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AI and digital must put people back at the center of work - Unleash19

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 20, 2019
As enterprises adopt AI and pursue digital transformation, people still have a central role, say speakers at this week's Unleash London event

Tim Leberecht at Unleash19 London 370px by @philww
The robots are coming and we'll all be out of work, right? Well, not exactly. If a procession of speakers over the past two days at the UNLEASH conference in London are to be believed, humans are very much back in fashion. One of the many arguing that digital transformation must have a human face include Samantha Woods, VP of HR Innovation at Orange Business Services:

The more you are in digital, the more you have to keep this human balance. The more we are working on digital solutions and accelerating our transformation, the more you have to make sure that people get together and have great moments of sharing. Why? Because there's lots of tension in this invisible work, when you share emails, where you share a dozen projects. So get key teams together, the more you accelerate your transformation.

Cal Henderson, CTO of enterprise messaging platform Slack, adds that tools and automated processes help free HR teams from admin tasks to focus on higher-level employee support:

We can use tools and technology to help do a lot of the heavy lifting ... and that moves HR professionals into a role where their time is spent better on the things that computers are bad at and humans are very good at — like relationship building and time spent one-on-one with employees.

For business author Tim Leberecht, whose keynote opened today's session, it is our humanity that will save us from becoming redundant as automation takes over — traits such as creativity and empathy are "the fabric for our future-proof human jobs," he says.

Putting people in charge

That this is a broad movement across the industry was underlined by ADP's recent redefinition of its brand, notes Bersin by Deloitte's Josh Bersin. The acronym, which originally stood for automated data processing has just been updated to stand for always designing for people. "That's a fundamental change," he says.

Meanwhile, several speakers emphasized the importance of change management — often the most challenging aspect of digital transformation projects. If the people aren't ready for it, the technology won't deliver the intended benefits.

This is all probably just as well, since AI's not yet ready to take over. Who better than Cassie Kozyrkov, Chief Decision Scientist at Google, to deliver the news that humans are still in charge:

There's a beautiful marketing lack-of-discipline at work here. People allow themselves this rhetoric [of autonomous technology] but it's perfectly ridiculous. It is always the human that is driving it. Yes, our tools extend our ability to do stuff, and some tools can extend us a lot. AI is just another tool.

Taking responsibility

With that power, however, come some important responsibilities. Artificial intelligence is so powerful and reliable that the decision makers who direct it need to make their choices very carefully — and we must all stay alert to their role, she warns:

We must ask ourselves about the skills of the person on the controlling end of it. We love to talk about AI as autonomous and separate from humans, but it's just another tool ... It is an echo of the wishes of whoever built it — of whoever deployed it, whoever pushed that button.

The advent of AI is promoting all of us out of repetitive roles that can be automated, into other roles that require higher skills. We need to be ready for that responsibility, she concludes:

We need to understand that there is a lot of automation going on. Automation does change the face of labor and we need to think about how are we going to handle it, but it's not really a qualitative shift. There are some tasks that we weren't smart enough to automate before and now these are on the automation path, but it's still the same thing. There's just more of it now.

Better tools always mean that humankind is being promoted [to new capabilities], so let's make sure we're ready for our next promotion. Let's make sure that our decision-makers can handle it, that we're skilled and trained for the job. Everyone who's going to be involved with technology in the future will be touching ML/AI in some way, so let's make people have the skills to think through how to use data safely.

My take

I noticed a marked change in the maturity of the discussion at this Unleash event compared to previous ones. No one is expecting digital transformation or artificial intelligence to deliver change unless the human dimension is addressed. That's a welcome shift, and one that underlines the key role HR professionals will play in ensuring these technologies deliver value to the enterprise.

We'll have more stories from this week's event over the next few days.

[Updated March 21st to amend some of the wording of Cassie Kozyrkov quotes after reviewing the recording transcript with her assistance].

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