AI: technological transformation, upskilling and organisational design

AI was a major theme at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition. A key message is technological transformation is happening right now. Organisations are assessing how they integrate new technology, define job roles and develop the necessary skills.

AI technological transformation, upskilling and organisational design


This article is taken from the Winter 2023/2024 issue of

Think Global People magazine

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View your copy of the Winter 2023 issue of Think Global People magazine.
CIPD CEO Peter Cheese joked in his opening keynote to 2023’s annual conference and exhibition that for the past 11 years he has pointed out that the people profession is at a tipping point. From putting employees at the heart of business strategy, to Good Work practices, managing Covid and hybrid work, his observation reflects the increasing focus on being human at work and the vital role of the people profession – Global Mobility included – in delivering economic and wellbeing benefits to individuals, societies and economies.This year was no exception. The question of how we adopt technology – specifically generative AI – is HR’s latest inflexion.

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Good work and technology

“The implications of technology aren't just about technology,” he said. “They're about the impact on jobs and skills and organisations and what it means to all of us. This is a very profound space for us as a profession to be engaged in. We need to lean into it. The question is what we create instead. How do we use technology to create good jobs and better jobs?”The need for sound leadership and understanding of new forms of technology comes at a time of hastening volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Welcoming the 1,300 delegates for the two-day conference in Manchester, Peter Cheese acknowledged both the strong international contingent of HR professionals present – representing Canada, Iceland, Norway, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and more – as well as the rapidly changing geopolitical stage.“I think in many regards we're now in a virtual world on steroids,” he continued. “It is so extraordinary when you look at what's happening and how that is shifting our geopolitical thinking away from a world that seems very much about globalisation to more ‘who do we trust?’. Businesses are having to rethink things like supply chains and operating models as a result. It’s a really important time for us as businesses to step up and say, ‘Right, how do we influence society in positive ways?’”

Where are we now in the digital transformation journey?

Governments, sectoral representative bodies and individual organisations are all looking at how best to harness new and emerging technology to improve productivity and customer experience. Some are further along in their technology transformation journeys than others. For Global Mobility and HR, leveraging AI can help reach new talent pools more cost-effectively and cover the critical vectors of compliance, retention and inclusion.In this space, KPMG’s ‘2023 Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey’ urges organisations to be aware of the impact of rapid digitisation and automation. This is particularly on operating and service delivery models, workforce composition, risks to talent across mobility life cycles and workplace practices. Yet when it comes to next-generation technology, 48% of organisations and 60% of global talent mobility functions do not have a strategic vision for automation and robotics. Where they do, 71% of respondents report automation is not yet being used to streamline the global mobility process.Across sectors, a lack of budget, bandwidth and skills are the biggest roadblocks to implementing greater technological automation. These findings suggest huge scope for the people profession to step up, lead and align with internal and external stakeholders to cope with the rapidly changing world of work and geopolitical environment.“We are all thinking more and more strategically about the shape of work in the future,” said Peter Cheese. “How do we build the skills that we need for the future and make sure that our learning and development capabilities sit at the very heart of organisational agility? If we can't be agile, we can't upskill and reskill people rapidly in a world where job demands are changing as rapidly as they are. We're seeing ourselves increasingly at the heart of the business agenda and we must be at the heart of the business agenda.”Dr Daniel Susskind CIPD ACE 2023Oxford University professor, economist and author Dr Daniel Susskind picked up the question of reskilling in his keynote address at the CIPD ACE 23. Recalling how technology had initially been regarded as impacting routine processes and blue-collar jobs most, he said the next generation of technology marked a new paradigm that will significantly impact white-collar jobs too. This is already happening, with tools like ChatGPT able to code, diagnose medical conditions and draft tight legal arguments. However, generative AI is moving away from extrapolating how humans think towards “making sense of that data in ways that we acting alone simply could not perceive”. It is increasingly performing analysis beyond the scope of what humans can.“These increasingly capable non-thinking machines are what I think the second wave of artificial intelligence is all about,” said Dr Susskind. “Systems and machines are using remarkable advances in processing power, in data storage capability and in algorithm design to perform tasks through these technological changes in fundamentally different ways.”

