“Elite college degrees, impressive LinkedIn profiles, or six-figure salaries are no longer shields against obsolescence,” says Kevin Roose, NYT tech columnist and author of the recent book “Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation.”
What’s the real human cost of ushering in this fantastic, AI-driven future? Can leaders realistically take care of their employees while tapping into the efficiencies of automation?
These are some of the questions I asked Roose in a wide-ranging interview. I’ll unpack our conversation in this article, providing answers to those queries and more. I’ll also explain the four essential ways that organizations can embrace AI without compromising their commitment to employees.
Growing pains of transitioning to an AI-driven world
The very mention of Artificial Intelligence conjures images of robots that steal jobs or scheme to control humanity. Not everything is gloomy about our technological advances. “Today, not many people would be willing to trade their lives with someone living 200 years ago,” says Roose. “After all, we now have better lives than our grandparents.”
However, the problem is that this progress doesn’t arrive all at once. There is immense short-term pain that employees go through in the face of automation. For example, it was about 50 years after the start of industrialization that workers’ wages actually rose in proportion to corporate profits. They had been producing more value for their employers that whole time, but the benefits of automation were not passed back to them for nearly half a century.
There’s another factor that adds to short-term pain in the current industrial revolution. The new jobs created by AI often call for entirely different skillsets — ones that are hard to acquire. Farmers displaced by agricultural machinery could be trained to work on assembly lines. However, it can be challenging to retrain and find work for people displaced from their jobs by AI.
How do you ease this transition to an AI-driven world, and what skills will keep people gainfully employed for relatively longer?
Tapping into Artificial Intelligence while leveraging your team’s ‘human skills’
While robots can take over most tasks, certain skills are tough to automate. Roose calls these “deeply human skills.” These are tasks that only people can do: things that require compassion, critical thinking, and moral courage.
“Perhaps you don’t need 100 people in Accounts Payable, but you do need people in Human Resources. You need humans to perform subtle forms of management to engage employees and customers,” Roose adds.
Take the case of Amazon, which has steamrolled thousands of companies across many industries. As a digital native company, machine learning (ML) algorithms are at the core of Amazon’s operating model. U.S. retailer Best Buy could have met the same fate as that of other big-box retailers and died at the hands of Amazon. How did it survive this industry transformation?
Roose shares how Hubert Joly, then CEO of Best Buy, turned the company around, focusing on humans. To compete with Amazon, Best Buy invested in something that AI doesn’t do well — customer service. It launched an in-home adviser program to complement Geek Squad, its much-loved team of tech support experts.
The adviser program allowed customers to get free in-home consultations about products and installations. For example, this team would give customers personalized advice about what lights to put on their patio or what brand of speakers would suit them best. The company discovered that the craving for custom-tailored advice and human connection was left untapped by Amazon.
While Best Buy offered competitive pricing and used ML algorithms to improve its operational efficiencies, the cornerstone of its turnaround strategy was humans. This is an excellent reminder that organizations can not only embrace AI but can also leverage their team’s deeply human skills to re-energize their business.
4 Ways to responsibly scale AI-driven organizations
Organizations competing in the age of AI face a lot of pressures. They wrestle with competitors over a piece of the shifting market pie, they innovate to serve fickle customer expectations, and they juggle investor demands for growing returns on capital. Executives, in turn, are looking for ways that data and AI can help manage these forces. It begs the question: How can companies innovate with AI while also taking care of critical internal stakeholders — their employees?
Here are four key ways that organizations can adopt and scale Artificial Intelligence responsibly while capitalizing on their human capital:
1. Embrace augmented intelligence
Evaluate how AI can augment your business and improve your operating model. You must explore ways that technology can help your people perform their jobs better. “In less than ten years, every Takeda employee will be empowered by an AI assistant,” says Christophe Weber, the President and CEO of Takeda. He believes augmented intelligence will help his team make better decisions and deliver a transformative experience to patients, physicians, and payers.
Remember, it may not always be possible to retain humans in a workflow when it’s automated. However, AI often opens opportunities for innovative business offerings and new roles that can improve your competitive advantage, as in Best Buy’s adviser program. “More than 60% of jobs performed in 2018 had not yet been invented in 1940,” according to an MIT report. So, invest in up-skilling and out-skilling your workforce proactively to prepare them for adjacent or new roles.
2. Adopt responsible leadership
For decades, corporate social responsibility (CSR) was used as just a marketing tool. Most companies used CSR to make symbolic gestures with little action on the ground. Recently, this has changed. There’s a new movement in enterprises focusing on the areas of environmental, social, and governance (ESG). Thanks to rising consumer awareness, investments in ESG practices are not just fashionable but crucial to stay in business.
On a similar note, it’s not only possible but critical to take care of your employees as you adopt AI. For example, American wholesale retailer Boxed used robots to automate 75% of jobs at its warehouse in Union, New Jersey. However, not one employee was fired. Instead, the team is being retrained to manage the bots, maintain the software, or handle customer service. “If you’re in the boardroom talking about automation, you also need to talk about the human impact and put your employees on top of the list,” says Chieh Huang, CEO of Boxed.
3. Listen to your employees actively
Worker unions played a big role in helping cushion the negative impacts of factory automation over the past century. “Unionized workers were able to fight for a bigger share of the increased pie,” says Roose. We are starting to see this happen again, this time in technology workers, with the forming of unions at Alphabet and Kickstarter.
Glitch, a software company based out of New York, leads the way among the nascent technology labor unions. Recently, the employees and management of Glitch signed a collective bargaining agreement that focuses not on wages but standardizes the process for disciplinary actions on employees. Outspoken employees can help spotlight attention on just causes such as diversity, accessibility, and sustainability. Organizations that take a stand on such causes see direct business benefits apart from earning ample goodwill.`
4. Balance it with regulations
Part of the thrust for responsible behavior in the industry must come from external stimuli such as policies and regulations. For example, Roose says that the tax code in the U.S. currently incentivizes companies to replace people with machines. As a result, businesses end up paying higher taxes for labor than they do for capital goods such as server racks or software.
A research brief published by an MIT Task Force recommends equalizing the taxes levied on both capital and labor to neutralize this disparity. In addition, other ideas such as universal basic income (UBI) are being piloted across 40 cities in the United States to counter the impact of AI. It’s amply clear that AI needs to be regulated. Organizational leaders must come forward to shape the discourse by collaborating through participatory regulation.
Look back at history to prepare for the future
“To prepare your organization for the future, you must go back in time to study the previous waves of automation,” recommends Roose. “Technology-driven change is not new, and we aren’t starting from scratch today.”
As organizations embrace technology innovation to meet rising business demands, leaders must make responsible decisions by factoring in the interest of all stakeholders, including their employees. Leaders must speak openly with employees about what AI means for their jobs and how technology can augment their roles.
When automation makes roles redundant, leaders must communicate transparently, plan ahead for redeployment, and share how the organization can help employees with the transition. The key to making the switch into an AI-driven business is by earning your employees’ trust.