This past summer, I read an article on TLNT.com asking “Is there still a need for HR?” Of course, as an Human Resources publication, TLNT.com answered yes. And as a former HR executive, I think the answer is yes also.
Then I read another article on McKinsey.com on getting ready for the future of work. This article focused on the increase of artificial intelligence and what that will mean for organizations in the years ahead. According to McKinsey, at least 30 percent of the activities associated with most occupations could be automated—including knowledge tasks.
It dawned on me that in my working career of thirty-some years, there have been two major shifts in what constitutes work for many people. The first shift arose with the computerization of what used to be manual tasks, vastly increasing the productivity of repetitive work. The second shift came with the speed of communications and data transfer, so that now many roles can be performed anywhere.
It could be that artificial intelligence will be a third momentous shift in work, if machines in the future will not only perform the processing tasks that humans now do, but also the thinking and conceptualizing roles that we have assumed differentiated human beings from non-human.
These huge changes in what constitutes work are significant because they have happened so rapidly. Shifts of this magnitude used to come only once in a century or every few centuries. Think of the Industrial Revolution, when machines started doing what human and animal labor had done before. Think of how locomotion shifted from wind or animal power to motorized power. We now move as fast as we can find power to move us—on land, water, air . . . and even space.
Why do I raise these subjects in a discussion about Human Resources?
Because to remain relevant in the future, HR must have ready the right talent the organization will need at the right time in the right place. We have barely dealt with the skill sets needed to handle digitization. We still don’t really have our arms around the globalization of the workforce permitting employees and those in the gig economy in disparate locations to form project teams that ebb and flow as the work requires. Yet we may soon be asked to manage the intersection between human and artificial intelligence, when most HR people have no understanding of the possibilities of AI.
And we need to help employees prepare themselves to adapt to changing and ever more complex roles. Job changes in the future will be less about moving from company to company in the same field and more about complete shifts in what work we do and how we do it.
Are HR’s abilities to predict the skill sets of the future sufficient to the task of helping employees keep up? I doubt it.
HR strategists today say that fostering organizational culture is one of the core strengths HR can bring to an organization. But are we prepared to develop a global culture that incorporates not only human capabilities but also includes AI in the work world of tomorrow? I doubt that also.
The McKinsey article argues that lifelong learning is the only way that humans will maintain their employability in the future. That goes for HR professionals as much as for any other worker.
As Jeff Dieffenbach, associate director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Integrated Learning Initiative, is quoted as saying in the McKinsey article:
“While change is accelerating, one thing that is definitely not is the neuroplasticity of the brain. In other words, the rate of change in the world may have surpassed the speed at which the human mind can process those changes.”
That goes for HR brains as well as those of other workers. Frankly, I’m not sure HR will survive in a recognizable form. The machines may take over from us.
What do you see ahead for HR?