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The Great Robots vs Workers Mistake

The Great Robots vs Workers Mistake

Robots versus workers—it’s a great debate that is playing out in the media and across organizations. The most common refrain is that technology is making workers obsolete. But according to Deloitte’s latest Human Capital Trends report—we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to technology and talent. Recently, I conducted an email interview with Kraig Eaton a principal in Deloitte's HR Transformation practice and a primary author and leader of Deloitte's Human Capital Trends report. We discussed technology and talent as well as other key findings about the future of work. Kraig will be speaking on APQC’s September 29, 2020 webinar. Readers can register to hear more.

Elissa: The title of the 2020 Global Deloitte Human Capital Trends report is The Social Enterprise: Paradox as a Path Forward. The paradox has to do with technology and people and it calls attention to a mistake that many organizations are making when it comes to technology. Can you explain?

Kraig: The past decade has been one of exciting growth. We’ve seen the rise of teams, the rise of the social enterprise, and the rise of the new social contract between individuals and organizations and organizations and society. And as those human forces were playing out, we also saw major technological advances, such as the emergence of cloud, the influx of AI and robotics in the workplace, and an explosion of data.

However, through it all, most organizations viewed their efforts to address human and social concerns as wholly separate from their efforts around technology—the two conversations ran on separate tracks. In fact, human interests were often viewed as separate from, if not antithetical to, an organizations’ interest in capitalizing on technology to its fullest.

For that reason, we sought to answer a question – a paradox – in our 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report: “Is it possible to remain distinctly human in a technology-driven world?”  Our answer is that it’s not only possible to remain human in a technology-driven world, but that greater value often comes from a fusion of the two. Instead of asking how to humanize a work environment inundated by technology, the deeper question for organizations is how they can leverage the environment that technology creates to humanize the world of work.

Elissa: The research revealed three focus areas for organizations that want to better leverage technology and people for business results. Can you briefly describe each?

Kraig: Purpose: Fostering belonging amid a desire for individuality—Technology creates an ability for everything to be personalized and individualized, but humans still desire this sense of connection, a need to belong to a bigger whole. What if, instead of creating divisions, individuality could become a source of strength born of bringing together unique, complementary abilities in the pursuit of shared goals? To be able to do this, organizations need to optimize the power of individuals by connecting them with each other through their purpose at work. In our report, we explore how organizations can transform individuality into collective value: by fostering belonging through a sense of contribution; by supporting worker well-being through the thoughtful design of work; and by formulating workforce strategies based on a nuanced understanding of people’s attitudes and values.

Potential: Creating security in a world of reinvention—Technology fuels constant reinvention, but humans desire a sense of security. What if, instead of perceiving reinvention as a threat, organizations could use reinvention to increase their people’s potential for long-term success in work? To do this, we believe organizations must embrace potential and focus on maximizing what humans are capable of thinking, creating, and doing in a world of machines. In our report we highlight areas where organizations can create opportunities based on potential, such as: integrating AI into workgroups, transforming knowledge management through technology, and cultivating and investing in workforce resilience. 

Perspective: Taking bold action in an age of uncertainty—Technology creates an environment that is truly uncertain – whatever can change, inevitably will. Yet, humans desire to take bold moves. What if, instead of prompting doubt, uncertainty could give rise to new possibilities: the opportunity to shape the future through decisive action? To be able to do this, organizations need to transform uncertainty into an informed perspective that helps them confidently navigate the future of work.  We believe organizations can position themselves to take decisive action to shape an unknown future by setting compensation strategies with a human-focused approach, asking different questions to govern workforce strategies, and establishing frameworks to manage the ethical implications of the future of work. 

Elissa: This research was completed before the impact of COVID-19. Are these three focus areas still relevant today? Why or why not?

Kraig: We believe that COVID-19 has accelerated and amplified the importance of these trends.

Consider purpose: COVID-19 reminded us that people are motivated at the highest levels when they can connect their work contributions to a greater purpose and mission. It also highlighted the importance of putting well-being front-and-center for organizations as physical, mental, and financial security became paramount. Finally, COVID-19 demonstrated that as organizations establish workforce strategies, they need to use data-driven approaches to better understand workers’ unique attributes, needs, and dimensions.

