Maybe HR’s Focus Should Be Less Human




Recently, one of my business students asked me, “How many MBAs does it take to manage a factory of robots?” That was not the start of a joke—it was a serious inquiry about his future. It’s the kind of question more of us are asking these days as we hear the predictions, from various credible sources, about how technological advances will transform the workforce. Most workplaces in the near future will be staffed by a combination of smart robots, machines powered by artificial intelligence and people.

The degree of labor upheaval that some researchers predict is difficult to comprehend. In a study published in 2013, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford looked at 702 types of jobs in the United States and made judgments, on the basis of required skills and expected technological advances, about whether there was a low, medium or high risk that technology would displace workers over the next 10 to 20 years. Their conclusion: 47 percent of total U.S. employees are at high risk, and 19 percent are at medium risk, of being replaced. Even if they are only half right, the numbers are staggering.

What Is the New Mission Of HR?

In a workplace staffed by fewer “human resources,” what will be the mission of corporate HR? To answer that, we must have a clear understanding of the kinds of jobs that will still likely be done by people. Those jobs—according not just to Frey and Osborne but also to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age (W.W. Norton and Co., 2014), and John Kelly and Steve Hamm, authors of Smart Machines (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2013)—are ones that require perception, quick physical adaptation, creativity, innovative thinking, complex problem-solving, moral judgments, and high emotional and social intelligence.

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