Responding with education and training

In this analysis, it is easy to see why earlier this year those working at the frontiers of AI called for a temporary halt on further development. The analysis also highlights the huge impact on jobs and the human skills needed to safely, transparently and effectively incorporate these tools into our daily life and work.For Dr Susskind, the best response to these technological disruptions is education and training. “What we're going to see over the next ten to 20 years is an increase in demand for human beings to do work that is very hard to automate. The challenge isn't one of mass unemployment, but one of mass redeployment. It’s a fundamental change in the kind of skills and capabilities people will have to bring to bear in their work.”Mindful of the present chasmic skills gaps to deliver technological transformation and its benefits, Dr Susskind believes in reassessing the skills and capabilities we are training people for today. These often include the routine tasks technology is already more adept at. Instead, we should be focusing on what machines can’t do, including roles that require communication, interpersonal skills, creativity, judgement and empathy. This is about “training people to be the kind of workers who are capable of designing and operating and understanding these technologies and putting them to productive use.”It’s also about using technology to train people in new, more personalised ways. “One robust finding we have from education research is the effectiveness of one-to-one tuition with a human being,’ said Dr Susskind. “The average student will tend to outperform 98% of students in a traditional classroom setting. It's incredibly powerful, but it is incredibly expensive. That is why something like personalised learning technologies are so exciting. I think we can use technology in quite exciting and interesting ways to change how we train and educate.”The final dimension of the education response – one that potentially impacts how an employer positions itself for employee engagement – is around lifelong learning, agility around technology and the skills needed to harness it. “There is a huge amount of uncertainty around future jobs and the skills and the capabilities required. The best response seems to me is flexibility and a willingness to retrain and re-skill later in life with the same intensity, seriousness and single-mindedness we have at the start of our lives.”Governments around the world are already thinking about this, including introducing personalised learning budgets. This will help address the current underinvestment in employee training. However, it requires a change in thinking at leadership and organisation-design level to overcome both the biggest obstacles to adopting productivity-boosting technology – the space and time for employees to train and reskill – and an ethical, principles-based approach.

Principles-based AI transformation

The second day of CIPD ACE covered how to adopt a responsible approach to AI and how leadership can reorient to AI technology and its implications. Joining panel chair Tina Russell, the CIPD’s professional conduct and ethics lead, were Jed Griffiths, Microsoft’s chief digital officer, Dr Abigale Gilbert, director of the Institute for the Future of Work, Rob McCargow, PwC’s technology impact leader and Rachael Saunders, deputy director of the Institute of Business Ethics.Their approach offers insights for employers yet to design a route map for greater technological adoption as regulatory frameworks globally evolve. At Microsoft, for example, its AI and ethics research committee is cross-disciplinary. Reporting into president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith and Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, the committee investigates cutting-edge issues from research based on its six ‘north star’ AI principles. Aligned with this group is the Responsible AI Strategy in Engineering (RAISE) initiative. This engineering-focused team enables the dissemination and implementation of responsible AI rules and processes across the organisation.“If you're having conversations and giving people clear guardrails the investigate both right and wrong and that are useful, then you'll be in a position to innovate and move forward at the pace that's right for you,” said Rachael Saunders.Rob McCargow was keen to emphasise what this latest inflexion point for technology and AI means. “There's been a few false dawns over the last decade and before, but this now is very much in our hands as consumers, as citizens. It feels real since ChatGPT entered our lexicon and the pace of change. When you boil this down, it is not a technology topic. It's a people plus an organisation topic that brings culture, values, purpose, ethics and all these other skills into the equation, so interdisciplinary diversity is crucial.“If I was to look ahead at 2024, for this profession it’s time to plant the flag right in the middle of the conversation if you're not already in the room shaping this now. I would be putting this top of the To Do List. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to effectively reinvent work for better and we are at risk of squandering that opportunity if we don't design this well from the bottom up and ensure we ameliorate those risks.”With so much at stake, policymakers, business leaders and individuals cannot afford not to.

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