AI and Digitisation

Technology is moving at a fast pace, with terms such as digitalisation, artificial intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing, track and trace, and algorithms becoming more commonplace, including in industries not typically associated with being great users of technology.

There is no doubt that these fields are growing rapidly. Digitalisation is driving a new era of industrialisation. With real time data exchange between machines, materials, and products-in-the-making, increasingly autonomous production systems and factories become possible. This is changing how organisations produce and deliver products, and therefore how they utilise employees traditionally involved in production roles.

Artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms and robotics are most prevalent in the manufacturing and health sectors, but have applications in many other industries such as education, entertainment, and stock trading to name but a few. As this field develops, AI will be able to take over roles traditionally carried out by people, leading to the loss of medium and high skilled jobs in analysis and management, as well as productivity gains. Instead there will be a shift in job focus for employees from analysis and production to making greater use of interpersonal skills, for example, there will be a requirement for people to train and support users of AI and robotics, and for jobs working with patients rather than in technical medical diagnosis. Of course the demand for those people who can develop new AI applications will be high, and more and more non-technical roles are likely to require a degree of IT capability.

The advance of additive manufacturing techniques (aka 3D printing) enable new forms of decentralised, yet complex production processes. There are some prominent examples which suggest that these will become viable production techniques in future, such as NASA’s tests of 3D-printed rocket parts which showed that they are as durable as those traditionally manufactured, but are produced at a 70 per cent reduction in costs. These techniques are likely to diffuse slowly into the broader production environment.

Technology advances have also affected us in our personal lives. You may have received an alert on your phone telling you that your delivery is number 3 on the delivery van’s list, 4 miles away, and due to arrive between 14.14 and 14.24; this is due to track and trace technology. This real-time monitoring is enabled by sensor and RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology and is seen as the basis for the emergence of an 'Internet of Things' in which by 2020 an estimated 50bn items will be connected to each other.

You may also have experienced drones in your personal life, particularly if you are an avid adventure sports fan. These are basically miniature unmanned aircraft, with cameras and sensors, and are believed to have been used for some time by the military. In the future, if regulations allow, they may be used by the oil and gas industries, power, line and utility companies for inspection, mining companies for surveying and mapping, or in agriculture, property and cinematography. Other suggestions are that they could be used in the health sector to deliver organs or by insurance companies to record hard-to-reach crash sites. Drones are reported to be under consideration by organisations such as Amazon and DHL for deliveries, Network Rail, construction and the media.

What questions does this trend provoke for wellbeing and engagement?

Organisations of all sizes should be asking:

  1. 1
    Track and trace technology means that employees are also tracked. Royal Mail has had issues with the unions as mail tracking technology also monitored employees’ speeds on deliveries; similarly Amazon monitor the speed of pickers/packers. This additional employee monitoring, seen by some as an unwelcome ‘big brother’ approach, may increase the pressure to work faster / harder, which could result in increased stress, errors or accidents. What are the implications for employee attitudes and wellbeing if they are subject to increased monitoring?
  2. 2
    These new technologies are the major reason for the continuing reduction in employment in routine and some analysis roles, but also bring increasing demand for high- and medium-skilled workers to either develop and manage the new technology, or to undertake more complex roles requiring strategic and interpersonal skills which cannot be replaced by machines. What are the implications for wellbeing of employees? 
  3. 3
    Increased unemployment negatively impacts mental health, and the requirement to retrain or learn new skills can be stressful for many; yet technology in some cases removes the need for strenuous labour or mundane tasks and can free up employees to take on new and interesting roles. How can organisations plan for the impact of technology on their workforce, and prepare employees for the inevitable change that will occur as a result?
  4. 4
    Technology cannot perform uniquely human capabilities such as analytical or interactive contributions that result in discovery, innovation, teaming, leading, selling and learning. Aside from the business implication of reduced innovation, we know opportunities for employee voice and innovation is a key enabler of engagement. Could this increase in technology have a negative impact on employee engagement?
  5. 5
    Smaller numbers of employees and flat hierarchies enabled through technology advances could lead to improved communications and involvement, all of which are good for wellbeing. However, lone workers interacting primarily with new technologies as opposed to people may be detrimentally affected by the reduction in interpersonal relationships and interaction, stifling creativity and a sense of engagement and wellbeing. Will organisations consider the softer impacts on their employees of the introduction of new technologies, and introduce initiatives to maintain engagement and wellbeing through this change?
  6. 6
    It will be easier, cheaper and more convenient for people to learn and train as artificial intelligence can support the delivery of education and training. This will help employees acquire new skills, gain additional qualifications or retrain - leading to more opportunities in their careers. Are organisations fully aware of the ways in which digitalisation and other new technologies can help them improve employee wellbeing and engagement?

