How Siri and Alexa Are Changing the Workforce

By: | March 12, 2018 • 4 min read
Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than 3 decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

By helping employees to join up human and machine capabilities, HR leaders can radically change the way organizations operate.

In our daily lives, Apple’s Siri navigates decisions on everything from our restaurant choices to dialing friends, while Amazon’s Alexa helps us make grocery lists, remember appointments and, in general, run our homes. As leaders shaping the culture of our workplaces, it’s important to understand that workers are also consumers. As they lead blended lives and often work from anywhere, any time, they anticipate the same artificial intelligence- and technology-enabled experiences that they receive as consumers.

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In today’s environment where leaders are competing for the best talent, an increasing number are embracing new technology and are leveraging AI to invest in and re-skill their workforces—enhancing them to create far more satisfying and meaningful work that places human qualities front and center. One study found that a majority (68 percent) of workers said they are ready to work with AI and are positive about the impact it will have on their jobs.

As HR professionals, we can encourage our organizations to invest in our employees’ skills and to help them join up human and machine capabilities to radically change the way we operate. There are three areas where we can guide our leadership to respond to these changing needs: by reimagining work, by focusing the workforce on areas that create new value, and finally, by investing in “re-skilling” and getting the most out of human and machine collaboration.

Let’s start with reimagining work. This is what an urban medical center did when it responded to a crisis among its staff members: physician burnout. One of the root causes of burnout was that doctors were spending too much time behind computer screens doing reporting and administrative tasks.

So how did AI help? It listened in on doctor-patient conversations and transferred relevant information into forms and medical records. Essentially, medical staff were armed with a note-taking assistant, like a hospital-friendly Alexa. It’s ironic: The technology, in effect, strips away the administrative aspects of a doctor’s daily activities, thereby leaving much more time for human-to-human interaction.

As AI continues to develop, employee ability (and the strength of an organization) can flourish, opening new possibilities for growth—which brings me to the second area where we can encourage AI development: finding new opportunities for value creation. Consider that when the car was first invented, new possibilities evolved that couldn’t have been imagined. Henry Ford couldn’t foresee the multitude of industries created around road infrastructure, car accessories, and travel and transportation.

A small sample of what’s possible can be seen in the travel industry. One cruise ship company equips crew members with Wi-Fi medallions that collect insights into what passengers want onboard, with the hope that anticipating needs and discovering new ones will enhance both customers’ and employees’ satisfaction and experiences.

Training and “reskilling” will serve as the foundation for reimagining work and creating these new sources of value. Our workforces require new skills and innovative approaches to training—ones that use the technological advances causing this sea change. For example, one retailer is using Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets to immerse its sales associates in real-world scenarios.

From my experience, retail and “tech-conscious” industries have had to react to these market shifts quickly. Consider one athletic apparel company that turned to AI to improve running gear. With the help of algorithmic-design software, the company’s designers optimized product development for light shoes with a stiff sole that is ideal for sprinters’ athletic needs. The proper shoe can shave time off a sprinter’s pace and make all the difference in competitive performance. The company used 3-D printing on prototypes and tested them until they found the premier design. Great examples are emerging across industries, and leading companies are bringing innovative consumer insights into both their workplace strategies and worker experiences.

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The workforce, conversant in using AI in its everyday life, is ready to engage. The technology is in place. And most major barriers are gone. Leaders need to make the transition to these new technologies a priority since workers want to engage with companies where their skills will continue to grow. Investments in learning, technology-enabled tools and ways of staying relevant and competitive in the workplace are part of the changing social contract that workers expect. And we know that the key to competitive advantage is to focus on areas that create new value by reskilling workers using AI and other technological advances.

In my next column I’ll give my take on the great debate on the impact of automation on jobs. Until then, I hope you invest in and share your own breakthrough initiatives when it comes to innovative ways to help your organizations reskill your workforce.

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