The skills leaders need in the age of artificial intelligence and robots

From introducing robots in the workplace, to persuading humans to work alongside them, leaders need to prepare for the brave new world ahead.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution already underway, new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are transforming production and sweeping aside traditional models of employment. But as we gain a clearer understanding of their pitfalls and potential, the debate is shifting away from concerns about robots replacing humans to considering how businesses can harness their benefits.

In fact, it appears the initial fears about widespread unemployment may have been unfounded. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), technology may create more jobs than it replaces in the long run. Its survey of companies representing over 15 million workers found that by 2022, they expected to have lost 0.98 million jobs as a result of new technology, but created 1.74 million new ones.

The WEF's Future of Jobs report suggests that businesses need to change their view of technology ‘from automation to augmentation’ – seeing it not as a way to reduce labour costs, but rather as a tool to augment the work of humans by freeing staff up from repetitive tasks and supporting them in more decision-making roles.

Dr Nicole Hartley, MBA Director from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, says leaders need to be prepared to lead in this dynamic new business environment.

“We hear a lot of talk about robots replacing humans, but a recent review we conducted in the growing field of service robots identified that we know little about how robots can be best integrated into work environments and even less about how humans can work alongside them,” says Nicole.

Leaders need to consider how they can integrate technology to enhance service delivery. How can they prepare employees to work alongside emerging technologies? What cultural changes will be required for automation to be accepted? And how can it add value to employees and supplement their work?

“Jobs will be lost, and automation will affect some industries more than others, but human qualities will still be highly prized, and in many cases technology will simply free them up to do higher-value work which integrates cognitive, emotional and social skills.”

“Leaders will need to look at ways of motivating staff, changing work models that align with advancements in technology and, where jobs are lost, how to upskill and upgrade staff to other roles so they can continue to use their unique talents.”

According to the WEF, 54 per cent of all employees will require significant re-tasking and upskilling by 2022. While some roles may disappear altogether, others will be in greater demand, such as data analysts and developer. We are also seeing the creation of a range of completely new roles, such as a drone pilot or app developer.

However, technical skills will only be part of the equation. Human skills such as creativity, originality, initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, negotiation and emotional intelligence will also be of increased importance. Often referred to as ‘interpersonal skills’, many of these traits will be critical for successful leadership practice into the future.

Technology aside, leaders also need to take into account the changing structure of work. The old idea of a ‘job for life’ is long gone – many younger workers switch jobs frequently. The number of independent workers has risen; while the gig economy offers greater flexibility and has made it easier to pursue a ‘portfolio’ career. Some work for multiple companies.

Nicole admits that some may be uneasy about using staff who are working for the company and its competitors, but believes the future calls for a more collaborative approach.

“Leaders need to find ways to allow people to capitalise on their skill sets, give them a sense of agency in what they are doing and provide an ecosystem for capability and skill sharing supported through the introduction of AI and technology."

“The Airbnb model has shown that people can operate as independent owners but with a collective goal. Businesses need to take a more collaborative approach to creating value. This will be harder for some industries than others. The energy sector is one example where companies are starting to work together to achieve common goals, such as controlling emissions.”

“The future of business is about collaboration, not coordination. It’s a future where leaders work with teams inside and outside their organisations to leverage resources, innovate and create value."

"These leaders will be exceptionally adaptable, embrace workplace diversity, drive organisation sustainability for multiple stakeholders, and have well-developed ‘interpersonal skills’ to influence others.”

Ultimately, in the age of AI and automation, leaders need to understand how to build technology into their business and design their service in such a way as to exploit its full potential.

Nicole adds, “improving productivity is not sufficient if it doesn’t add value to customers, employees and other stakeholders. Leaders need the skills to ensure that technology is an enabler of value creation rather than a burden.”

Want to find out more about the future of leadership?

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