How are organisations responding?

  1. 1
    Ergonomists at the Railway Safety Standards Board found that some accidents caused by human error were due to over-automisation of tasks meaning they failed to keep the operators’ concentration. The Board recommended building in additional tasks/actions to ensure keeping the operators’ attention. Organisations need to consider the engagement and job satisfaction implications of making roles too easy to perform with technology.
  2. 2
    The machines created at Kiva and Rethink have been cleverly designed and built to work with people, taking over the tasks that the humans often don’t want to do or aren’t especially good at. They are specifically designed to enhance these workers’ productivity. A warehouse equipped with Kiva robots can handle up to four times as many orders as a similar unautomated warehouse, where workers might spend as much as 70 percent of their time walking about to retrieve goods. Amazon bought Kiva soon after a press report revealed that workers at one of the retailer’s giant warehouses often walked more than 10 miles a day. Although this undoubtedly provides a clear efficiency benefit, and may enable a wider range of people to effectively perform this role (who may otherwise have been restricted due to the physical activity levels required), the reduction in activity of employees as a result of technology may have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing.
  3. 3
    Amazon is able to quickly package and ship millions of items to customers from a network of fulfilment centres all over the globe, which is made possible by leveraging cutting-edge advances in technology. Amazon's automated warehouses are successful at removing much of the walking and searching for items within a warehouse, but commercially viable automated picking in unstructured environments still remains a difficult challenge. The Amazon Picking Challenge competition at ICRA 2015 was developed to strengthen the ties between the industrial and academic robotic communities and promote shared and open solutions to some of the big problems in unstructured automation. This competition challenged entrants to build their own robot hardware and software that can attempt simplified versions of the general task of picking items from shelves.
  4. 4
    Royal Mail employees were provided with new hand held devices that enabled them to register track and trace items. The inbuilt GPS technology, designed to help postal workers plan their routes, had the by-product of monitoring postal staff’s speed on walks. Employees were concerned that this would put undue pressure on them to walk at certain speeds.
  5. 5
    Google, Uber and Tesla are all working on self-driving vehicles, beginning with those that make long-haul journeys. If entrepreneurs succeed at automating cross-country deliveries, this would not only be a boon for companies that ship goods – self-driving trucks don’t have to stop for long mandatory breaks after spending hours on the road – but also for road safety. In the US alone up to 4,000 lives each year are lost in crashes with large trucks (driver error is almost always to blame).
  6. 6
    Digital technologies make it possible to replicate processes. For instance, companies like CVS have embedded processes like prescription drug ordering into their enterprise information systems. Each time CVS makes an improvement, it is propagated across 4,000 stores nationwide, amplifying its value. As a result, the reach and impact of an executive decision, like how to organize a process, is correspondingly larger.

What can you do?

  • Question whether your organisation really understands how technology can benefit your productivity, efficiency and your employees. Is this knowledge and research held and conducted in all parts of the business, including HR, sales and marketing, and buying / sourcing departments, or is it restricted to your IT and R&D teams who may not be considering wider uses and benefits of technology?
  • Consider how you will ensure that you keep up to date with fast-moving technological developments – do you have a sponsor at a senior level, or an employee with this as a key part (or only part) of their role?
  • When introducing new technology, make sure you consider the policy, incentive structures and training that will support adoption and employees’ confidence in using the technology.
  • Have you thought about how technology in your workplace is affecting the creation of good jobs and worker well-being? Are you engaging your employees in business case development and pilots of technology, and are you seeking to understand the wider implications, potentially negative, beyond productivity and efficiency? You need to understand the potential impact of digitalisation and automation trends on the wellbeing and engagement of your current workforce, the creation of good jobs, and how and who you will need to recruit in the future.
  • Learn more: Future Work Skills 2020 – Institute for the Future

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