The Robots are Coming. Will We Be Smart Enough to Work With Them?

worker using machines

Back in 2015, a hotel in Japan made news when it debuted robots as the hospitality staff of the future.

The bots purported to do everything – valet, bartending, cleaning.  But they had their limits. One guest told the Wall Street Journal his tossing and turning kept triggering the motion-sensor room assistant to start talking. “Sorry, I couldn’t catch that,” it would say in the middle of the night. “Could you repeat your request?”

Turns out, the one thing these employees of the future needed human help to do…was shut off.

That fact should sooth all those worried about the rise of the machines. The nightly news (and all those robot-starring Super Bowl commercials) may warn constantly about robots coming for our jobs. But automation, says a Wired story, portends more of a transformation than an uprising. In fact, history has shown that almost every human-displacing invention has been met with a new human-powered job required to support it. Consider NASA’s shiny new main-frame computers during the moon-shot era that required displaced human computer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer in the film, Hidden Figures) to operate. Even a new fleet of pizza-delivery bots roaming the campus of George Mason University requires human operators.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be worried about anything.  A new McKinsey report says business leaders’ are worried – a lot. A full 60 percent say keeping up will require new skills for more than half their workforce. “Organizations that expect to benefit from a digital transformation or a promising new strategy won’t get very far if they lack the people to bring the plans to life,” reads the study. “What might seem like an irritating talent gap today could prove a fatal competitive liability in the not-too-distant future. “

“Fatal competitive liability” is a pretty scary term – as is upskilling half of the workforce. And it means organizations should be doing more than just worrying.

Start drawing maps now: Some automated and digital functions may be under capital development plans, meaning they can be predicted and planned for. Now’s the time to identify those jobs, build streamlined, financially feasible pathways toward them, and look inward at employees eager for growth. We’ve said it before – external hiring alone will only get you so far.

Improve the flexibility of your training: The above are things you can plan for. But not every new technology will provide a lot of lead time to adjust. So education management programs need to include options nimble enough to address immediate skills needs, delivering things that four-year degrees alone can’t provide.

Listen to your future thinkers: Employees in the trenches often see opportunity before we do. Dorothy Vaughan famously taught herself and her staff the computer language to run those NASA computers. Such smart workers are out there, actively seeking new skills to preserve relevance. You want to keep them. When people want to take charge, show them you’re open to career shifts and help them achieve goals that help everyone.

Tap new employee pools: It’s true that jobs are expected to shift, rather than vanish. But those McKinsey executives expect that 50-percent figure to include replacement as well as re-skilling. Just as pointedly, the above Wired story predicts very specific employee populations to be at risk. Opportunities, then exist outside your industry. One Ohio healthcare system reached out to laid-off manufacturing employees  to retrain as diagnostic technicians. It’s a creative approach to recruitment and retraining that solves on multiple fronts, and that should catch on. 

The McKinsey report asks “Are We Long or Short on Talent?” and suggests we have to take a fresh look at how we train and hire. We also need to stop thinking about machines as the enemy and start thinking about people as the solution.

So the real question we need to be asking isn’t whether the machines are coming. But what we’re going to do to make sure we’ll be smart enough to work with them when they get here.

Written by: Alan Robins

February 6, 2019

About the Author

Alan Robins at Bright Horizons

As Director of Product Marketing, Alan drives original research and thought leadership for Bright Horizons education benefits programs, drawing on his extensive experience helping companies optimize education programs to support their Talent and HR objectives. Prior to Bright Horizons, Alan was at Gartner, a global leader in providing advisory services to technology and business executives, where he led new product teams in Europe and the US.