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AI is not the workers’ enemy

Keeping employees informed about changes and how it will affect them is crucial to the successful introduction of AI

From smart assistants on smartphones to Spotify’s and Netflix’s suggestions for music or movies you might like, to ordering food from Deliveroo or taking an Uber, the impact of AI is everywhere.Photograph: iStock

From smart assistants on smartphones to Spotify’s and Netflix’s suggestions for music or movies you might like, to ordering food from Deliveroo or taking an Uber, the impact of AI is everywhere.Photograph: iStock

 

That AI and robotics are associated with job losses is understandable. Talk of robots taking our work and jobs disappearing is terrifying to many people, especially those who work in precarious employment with few rights and little job security.

While AI might take over some tasks currently performed by people, whether or not this will always be the case depends on the decisions organisations make, Anne Keegan, professor of human resource management at UCD, says.

The impact of AI is everywhere and is used by many of us in our daily lives, even if we don’t know it. From smart assistants on smartphones to Spotify’s and Netflix’s suggestions for music or movies you might like, to ordering food from Deliveroo or taking an Uber.

So how can the message be disseminated that AI is not the enemy in the workplace?

“Companies using AI or planning to automate tasks in the workplace need to provide information to employees and groups on where AI will be introduced and how it may change the design and nature of their work,” Keegan says.

“No less than in any change process, employees are not passive recipients of change but actively anticipate and make sense of change, especially when it impacts on their work. Employees also make attributions about why change is introduced – explanations for the causes of behaviour and events – which may be accurate or not. For these reasons, it is important to involve employees in early discussions on how AI can be used and involve them in any outcomes that impact on their work. Employees are key to both if and how changes are successfully implemented. They can proactively craft their roles in ways that allow innovations to be taken up or not,” she says.

Traditionally, organisations worked in a command-and-control structure, but more agile practices in the workplace see frontline staff bring insights about what customers want from working with them every day. They then collaborate in cross-functional teams, with short-term goals, to deliver new products and services to test and refine with their customers.

AI is a natural extension to this new way of working and brings with it an opportunity to completely change the interactions organisations have with their customers, their colleagues or partners in their ecosystem, Owen Lewis, partner in management consulting at KPMG Ireland, says.

“For example, even without fully rolled-out autonomous vehicles, smart cars can capture causes of road traffic accidents through multiple sensory devices and provide this to an automated AI-enabled claims processor that can pay out the claim without the need for humans to get involved. What does this mean for an insurance organisation looking to provide meaningful employment for its staff? It means that the management team and staff now need to work even closer together to collaborate on what value they provide to their customers, cutting out bureaucracy and building trust with customers on broader elements of their lives such as medical well-being and fitness,” he says.

Standards and principles

Lewis says ethics will play a big role in the adoption of AI and agreeing standards and principles that innovators should subscribe to is as important in an AI world as it is in our own “human intelligence” world.

“For example, the collective responsibility we each have and that leaders of governments have to prevent the violation of basic human rights should be embedded into the ethics of artificial intelligence. Here the debate on universal basic income and fair distribution of wealth to give opportunity to all of society needs to further play out,” he says.

“Understanding the biases and inequalities that have and still remain in our own society cannot form the basis of biased artificial intelligence decision-making is an important consideration,” he adds.

Getting your staff to realise they are a critical part of the future, finding ways to unlock their talent to work alongside new and emerging technologies, and be the best their customers could ever wish for is the challenge, Lewis says.

“If AI is used to handle time-consuming processes that can be automated, while freeing people to focus on more meaningful and important aspects of their work, this message can be less intimidating and also develop greater readiness for AI-enabled change when, and if, it comes,” Keegan says.