Are You Ready for the Rise of the Robots?

Are you ready for the rise of the robots? Are you ready for what authors Martin Ford and Jeff Cummings describe as “technology and the threat of a jobless future” and “the threat of mass unemployment”? By now, almost everyone must realise that we’re going to need fewer people in the future. You can try and convince me that we’ll need the same number of people, just doing different things, but I’m not buying that argument. People costs are continuing to grow (not least driven by the Living Wage inflation at the first and second rungs of the career ladder). Look at the hospitality industry, where higher costs lead companies like McDonalds to use new order-taking technology (although I expect they are seeing increasing transaction values?), and restaurant groups like Prezzo to close multiple sites. Add zero hours contracts into the mix, and we can see where we’re heading – fewer people, doing fewer paid hours; senior people, doing more hours for the same money. No wonder we’ll need the gig economy to boost the income of even the reasonably-paid. OK, so we have talent shortages in the marketplace e.g. drivers in distribution, managers in hospitality, project managers in construction, but the overall trend is most definitely down.

I’m not one for mass hysteria; and I’m certainly more half-full than half-empty when it comes to the future of work. I’m excited by the prospect of “friendly robots” – i.e. machines that remove the mundane, routine and repeatable tasks, allowing me to focus on value-creating work like innovation and relationships. But apparently I’m in a minority. The majority of people (according to my colleagues in Psychology and Neuroscience) are somewhere between concerned and anxious about artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, and its impact on their future livelihood and job prospects.

Whatever your personal perspective, at a corporate level we’re going to have big decisions to make. Given how the business world is changing, we need to go to market in a different way. We’ll be delivering different services, to people and customers with different expectations. Technology, AI, automation, networks, cyber physical systems and the internet of things will fundamentally change the way we do business (think of tectonic plates shifting, if you remember your Geography from school). And if you want to get more dramatic about this, we’re in what’s called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (well worth googling). It’s no surprise that we cover such things in Naeema Pasha’s World of Work 2030 event series (next event 13th September 2018).

Now I don’t know exactly how work will look (and feel) in 5, 10 and 20 years. But we have to start getting ready; at least having a clearer view on what people, skills and capabilities our businesses will need to be successful. That means being fluid and flexible about how we make those decisions – about now, the soon and the future. But at the moment most companies lack that emergent process. When it comes to “Thinking Ahead About People” (the subject of our recent event with Nick Kemsley at The Henley Partnership), businesses have something much more clunky. In fact, many organisations don’t think strategically at all. Most do tactical, and not strategic, planning about their future workforce needs. According to Nick, the question being asked is “how many more (or less) of what we had last year can we get away with having next year?”. Instead we should be starting the discussion with the obvious “what are we trying to do?” and “who do we need in place to create that value?”.

That tactical thinking is why many organisations end up with spreadsheets that show the “bums on seats” required by each department, unit or division. In simple terms, HR asks the business how many people it needs next year, and then goes away to retain or find them. For me, that’s the fundamental problem. Strategic Workforce Planning sits in HR (and stays in HR), when it’s a business problem not a people process. Professor Andrew Kakabadse’s extensive research (at last count a sample size of 19,500 organisations in 43 countries) has created a simple value equation. That equation places huge emphasis on the organisation being aligned around strategy. Strategic Workforce Planning (SWP) is probably the best tool you have to create that alignment (and sorry boards; a big restructure could be the worst).

Today’s article is not about offering simple tips and tricks (because this is a complex area, that’s blooming hard work and requires high-level skills). That said, I will venture some straightforward suggestions, inspired by Nick, on how to gain momentum with your people planning:

Get it on the agenda. Don’t allow the business to say “that’s people stuff” and delegate (abdicate?) the responsibility to HR. Create a discourse and dialogue, not a yearly-chat or single conversation. Don’t address it once a year, at your strategic retreat, and watch the people planning piece slip off an already packed agenda (a real example I heard yesterday). Watch trends constantly, and bring elements of SWP into all your discussions about strategy and execution.

Smash the crystal ball. I’ve had a few people actually say that “looking to the future is like crystal-ball gazing”. Is that the mood out there? Maybe people don’t have the time, or the headspace, to think ahead. But the answers are out there, and you have to keep trying to find them. Looking at the future of learning (my industry and expertise) makes my head hurt. But it doesn’t mean I don’t keep doing that brain-bursting work!

Get in the value space. We all need to become more comfortable talking about value creation, and the differentiating strategic capabilities that enable strategic success (something that we covered in our “Future of HR” research last year. Understanding how your organisation creates value (and how that is changing) is a critical skill. How else can you assess what people and resources you are going to need? There is an excellent book by Jon Ingham that looks at The Social Organization, and describes clearly how value is created in people sense. Or get in touch and I’ll walk you through the skills you need…

Start doing something now. Getting ready for the robots doesn’t mean being a soldier standing steadfast, clutching a shield and a spear, watching the enemy stream over the hill. It means anticipating what’s coming towards you, usually from behind and the side these days, and morphing and transforming your organisation into something that’s fit for purpose – albeit an imperfect fit. Don’t even look for perfection here. The pace of change means you’re never ever going to get it. And I noticed, in the case studies and examples Nick used in the event, that each company presented their SWP results differently. Some had a very orderly summary of what they expect to happen/need in 1, 3, 5 years and beyond. Others were simply identifying areas for discussion, priorities for attention, and highlighting connections between different trends and issues. That’s a fabulous conversation piece. But both versions were imperfect.

This article was inspired by Nick Kemsley and the “Thinking Ahead About People” event in The Henley Partnership.

About the author Mark Swain:

Mark is Director of Partnerships at Henley Business School.

Connect with Mark on LinkedIn

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