Ian McVey is UK director at Qualtrics, an employee engagement firm. In this article, he explores the state of artificial intelligence.
Last week, the Institute of Directors (IoD) warned that 15 million jobs are at risk from the rise of automation, a figure echoed by the Bank of England. The IoD wants schools to place less emphasis on pupils’ ability to recall facts and apply standardised methods, which machine learning and artificial intelligence do faster and with more precision, and focus instead on how to apply knowledge in a market that no longer rewards workers primarily for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.
Modern reflections on an educational system rooted in an old fashioned calendar are well timed. But I worry more about those working with tech today than I do about the 18-year-olds joining the workforce tomorrow.
Modern teenagers are already recognised as the community’s IT educators, helping wider society to bridge the digital divide. These 16-year-old children are both pupils and teachers. They have soaked up classroom technology driven by broadband connectivity, remote learning on tablets and PCs, out of hours study and wider collaboration and connectivity through learning forums. Now they can teach their parents how to Skype.
Office workers, on the other hand, are hardly likely to learn about workplace technology from their elders. Who is helping today’s professionals to become adept at working with technology? Which C Suite manager has responsibility for persuading the workforce that labour saving technology – which by definition requires less labour to achieve more output, making those still in work after the introduction of new technology more productive – will result not in the sack but in higher earnings? Is the connectivity that students enjoy through collaborative e learning mirrored in the modern work place, where immediate pressures, the tendency to do what we have always done and entrenched silos often prevent such constructive interaction?
I would say not. People at work are starting to feel vulnerable, not more valuable from the onset of computerisation, The dystopian future in which machines rule the workplace is all too apparent to anybody shopping in a supermarket, where check out automation continues to replace check out assistants.
The balance needs to be redressed today, not tomorrow, as we champion human over artificial intelligence and persuade today’s employees that while workplace culture is changing, those changes can work out to their advantage.
The first rule of employee engagement is connectivity. Foisting new tech on disinterested or unprepared associates is not the answer – people at work are disengaged enough already without risking making them more so. Gallup research found that only 30% of those in America holding down full time jobs are engaged in their work. Qualtrics discovered that the average UK employee thinks a third of the work day is unproductive. To motivate we must communicate and teach the competences workers must acquire, and we can do that by extending the connectivity and collaboration that young people take for granted in the classroom to the workplace.
The process is logical. We might not be algorithms but we can think scientifically – a process that should come naturally to most tech firms. Engage your associates; ask what they think can be improved. In the sharing society, people are queuing up to amplify their experiences, good and bad, and employees are no different. How do they rate benefit plans, training programmes, their familiarity with new IT, opportunities for advancement and work culture. Transparency builds trust, which breaks down barriers.
Achieve that insight with ‘software as a service’; immediate, affordable and simple to use platforms that grasp the employee experience, replacing laborious interviews and interpretation with real time, automated analytics. Not only does engagement software involve the employee, continuously and in real time, it introduces the concept of workplace automation in a positive light.
Armed with hard data, employers can link individual reports to an organisational overview from which to drill down and compare divisions, regions and teams. The more scientific the approach, the more data is accrued, the more patterns you will find and the stronger a business you will build for all concerned.
By sharing tailored insights across silos, management can spotlight pockets of high or low staff engagement, familiarity with or resistance to new technology and discover the reasons why. It can spotlight, direct training to IT refuseniks, and retaining to those with the aptitude but not the skills and mobilise the CIO to work with the internal communications teams to better improve the ways in which technology is introduced, and explain its benefits inclusively and constructively.
Companies can treat associates as individuals, each with their own outlooks and needs. It works for customers, where Starbucks offers 80.000 variations on a cup of coffee and Fords now come in a wide range of colours, so a bespoke approach should work for associates too.
No company is an island. Connectivity is social capital and corporate success depends on strong connectivity with customers, shareholders, peers and crucially, employees. Companies that engage proactively with their talent base will take the march of the robots in their stride, and remain competitive by exploiting artificial intelligence, not being threatened by it.