The artificial vs the augmented workforce: How HR leaders can prepare for AI
AI is set to become a key fixture of the workplace, and organisations that get ahead of the curve in introducing new people strategies now will be best placed to benefit and mitigate the risks this transformation brings.
Not a week goes by without new stories on how AI will hire, train, promote, or replace workers hitting the headlines. From the UK’s Trades Union Congress launching an AI taskforce to safeguard workers’ rights, to telecom giant BT’s plans to use it to cut up to 42 percent of its workforce, to AI now training the UK’s social sector staff – rapid advances in AI indicate a huge shift in how intelligence will be acquired and delivered.
The profound implications of this on the workforce means that AI needs to be a strategic agenda for HR leaders. HR professionals are in a key position to realise the opportunities and mitigate the risks through their workforce strategy and senior HR leaders need to influence the corporate strategy through the C-suite and Boardroom.
Naturally, the pace and revolution this shift creates makes it difficult to predict how organisations and their workforces will need to change – particularly when combined with factors such as the demographic differences between ‘Boomers’ and AI-native ‘Zoomers’. However, looking at the next decade, there are two different AI-powered workforce scenarios that may emerge, and important workforce choices that HR leaders need to start thinking and planning for now.
Artificial versus augmented workforce
The ‘Artificial Workforce’ scenario sees an organisation focused on driving top-down AI adoption, primarily on automating current processes and introducing AI-enabled cost-cutting measures and efficiencies. This will manifest in the development and deployment of sophisticated AI systems to interface directly with customers, replacing humans.
In this instance, organisations will likely end up with an increasingly divided workforce with a small, technically cognizant ‘elite’ team of leaders directing and controlling a dispersed workforce, who predominantly review and confirm AI recommendations. This dispersed workforce may even be largely outsourced to crowdsourcing websites, such as Amazon Mechanical Turk.
Towards the other end of the spectrum, there is the ‘Augmented Workforce’. This scenario sees an organisation focused primarily on exploring, bottom-up, new AI-enabled tasks and opportunities that deliver additional value directly to consumers and workers. For instance, this approach would focus on exploring what new services frontline workers can deliver, empowered by the latest multi-modal AI capabilities on their phones, such as computer vision and speech to text recognition in ChatGPT which provide workers with advanced subject matter expertise anywhere with internet access. There is now an opportunity for prison officers, postal workers, and maintenance engineers using generative AI to deliver adjacent services, such as targeted educational support for prisoners, citizens advice for non-digital customers, or conducting wider environmental analysis respectively. Identifying and achieving this will require organisations to both upskill their workforce and focus on integrating the technology to support human skills and ingenuity.
These organisations will likely comprise of collaborative teams of mixed highly skilled domain and AI experts empowered to deliver and innovate at pace. Governance and leadership responsibility will be more distributed and critical, with emphasis on agile collaboration, including with external partners, around value streams. The workforce could grow if these organisations are able to deliver more marginal value from additional teams of employees.
Both scenarios have significant implications for how people will be structured, managed, rewarded, performance assessed, and their ways of working. Accordingly, there are several key actions that HR leaders can take to effectively prepare for this changing landscape and help set the agenda.
AI workforce vision and readiness
Firstly, HR leaders should consider developing an AI workforce vision and conducting readiness assessments, including considerations such as setting the organisation culture, reward systems, and the diversity & inclusion agenda to mitigate critical people risks. For example, there is a real risk, particularly within the ‘Artificial Workforce’, that existing power dynamics and privileges will be dramatically reinforced with the adoption of AI tools. Senior leaders are likely to be given these tools first, due to their initial cost, and they will shape their use around their own needs and those of their shareholders. It is important to conduct early AI pilots and use case design with a diverse stakeholder base – not only with senior leadership or IT teams – to understand the implications of the technology early and therefore achieve more fair and equitable outcomes.
A major risk is that AI tools have been trained on datasets developed under existing power structures, which reinforce existing biases. For instance, in 2019, a study in the journal Science found an algorithm used in healthcare to direct care to patients who would benefit most from extra medical support was biased. It was less likely to refer Black patients than equally sick White patients because it was using healthcare costs as a proxy for health needs. Since Black patients often incur fewer costs for a variety of systemic reasons, they were underrepresented in referrals. Introducing a workforce vision and conducting readiness assessments should help set a human-centred direction of technology design and implementation, which also complies with upcoming legislation around acceptable AI use cases from regulatory bodies such as the EU. These activities will enable HR to develop and agree with the business clear principles and checks for ethical AI development, in relation to its impact on the workforce, as well as to support the business on how to effectively navigate the deployment and rollout of such tools.
Another key area of focus for HR leaders must be on building AI foundational skills across the entire workforce, both soft and technical, to accelerate future transformation. Both scenarios attach importance to fostering technical AI and Machine Learning expertise to develop and manage AI solutions, such as prompt engineering - the science of being able to get the most out of generative AI tools. However, the ‘Augmented Workforce’ will require additional focus on people-centric skills, such as empathy, communication, and critical thinking to design and apply AI-powered solutions against new problems. Tellingly, Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index report found that 82 per cent of leaders globally said employees will need new skills in an AI-powered future, with ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘analytical judgement’ identified as the top three skills for the new way of working.
It is also worth noting that several future workforce skills, including AI literacy, ethics, and cybersecurity, will come under greater scrutiny and audit from governments and regulators, driving the need to demonstrate compliance in these areas.
Opportunities for HR leaders
Together with C-suite executives, HR leaders have significant decisions to start making in how to prepare their workforce for, and shape it in response to, advances in AI. There will, of course, be hybrid situations where AI automation supports augmentation and vice versa. However, the ‘Artificial Workforce’ and the ‘Augmented Workforce’ scenarios offer a spectrum to consider future workforce strategy against.
Ultimately, the focus in the short term should be on co-creating a clear human-centred AI workforce vision, providing opportunity for diverse stakeholders to experiment with new tools, and systematically developing AI skills across the workforce to scale a people-centric future transformation fast. HR teams need to increasingly partner with their IT colleagues to upskill themselves and keep close to future AI developments in order to proactively transform HR policies, strategic workforce planning, and organisational culture.
The workforce choices that are taken in the coming years will be critical to the future direction of their organisations. HR leaders need to make sure they have a strong voice at the C-suite table to ensure that the workforce strategy is closely linked to the wider business and AI strategy. AI is set to become a key fixture of the workplace, and organisations that get ahead of the curve in introducing new people strategies now will be best placed to benefit and mitigate the risks this transformation brings.