Consider potential: COVID-19 showed people that while technology can augment and supplement work, it does not replace what is needed from humans. The crisis gave people a greater appreciation for the fact that humans and technology are more powerful together than either can be on their own. It reinforced that it’s more important to understand what workers are capable of doing than understanding what they have done before, as workers quickly assumed new roles and contributed in different fields and industries. And, the crisis gave organizations the opportunity to leverage the power of AI to build a culture of actionable knowledge-sharing and creation to strengthen connectivity and afford organization resilience.

Consider perspective: COVID-19 put the need for insightful and future-oriented workforce data in the spotlight. Whether it was data on the capabilities of the workforce, the state of workers’ physical and mental well-being, or an assessment of how well the organization’s culture was faring, we saw a plethora of vendors come out with ways to leverage technology to get the data and insights needed and get it fast. COVID-19 also brought conversations about essential work and pay and conversations about ethical employment issues into the public dialogue. Now, it is time for organizations to challenge whether they have the right data, are asking the right questions, and are making ethical and human decisions to support their long-term strategies.

Elissa: You will be speaking about the report findings on an upcoming APQC webinar. During the webinar you will share nine trends (or organizational challenges) that fall under these three focus areas. Can you tell us what these trends—that webinar attendees will learn about—are?

The nine Human Capital trends I look forward to discussing with you in more detail are:

  1. Belonging: From comfort to connection to contribution
  2. Designing work for well-being: Living and performing at your best
  3. The postgenerational workforce: From millennials to perennials
  4. Superteams: Putting AI in the group
  5. Knowledge management: Creating context for a connected world
  6. Beyond reskilling: Investing in resilience for uncertain futures
  7. The compensation conundrum: Principles for a more human approach
  8. Governing workforce strategies: New questions for better results
  9. Ethics and the future of work: From “could we” to “how should we”

We will be diving deeper into many of these trends during our webinar, based on the topics you identified as most interesting in your registration forms.

Elissa: 2020 marks the 10th year that Deloitte has published its trends report. The report concludes with a chapter that is addressed specifically to HR. It sums up HR’s journey and accomplishments over the past decade and provides guidance on what’s next for HR. Can you tell our readers what the key focus area(s) (or shifts) for HR need to be going forward?

Kraig: Over the past decade of our Global Human Capital Trends report, we have been prolific in our writing about HR. In fact, in looking back, we have written at least 13 distinct chapters on the topic, not including the calls to action for HR that we have embedded elsewhere. Our passion for this topic has resulted in us using words ranging from “transformation” to “reinvention” and even “revolution” as we started to ponder the impact that digital technologies could have on the function. But fundamentally, our consistent focus has been on what HR needed to do to meet the evolving needs of the business—recognizing that HR has always been more than a back-office function, but rather a core piece of the organizational fabric, one with the ability to influence the most powerful asset of any organization: its people.

In this year’s report, we wrote a memo to HR, directly addressing the function and sharing our belief that as the fusion of humans and technology at work accelerates, the future of HR is one of expanded focus and extended influence. We believe HR must broaden its focus from employees to the organization and to the entirety of work and the workforce and increase its sphere of influence beyond the traditional lines of the function to the enterprise and business ecosystem as a whole.

Elissa: How is the pandemic affecting the future of HR?

Kraig: COVID-19 put the spotlight on the CHRO and the HR organization, just as the 2008–2009 recession did for the CFO and finance function. In the past few months, we have seen a greater appreciation for the breadth of what HR does and can do: It has been essential in everything from monitoring workforce sentiment, to establishing connections between organizational leaders, workers, and teams, to integrating well-being into work and reimagining how, where, and what work gets done. And perhaps most importantly, this time has accentuated the need for a mission-focused HR organization, establishing and leading teams to break down organizational silos to ensure that the most essential work is getting done in a way that is safe and sustainable for the workforce.

Emerging from this crisis, organizations should ask themselves if HR is positioned to make the impact they can and should be making across the enterprise. HR should take a leading role in helping the organization and the workforce adapt to changing organizational and business requirements. The question organizations must ask themselves is whether HR has a broad enough focus to extend their influence in the areas where they need to play to help position the organization to both recover and thrive over the next decade.

Register today to hear Kraig speak on APQC’s September 29, 2020 webinar: Deloitte 2020 Human Capital Trends: The Social Enterprise at Work.