Looking Beyond the Automation Debate

When it comes to automation in the workplace, it’s time to challenge the very concept of a job as the primary way to think about meaningful work.

These days, not a week seems to go by without the release of a new study on how automation will impact jobs. In fact, several were published in advance of the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. While some suggested that automation will drive job losses and increase economic disparity, others took a more positive angle, positing that the nature of jobs will change and the quality of work will improve. The debate rages on, with pessimists claiming almost half of all jobs in the U.S. could be made obsolete over the next 20 years and optimists predicting net job gains.

By framing the debate in terms of job gains and losses, I believe we are missing a key point: The impact will not be so much on the number of jobs, but rather on the actual content of jobs themselves. This will be driven by the way people will collaborate with increasingly intelligent machines to do more complex and higher-value work–and by the way it will require them to collaborate with each other in more fluid teams that form and reform to achieve more advanced outcomes. With this in mind, it’s time to challenge the very concept of a “job” as the primary way to think about meaningful work.

Companies are realizing that intelligent machines go well beyond automation. They can elevate the work people do. After all, this is a path to achieving new forms of growth, not just labor efficiencies. Leaders are, therefore, beginning to reimagine the unique tasks of humans–changing the content of their work entirely to create competitive advantage that automation alone can’t achieve. This isn’t about “unfreezing” current jobs or reassembling tasks into different kinds of jobs, redesigning job descriptions, compensation and developing new competency models, then “freezing” them to revert to “normal.” We instead must embrace a “new normal” and new HR skills and capabilities.

There’s no turning back. As a former CHRO, this is something I don’t say lightly. I’ve studied these concepts strategically from multiple perspectives: as the former vice chair of the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future Advisory Board; as a board member for a skills-networking platform called TalentSky; and as one of the founding members of the Consortium to Reimagine HR, Employment Alternatives, Talent and the Enterprise (CHREATE).

So, if not traditional jobs, then what? Imagine roles that change fluidly based on a given project. What if skills and expertise were the new currency of value? Not simply experience, a static list of responsibilities or how many people you manage. Imagine the outcomes that multiple people, each with their own skill set and domain expertise, can create why they come together around a stakeholder need. What then becomes of core HR practices–many based on traditional functional jobs with a fixed set of tasks? I see this as a compelling invitation to fundamentally reinvent our field, our own capabilities and the very concepts of work, tasks and employment in this new digital ecosystem. Let’s be innovative in how we navigate these shifts.

Take competency frameworks: those long lists of the knowledge, skills and abilities, motivations or traits needed for successful performance that are the foundation of so many of our talent practices. They are time-consuming to create, tied to particular jobs and lack agility. Instead, we can now mine available data from emails, social communications and data-based assessments of our people to create fact-based, dynamically evolving profiles of the qualities linked to successful outcomes.

Instead of hiring for a job, how can we seamlessly engage individuals for their skills and capabilities, outcomes and accomplishments, and their learning agility? I continuously see new software and systems developed by entrepreneurs that help individuals showcase their skills, verify them with ratings from colleagues and shift hiring away from jobs toward skills. The emerging reality is that individuals don’t need a static resume. Ideally the skills and accomplishments they are most proud of will be visible to those who want to engage them.

And let’s reimagine paying people for their skills. Some companies are doing this by experimenting with “badge-based compensation.” Or using intelligent systems to trace contributions from both individuals and teams to measure outcomes, thereby allowing both individual and collective compensation and new approaches to performance management.

I recognize that some of these ideas are being tested across our field and are not necessarily new ways of working. And of course, no one can know what the future may hold.  But what I do know is that our world is changing fast and what worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. This is an incredible time to be in our field with an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine and reinvent the most fundamental concepts of work and employment with innovation, agility and a spirit of exploration.

I hope I’ve inspired you to think more deeply beyond the great automation-of-jobs debate to imagine both the opportunities and challenges we face as we reshape the future of work–and our workforces–together.

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three 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.