Organizations know the digital revolution requires them to change dramatically, analyze how robotics can complement its workforce and that it should happen soon. Organizations are often aware of the urgency, but their workforces are far from ready for the transition.

‘Keeping up in terms of technology is only one side of the story; what is often overlooked is the human side of things,’ assert HR & Change Consultants Anne Laure Rouw and Laura Deleij. To reach the maximum potential, technological development should go hand in hand with the workforce.’

‘It’s time to face the facts: if a workforce isn’t ready yet, the organization isn’t either. Even in this time of technology developing extremely rapidly, today we are still one step ahead of technologies like robotics and intelligent automation. In other words, humans still have certain capabilities that technology lacks: driving a car, advising on strategic decisions and meaningfully interpret data, for example. However, no one knows what the future has in store and, if in a decade from now - or even sooner, technology will surpass us. What happens when technology proves to be more adept than us at things we never expected them to be and how can we prepare ourselves for that?’

What’s Possible Is Necessary

‘Is this a nightmare? Well, only for organizations that didn’t see it coming. Then again: we all saw it coming, right? These days, preparing the organization and workforce for the future is vital, even when we’re not entirely sure what the future looks like. Nowadays, the mantra should be: what is possible, is needed. Ultimately, these are specific competences that humankind will always do better than robots.

‘So, what can organizations do? Strategic workforce management all starts with a gap analysis of defining which competences the workforce currently possesses and how they compare to competences that will be needed in the future. Let’s first take a look at what these competences entail exactly.’

Competences to Succeed

‘There are nine vital competences needed to succeed in these times of technological change. Firstly, expert knowledge, which entails functional and industry-specific knowledge that the smart workforce needs to successfully perform tasks. Next to that, in order to collaborate with them, they obviously need to know how to interact with robots, as well as have the necessary technical know-how.’

‘The future workforce simply cannot get by without an increased technical affinity to maximize value from the “human-bot” synergy. As robots take over more standard tasks, humans need to focus on problem-solving, as well as executing a meaningful analysis of data that can extract deeper levels of patterns.’

‘Furthermore, there are four competences that are, to some extent, already present in organizations, but differ in proficiency. These include social intelligence, leadership, creative innovation and learning agility. Robots are probably never going to excel at these more than people. To cut a long story short: many organizations lack in most of the mentioned competences and they need to invest in their development yesterday rather than tomorrow.’

Acquiring Competences: Build, Buy, Borrow or Bot?

‘Once the competences that need to be developed have been established, it’s essential to determine the best way to do that: build, buy, borrow or bot?’

‘Are we building the workforce’s competences from within? While that might seem as a good idea, it does take time which isn’t always on our side. Action is often required sooner than later. Buying competences has become common practice: recruiting new talent to fill the gap. Alternatively, organizations turn to borrowing; multidisciplinary teams are created with other departments from within the organization or external partnerships with other organizations are established.’

‘Lastly, there’s the option to ‘bot’, meaning you have to decide which specific tasks can be best executed by a robot. This type of intervention is organization-specific and isn’t necessarily a solution for everyone. As long as organizations make the analysis and, subsequently, implement the right plan of action to ensure your workforce ticks all boxes - or will, soon.’

HR and Innovation Managers Need to Work Together

‘Knowing who is responsible for identifying which competences are needed and analyzing to what extent they are already present in the organization, is incredibly important. Finding the solution is the responsibility of two valuable entities: the Innovation manager and HR. The Innovation manager has knowledge on what is going to hit the organization and HR has the knowledge on what competences the workforce possesses. This touches the nerve of why most workforces are far from ready today: communication and connection between these two departments is frequently insufficient.’

‘Today, the workforce needs to be trained for roles that don’t exist yet.’

‘Often, HR doesn’t think developments will take place as quickly as they do and, thus, will feel overwhelmed when it happens. Consequently, the urgency to change has really presented itself just yet. Today, the workforce needs to be trained for roles that don’t exist yet.’

‘In the change-strategy, communication is key. Innovation managers need to prepare HR for what’s ahead, so HR can adapt strategies. Essentially, instead of being reactive, HR needs to be proactive, and take direction from the innovation department. After consulting with the innovation manager, the HR manager starts identifying who in the current workforce has the appropriate competences. If insufficient, HR can then determine whether talents need to be built, bought, borrowed or bot-ted.’

 

No Will, No Skill

‘Throughout this entire process of skill-building, leadership support is essential. Leadership should ensure all employees are aware of what’s expected and, more importantly, eager to take on the challenge. After all, as we say: ‘no will, no skill!’ Leadership needs to break down inevitable reluctance people have when it comes to working side-by-side with robotics and convince them of the fact that it is a synergistic relationship instead of robotics replacing them.’

‘Ultimately, it’s a win-win situation: if robots do overtake certain tasks humans used to perform, it will allow employees to focus more on other, often more interesting, tasks. For employees to be on board with this evolution, company leaders will have to put in the effort to constantly reassure their workforce that they are being empowered and complemented, not replaced.'

‘Additionally, people need to allow robotics to make more mistakes and forgive them when they do. Currently, when a self-driving car causes an accident it's unforgivable, but humans cause traffic congestion and accidents constantly. We need to find a balance and allow this margin for error for robots, too. Moreover, we need to learn to trust robotics and admit they’re just as capable as humans, if not, more so. In the end, humans will need to train robots, which can only be done properly if they fully trust them.’

Robotics Can Only Amplify a Smart Workforce That Is Engaged

‘Last but not least, leadership needs to ensure the workforce feels engaged throughout the whole transitionary process. Employees need to stay involved, motivated and eager to learn new things and gain new competences. Not just today, but next year and in five years as well: the transition is an ongoing process. This continuous aspect should be one of the starting points of new HR strategies and even of the whole organizational culture: acquiring new competences should be part of the appraisal system.’

‘If the smart workforce acquires the necessary competences and is successfully guided in their journey to digitization, employee engagement will improve. This will then lead to higher satisfaction, quality and overall productivity of the workforce and, thus, the organization. Ultimately, amplifying the smart workforce with robotics is the only way to success.’

This article is part of a series, involving other contributors: Igor Lelieveld and Youri de Koster.