sideways moves, diagonal moves, where a core competence can be conceived in a different context,” says Bolton.
“We will see an explosion in the need for employers to rethink who they train and how they train them. So it’s not just training you to do your current role, but training you to be ready for future roles – and possibly unimagined roles. That plays to customised and peer-to-peer learning, rather than just an approach of ‘here’s a curriculum, learn this’.”
A different kind of workforce
The make-up of organisations, from team structure to staffing levels, will also change, Bolton predicts. “We might see organisations re-thinking what proportion of people need to be full time or permanent, and what proportion of staff are contingent.”
HR departments – focused on training and retaining talent – will play a reinvigorated role, as will new “digital labour” divisions within organisations to develop and integrate new cognitive technologies. This will be vital for enterprises with large volumes of proprietary IP or private data, such as pharmaceuticals, where general-purpose tools might not suffice. “I can see companies setting up departments that work in this area and drive innovation, exploiting these technologies,” Bolton says.
Automation can lead to innovation
The rise of digital labour will also lead to an explosion in entrepreneurship, as small and nimble teams use cognitive automation to deliver services previously beyond the means of small businesses. “You can absolutely see how this will potentially create an explosion of global micro-organisations,” says Williamson. “The tools that people have to build businesses quickly, and to develop new products and services – it’s just something that we’ve never seen before.”
Are co-workers electric?
Be prepared: the day when your coworker might genuinely be a robot isn't far off. “I think whenever we see these types of technologies, there’s a slow burn, and then there’s an acceleration that seems to catch us by surprise,” says Bolton.
“I do think we’re reaching the point of inflection,” Williamson agrees. “This could be the next revolution in the way that the world works, and in the way that the world delivers products and services.”