Do we need HR for the robot workforce?


Do you speak ‘bot’? It sounds like a flippant question but it’s not. In every organisation, it’s the employees who drive much of the success, engaging with customers, driving revenue and profits, and keeping the wheels of business and commerce moving.

By Lenore Kerrigan, country sales director at OpenText

But, as organisations move towards a digital future, much of this value add will increasingly be taken up by robots and autonomous systems. We are already seeing the impact of robots and cobots on a host of core business functions, and it’s only a relatively short step before business management will be talking, and even negotiating with, autonomous systems.

To drive real, meaningful value in the business of the future, you may soon need to learn to speak to and understand your robots in much the same way you do with the human workforce.

The proliferation of robots, cobots and intelligent ‘things’ in society and enterprises means businesses will soon need to consider human-style performance management for these new smart machines and systems. And that reality is much closer than you might think, as robots and AI increasingly help to shape businesses to deal with the exponential complexity of the digital world.

But first some perspective. Books such as Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0 are beginning to explore what life with AI will mean when we take the next step, where the proliferation of connected ‘edge’ devices – the Internet of Things (IoT) – drive the next phase of the digital revolution. Whether they are cars, fridges, industrial drills or oil platforms, the data generated continually by these smart devices will result in new products, services, business and jobs.

The changes will be transformative, beyond what we can currently imagine. Think of Amara’s Law, which states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Essentially, the physical world is getting an upgrade. It will be mapped, measured and organized, and in some cases managed remotely or virtually. Sectors like logistics will become more efficient. Urban transportation systems will have more capacity and be safer. When the world can be measured and monitored in real time, then autonomous vehicles will also become not just a possibility but an inevitability because they will be safer.

Your business will also change. Every business is built on its people and in the future autonomous and edge systems will be assets in the same ways as your staff are assets today. And as with human employees, these devices and machines have relationships, speak to one another and have inter-dependencies, identities, maintenance schedules, a useful serviceable lifespan and performance reviews.

In short, your robots will perform very much like people. But the complexity of managing that robot workforce and its performance is huge. Businesses will need to have performance management, or a HR department, for the machines as well as the human workforce. For machines this means servicing, efficiency, the ability to hire and fire and so on.

The monitoring and accountability of your robots will be crucial to business success. But the complexity and volume of that data is beyond being done by a human. This is where automation and AI will be essential to analyze this machine and robot performance data in the background in real-time and show where improvements can be made and flag up areas such as predictive maintenance.

Taking this one step further, it’s not hard to see that automation and AI could also have a key role to play in measuring and managing human performance too. Could AI also replace much of the legwork and guesswork around HR with something…better? The same kind of extreme automation and AI that might be used to manage the performance of the robot workforce can also be applied to radically improve the HR department’s management of the human workforce.

There is a huge amount of both structured and unstructured data that HR departments collect and manage. AI has the potential to analyze this data automatically in a way that both makes HR more efficient and replaces much of the guesswork. For example, algorithms can be used to identify top employees at risk of leaving, or match and rank thousands of CVs sent in to a job opening.

It might sound more like a Black Mirror future rather than the blue-chip present. But this is how the world economy will develop and diversify over the coming decades, with interesting new products and services working on top of the current systems, taking much of the pain out of often laborious processes and introducing entirely new ways to interact with customers.

But it also means taking a look at the next step in the evolution of ourselves and the world we live in. You may need to consider taking classes in bot negotiation sooner than you think.

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