Why robots should report to Human Resources and not IT

24 January 2018 Consultancy.uk

The rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace poses a seldom-discussed question – wouldn’t it be better if the HR department, not the programmers, oversaw robots? Rob Mettler, a digital expert at PA Consulting Group, suggests the idea is not as bizarre as it sounds.

The view that robots should report to the head of HR might sound absurd, but when the CIO of a major online retailer talks about his warehouse robots working in teams, when companies introduce “AI board members”, and robots start being trialled in social care, it’s time to reconsider lines of responsibility. Of course, many will be of the opinion that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) aren’t human and we shouldn’t even entertain the idea. 

However, if we look to a future where AI agents such as IPsoft’s Amelia are fronting customer service, and robots like Aldebaran’s Pepper are undertaking manual and face-to-face tasks, we can see the essence of a changing workforce. We could argue that it’s merely the next step for technology in the workplace, one following machinery in the industrial revolution, and computing in the information age.

But that argument misses a key point: the notion of intelligence. If the AI-driven customer service agent starts making decisions based on what it has learnt and experienced then who is responsible for the outcomes? Is it the Chief Information or Digital officer, or the business lines using the AI workforce? Let’s look at two scenarios to test this out.

First, let’s consider the AI board member. This challenges the perception that AI and robots will only take on blue collar work – the AI board member sits at the top table. This is not sci-fi but reality. Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Deep Knowledge was first in 2014 with Vital, and Finnish IT support firm Tieto appointed Alica T to its leadership team in 2017.Why robots should report to Human Resources and not IT

At first glance it might appear that these AI board members are little more than overhyped analytics dashboards bringing data and insight on demand to the board room. But Vital has approved investment decisions and Alica T has voting rights, and in 2017 the Vital algorithm was credited with pulling Deep Knowledge back from the brink of bankruptcy, helping the company avoid investment in risky projects. Vital is treated as a member of the board with observer status, and the board have agreed not to make positive investment decisions without corroboration by Vital. 

The buck stops – where?

So who takes the stick when the AI board member makes the wrong decision – is it the programmer who created it, or the CIO, or is it the business lead who commissioned it or the board for debating in front of it? 

Robots in the workplace aren’t new. In 1961, General Motors introduced Unimate to the assembly line, and, last year, global sales of industrial robots reached $13.1 billion. But most of these robots are automating existing manual tasks and following processes and procedures. In this context, the robots have become the responsibility of engineering and manufacturing functions. 

We are now entering a new phase of robotics where intelligence is key to their value. Pepper, a humanoid robot, is being used in a social care setting by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, the aim being to free-up social care workers to focus on the more important components of their role. The next step on from this could be highly humanoid social care robots, as featured in Channel 4’s thought-provoking sci-fi drama Humans. 

On the frontline

In other examples, in 2017, Enfield Council started trialling an AI customer service agent, Amelia, on the frontline of services to respond to residents’ queries and application processes. So as these physical and AI robots become more intelligent and more common they will increasingly affect our working patterns, behaviour and workplace dynamics. Together with increasing levels of anthropomorphism, they are becoming more accountable – not to their technical genesis, but to outcomes they are brought in to deliver as well as the day-to-day managers and HR departments that support them.

We must resolve the issues of accountability and responsibility as these developments accelerate, and HR must be involved in the discussion. We are surely bound to witness a shift in reporting and accountability from robots’ technical guardians to an adapted HR function.

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Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019 Consultancy.uk

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.