Transformative Technology’s People Factor: What Happens to your Employees?

If there’s one thing CEOs know as they tackle technology disruption, it’s that the process will significantly affect the numbers and types of jobs their companies provide. Writ large, this human resources dilemma is one of the biggest global challenges of the digital era.

The crucial role of CEOs in this regard is underscored by a recent BMC Software survey of more than 3,200 office workers in 12 countries. It showed that an average of 40% in each country fear they won’t be able to keep up with the rate of change required by digital business. And 88% placed the responsibility to create innovative cultures—in other words, the solution to this problem—on their employers.

“It’s imperative for all companies, and all societies, to address this, because we are going through a seismic shift in the nature of work,” says Paul Appleby, executive vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Houston-based BMC. “And it’s not just about new entrants, but also about the existing workforce.”

Many thinkers are optimistic that business and society will find a way through this thicket, that work will be more advanced and meaningful, that the robot takeover won’t amplify economic inequalities among humans, and that machines will still only do what people can’t or don’t want to do. But naturally, many workers’ biggest fear is of being replaced by robotic devices, systems or processes. Indeed, disruptive technologies already have obviated millions of blue- and white-collar jobs, and will eliminate many millions more.

“We’re taking the robot out of the human and eliminating the robotic nature of work. The jobs that remain will be much higher-value-added jobs.”

CEOs must prioritize ways to transition employees to the advanced jobs, many of them requiring higher-level skill sets, that will remain. “The jobs that remain will be much higher-value-added jobs,” says David Poole, CEO of Symphony Ventures, which helps big companies harness automation. “They’ll use the capabilities of humans to the fullest, whereas today much of what they do is repetitive. We’re taking the robot out of the human and eliminating the robotic nature of work.”

At its manufacturing and distribution centers around the world, for instance, Procter & Gamble is “trying to connect smart tools with smarter employees and with systems that work without paper and touches,” explains Liz Fikes, director of product supply engineering at the company’s Corporate Engineering Technology Labs. “Then you get employees who are super excited about digitization and automation.”

GE’s purposeful digital transformation has created “fear” among employees, Marco Annunziata, chief economist for the company, told The Wall Street Journal recently. “But then you give them the technology and you show them that, look, this is how you use it and your job becomes more efficient, faster and safer, and they get it. So they immediately respond much more positively.”

Building the skill levels of current employees requires expanding in-house training beyond the traditional one-day off-site approach. Thorough and purposeful programs can be “cost-effective and really help drive retention and engagement as well,” says Nichole Jordan of Grant Thornton.

Ed Hess, a business professor at the University of Virginia, foresees corporate human resources being transformed into human development. “Companies will have to do their own training,” he says. “HR has to become ‘HD’ because the education system can’t produce what companies need.”

One goal of such on-site human development must be “teaching skill sets of building teams, working in teams and integrating solutions created by other teams,” wrote David Kosbie and other professors from Carnegie-Mellon University in a recent Harvard Business Review article. “But also emphasizing qualities that differentiate human workers from AI, including creativity, adaptability and interpersonal skills.”

“Multiplicity,” in which diverse groups of people and machines work together to solve problems, is an approach that already underlies everyday automated tasks ranging from movie recommendations on Netflix to automobile responses in self-driving, says Ken Goldberg, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the People and Robots Initiative. “Rather than discourage the human workers of the world, this new frontier has the potential to empower them,” he says.

Indeed, a growing number of workers, especially millennials, relish the change and challenge that comes when companies embrace technological disruption—including disrupting their own jobs and careers. “They want the ability to test new technologies and work environments and the multidisciplinary nature of work now,” says Roger Park, Innovation & Strategy lead for Ernst & Young. “So we’re continuously hiring, onboarding and training millennials, and connecting them into deep pools of experience across a lot of different disciplines. And that’s a key part of innovation.”

Still, EY and most other employers run into a big roadblock: There aren’t enough digitally oriented or technologically capable people available to fill the millions of new roles that go begging in a disruptive age. So they are getting more creative. For instance, many employers are fishing in the stream of military veterans returning to civilian life. Jaguar Land Rover and Audi of America, for example, have helped their U.S. dealers hire hundreds of vets as dealership service technicians over the past few years. Likewise, Rockwell Automation and Manpower recently joined forces to focus on training veterans re-entering the workforce. They plan to “reskill” about 1,000 vets each year as a new breed of “advanced digital manufacturing” employees who can help fill out the ranks of available and capable new-age workers.

Surveying their needs, more CEOs are trying to develop a base of employees even before they can take jobs. GE, for instance, has been working with colleges in areas where it has plants, talking with professors and designing curricula with them that are designed to meet the new jobs in its facilities. The company has been creating more internships internally as well as at suppliers that are part of its value chain.

But such efforts aren’t enough, largely because, as Appleby sees it, “the nature of education hasn’t changed since the Industrial Age.”

So now, enlightened CEOs and politicians are trying to intervene at the high school level and earlier. For example, DesignTech is a high school in Silicon Valley that is jointly funded by Stanford University and Oracle, built around principles of technology-design thinking and intended to help create the next generation of workers. Cisco has launched a college scholarship program specifically for high school kids considering careers in cybersecurity.

In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson last year worked with big companies such as Walmart as well as small local tech employers to craft a tech-friendly curriculum bill that requires public high schools to count coding classes as a math credit toward graduation, among other steps.

“We need a strong contingent of kids coming out of our colleges so that we can continue to fuel the growth of our business,” says Richard Howe, CEO of Inuvo, a Little Rock-based software and data analytics outfit. “These initiatives have a big impact on us and the kind of people we’re hiring.”

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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