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Embrace automation and release your employees’ creativity

By Charlie kneen , PA people and talent expert

Automation is set to impact every single aspect of the workplace. It’s already begun to replace tasks and processes done by humans which don’t require complex decision making. For example, a company called Momentum Machines has created a robot that will make and flip a hamburger in under 10 seconds. Imagine how this would make you feel if you worked in the fast food industry. Eventually, as artificial intelligence evolves, humans will make fewer and fewer decisions. A study by Oxford University researchers estimates that 47 per cent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades.   

Understandably these predications are unsettling for employees and employers alike. 

Yet amidst all the hype, the fact remains that there are certain cognitive abilities human possess that are, and will remain for some time, superior to those of machines. These include the ability to think critically, creatively and imaginatively. 

The rise of automation is particularly instructive for learning and development (L&D) professionals who should look to be building employees’ cognitive skills. The truth is, far too many approaches to training employees fail to develop these skills. Instead, L&D professionals need to revamp their approach to focus time and energy on teaching employees in a manner that unlocks their ‘human’ side – their creativity, critical thinking skills, and emotional intelligence. 

New joiners to large organisations will undoubtedly have been required to take some kind of ‘click-through eLearning’ course about their organisation’s rules and procedures. Yet we know traditional ‘eLearning’ programmes aren’t an optimal way to build capability or change behaviour. The controlled, fairly passive environment where an employee repeatedly reads passages and clicks answers does little to put their cognitive abilities to the test. Like most traditional learning approaches, this is fundamentally about testing memory not changing behaviour and improving performance.

Another common mistake is to approach L&D as an exercise in direct knowledge transfer. This is the scenario in which an instructor believes he or she holds specialised knowledge and transfers it directly to a pupil. The problem with this approach is that in today’s world, knowledge – even specialised knowledge – is no longer only held by a few. An incredible amount of information is accessible with just a few taps on a smartphone. Furthermore, the idea that knowledge can be ‘transferred’ in a binary way from one individual to another, is, again, a critical error.

So how then can one begin to approach L&D in a way that appeals to and puts to use employees’ cognitive skills? 

Let’s take the performance review as an example. In our recent talent research, 75% of HR Directors said that upskilling line managers was one of their highest priorities. Rather than rushing for a training course or e-learning programme, why not ensure a basic level of performance by automating the conversation with a fairly straightforward checklist for all line managers? Once you’ve ensured acceptable performance, examples and guidance on performance review techniques can give line managers the skills and confidence to adapt their styles to different team members. This is an approach that’s much more tailored to the employee’s needs and gives the manager the opportunity to think critically about what aspects of the review to focus attention on. The manager isn’t told they can only have one type of performance conversation – but rather given the option to mould and shape it to their people’s needs. This is exactly the system we helped a client in the transport sector put in place. 

In another instance, we helped a multinational consumer company create an L&D course for senior leaders which simulated a product launch. Despite clear indications that customer preferences were quickly changing – threatening the company’s bottom line – the senior team appeared unwilling or unable to change. The course we designed for the client involved simulations whereby managers gathered evidence for their hypotheses and then pitched these ideas to ‘real’ customers. With feedback in hand, they iterated and refined the products, then pitched them again, and again. It was ‘eye-opening’ for these leaders to have their ideas and assumptions challenged in real-time.

Our experience from these two examples, and dozens of other engagements, shows that L&D programmes that focus on building employees’ cognitive skills will leave them better prepared to thrive in today’s ever more automated environment. It’s not an easy challenge. But L&D professionals must begin to embrace the new reality today. 

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