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Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, discusses the impact of automation trends in the workplace, and how this will affect the work of internal communicators.

Oxford University recently produced research stating that 47% of all jobs in the US, and a third in Europe, are at high risk of being replaced by technology in the next two decades. This is a startling figure, and plays into the fears of many that their job will be replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI) or automation during their lifetime. In fact, this is already under way for some skill sets: while low and high skill jobs continue to increase, middle-skilled jobs are declining in number. This significant drop in the number of mid-level jobs is a phenomenon known as the hollowing out of work. The question now is whether these trends will result in the gradual removal of human beings from the world of work, or whether new jobs will spring up in place of those lost, as was the case in the Industrial Revolution. Even at Davos earlier this year, where I led a debate with four professors from the University of California, Berkeley, on “Will machines make better decisions than humans?” roughly 50 per cent of the audience agreed and 50 per cent disagreed. If such a knowledgeable group was so divided, no wonder there is little clarity at a broader level within the workspace.

Which jobs are at risk?

What we can say with certainty is not all jobs will be affected equally. When trying to ascertain which jobs are at risk and which will persevere in the short to medium term, it is useful to reference Moravec’s paradox. Moravec observes the trend in computerisation and automation so far as machines find easy what humans find challenging, while humans find easy exactly those tasks that machines find challenging. For example, complex algorithms that scan reams of data are able to identify trends with far greater speed and accuracy than humans. Meanwhile, humans find tasks such as problem solving come naturally, a task which computers find inordinately hard. Therefore, skill sets that are at less risk are those that are (currently) uniquely human such as creativity, and that meet the criteria of rare (few people have them in the market place), valuable (companies are demanding them) and difficult to imitate (computers cannot easily replicate them). We can include skills such innovation and decision-making in this group.

Another useful approach when analysing which jobs are likely to be replaced by computers in future is to consider whether the tasks involved are routine or non-routine. Jobs that are routine, both manual and analytical, can be easily programmed into a computer as they have a clear input, process and output. They are therefore more susceptible to computerisation, especially if they come with high labour cost implications. Meanwhile, jobs that are characterised by non-routine tasks, whether manual or analytical, are far harder to describe in terms of input, process, and output. This means that it is more challenging to program a machine to complete the task. It is therefore less likely to be automated, particularly if it comes with low labour costs.

What role should internal communicators play?

When the outlook about something as vital as job security isn’t clear, fear and anxiety builds, and internal communications has a big role to play in easing this. So how can the internal communications professional help employees negotiate what is at the very least an uncertain future?

In the short to medium term, we are in a state of transition and it is crucial to create clarity about which are uniquely human skill sets. This will enable employees to establish which skills will become less useful, and which will be more in demand and hence be worth investing in further. As a result, while developing an employee’s current skill set will remain important, it may also be necessary to support people in building entirely new skills at various points in their career as technology disrupts industries and professions. This means that the traditional model of front-loading education at the beginning of a career will not suffice. Indeed, we are already seeing an emphasis on lifelong learning, education and up-skilling that must now be supported by an organisation, either through access to training, or time off for people to re-skill.

In the long term, internal communications professionals will need to maintain an open and transparent adult-to-adult dialogue to gauge the sentiment of their employees, anticipate any issues, and help people deal with these changes successfully through targeted communication strategies. Organisations which use the reams of data points available through both crowd-sourcing methods and social media in the workplace will be able to gauge how employees are feeling, and what they are apprehensive about.

At my research consultancy the Hot Spots Movement, we have engaged organisations in these kinds of open and transparent conversations on our Jam Platform. We find that this many-to-many communication channel is an adept way to explore the poorly defined and complex challenges we face today, while providing a place for employees to air their concerns. By embracing the debate and all its uncertainties openly, companies can show their commitment not only to the future success of the business, but to the crucial role of employees within this.
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