Two recent headlines triggered this article. The first was a story about the latest victory of Alpha Go – Google’s Deep Mind AI – over a human champion. Thought provoking in its own right, though a pointer to the more meaningful impact of this technology is the fact that DeepMind has already begun working with the NHS to develop apps and other tools for diagnosis.

The second story was a recent survey by Gallup showing that one in eight (13%) of US workers believed that their job could be eliminated by technology within the next five years.

The usual rule of thumb when thinking about stories like this is to assume that the pace of change is probably over-stated but that the impact of the eventual change is under-estimated. However, there seems to be good reason to believe that this might be the exception that proves the rule. Both the scale and pace of impact seem likely to be truly disruptive.

Accelerating these trends is the fact that our expectations of how things should work within organisations are being reset by our experience outside the workplace. You don’t have to be a Millennial to wonder why you can use a virtual assistant – for example, Siri, Alexa or Google Home – at home, but not in the office. To take another simple example of this, chatbots which are increasingly commonly used to provide instant 24/7 online support to online shopping sites are now being harnessed to manage queries previously handled in an HR or IT support call centre.

Here is a small selection of other assessments of the likely impact and responses to it:

  • Brynjolfsson and McAfee from MIT reported on their research into the likely impact of a wide range of jobs
  • AI alone is predicted to eliminate 6% of jobs in the next five years
  • The “Future of Jobs” report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified that only just over half (53%) of CHROs were confident about “the adequacy of their organization’s future workforce strategy to prepare for these shifts”

Change at this scale and pace is likely to raise some challenging issues for societies. However, there are also upsides, so now is a good time for organisations to ensure that they are factoring this trend into future plans. For those of us passionate about the difference that HR insights and practices – when effective – can make to organisational performance, this feels like exactly the sort of challenge that we should be focusing on. So what should we do to be ready to have and shape a discussion with CxO colleagues?

I’d like to suggest four things for the “To Do” list:

  • Invest some time in build understanding of the subject: there’s no shortage of information out there in the public domain – typing “robotics” in Google generated 130 million hits when I checked today – so the challenge is how to narrow the flood down into a manageable number of trusted sources. Whatever your preferred approach to that is, getting an overview of the experiences of those in the vanguard will really help to focus thinking on the key topics.
  • Think through how best to identify and scope the main impacts on your organisation: in terms of people, the way that work is structured and the skills and capabilities that will be needed to take full advantage of opportunities that these new technologies create. Obviously enough, this conversation will need to involve people with different perspectives from across the organisation – so now would be a good time to work out the right way to enable that.
  • Start factoring in the expected impact of robotics and & AI into workforce planning: the significance and timing of impacts will vary widely and some of the estimates of positive and negative impacts are likely to be not much more than informed guesses initially. However, even getting the topic on the agenda will be a useful step.  As an example of the sort of practical steps that organisations are taking, recent research by Capgemini identified that more than half (54%) of respondents are providing digital skills training for their employees and 44% are investing in digital talent acquisition to bridge forseen skills gaps.
  • Start rethinking the way that HR services are delivered: we’re already seeing clear evidence of the transformational nature of the changes that organisations are seeing from deploying even currently available robotics and AI technology. Cost reductions of 30-50% combined with significant improvements in quality and consistency of services provided are the norm.  How will you meet or beat this expectation for your organisation? How will you manage the changes this will mean for the way that this work is performed?

As with any truly disruptive change, organisations are likely to face significant challenges. However, there’s no time like the present for starting to work out the right approach to maximise the benefits and manage the impacts.