This article was first published in Real Business.
As the Taylor report on employment in the modern economy highlighted, our workplaces are changing rapidly. And some of the biggest drivers of that change are automation, robots and artificial intelligence.
The arrival of business-orientated automation, robots and artificial intelligence can take on tasks we thought only humans could – but it will present real challenges.
There will be a very direct impact on some individuals who will need to acquire different skills or will have to face the harsh reality of ceasing to be employable. That means employers will need to re-think current approaches to talent identification, training and workforce planning.
As Darwin identified: “It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” And adapting to this new world of automation, robots and artificial intelligence will be critical for every size of business.
New technology developments present real challenges for business
Business leaders will need to take a close look at the skills they will need over specific time frames, and, as automation, robots and artificial intelligence develop, take a view on when particular skills might become obsolete. This analysis can help make decisions about whether to hire permanent or temporary staff, whether people can be redeployed and when they leave whether they need to be replaced.
Current approaches tend simply to replace like with like, rather than taking strategic view of what the business will need in the future but a strategic view will be critical in managing the technology-induced changes ahead.
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Five steps to understand future business capabilities
None of this is easy but there are five steps organisations can take which should help them to develop a broader view of the capabilities they will need. The first is to avoid being controlled by the technology. It is easy to feel that automation is an unstoppable force but, while change will undoubtedly come, the way we respond and how much of it we adopt is not predetermined. It is up to each organisation to decide how technological advances are incorporated in their business.
The next step is to learn how computers and humans can complement each other and how roles will need to change. Entirely new skills may also need to be learned or acquired. But there will also be new business opportunities and it is important to be open to them and look for ways to build relationships with new vendors and business partners to support these developments.
It is also important to understand that automation, robots and artificial intelligence technologies address different problems and present different possibilities. Understanding these differences and how they apply to your business is critical. We’re already seeing examples of organisations using AI to work alongside people, enhancing effectiveness.
From pension providers who use an AI solution to scan social media and provide early warning recommendations on changes to the investment portfolio to pharma companies who use AI to predict how different pricing models will affect revenue from a new product, the applications of AI are growing exponentially and are expected to continue to do so.
The third action is to ensure your organisation has the capability and capacity to look outwards into the market, continually assessing the technology options available that may enhance your business. The rate of technological change is accelerating and, without focus, your organisational knowledge will quickly become out of date. This can be as simple as dedicating time to reading the latest research or as complex as having a dedicated team scanning for new technology to adopt.
This detailed understanding of the developments in the external world can then allow you to try out different solutions. The only way to learn how the new possibilities best fit your goals, your culture and your strategy is to start experimenting with different options and tools and building an organisation that is flexible enough to embrace the results.
The final step is to ensure that successful experiments are scaled up as quickly as possible and accept that any challenges can be addressed along the way rather than waiting for the perfect solution. Many organisations struggle with making changes on the scale needed but this will only become more urgent as the impact of technological change increases.
Change is coming
While artificial intelligence and robots will not be business as usual in most workplaces overnight, the preparation needs to start now. SMEs have the advantage of agility and flexibility and should make the most of it. Change is right on our doorstep and doing nothing is not a viable option.
Jennifer Cable is a people and talent expert and Martin Molloy is an IT transformation expert at PA Consulting Group