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5 ways HR can tackle diversity and inclusion to build talented organisations in the age of Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is burgeoning in HR but there are serious issues over artificial intelligence and inclusion. But, says inclusion expert Nick Basannavar, as custodians of organisational wellbeing and performance HR can harness the positive aspects of new technologies to advance diversity and inclusion. Here’s how

5 ways HR can tackle diversity and inclusion in the age of Industry 4.0

We are living through a technological revolution, popularised by Karl Schwab of the World Economic Forum as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, or ‘Industry 4.0’.

Here we will explore what we mean by Industry 4.0, and then look at the powerful implications it holds for diversity and inclusion, for the wider working world, and for the organisations that populate it.

The new workplace

Concepts such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are not new. They have been prevalent in human myth, art, science and speculation since ancient times. Fears about robots – some justified – have abounded for centuries: that they will take human workers’ jobs or that they will rise up and overthrow the human species. Industry 4.0 is set to take that anxiety to another level. The sheer number and complexity of features and terms increases this fear. This includes the Internet of things (IoT); robotic process automation; machine learning; artificial intelligence; quantum computing; genetic engineering; augmented, virtual and extended reality; metaverses like Mark Zuckerberg’s reshaped Facebook venture; 3D printing; cloud computing; big data; big analytics; smart sensors.

Industry 4.0 examples in an HR context which are already here include:

  • Accelerated adoption of next-generation business collaboration tools, notably virtual workplace worlds through the metaverse
  • Hybrid human-robot teams
  • Automated customer-facing interactions, including robot or drone mail/food/package delivery services
  • Smart talent management systems such as workloading and role allocation tools
  • AI-enabled sentiment analysis for employers to better understand their workers and customers’ views 
  • AI-powered customer insights, for example in banking, trading and financial services 
  • AI-powered business analytics, including in fraud detection in financial services; language analytics of contracts in legal firms; selection of participants for clinical trials in pharmaceutical firms  

The AI/inclusion problem

One of the most troubling features of Industry 4.0 is the startling lack of diversity among the teams of programmers and managers at its vanguard. This contributes to blind spots in design processes and ultimately in faulty, non-inclusive products and services. According to data scientist Steve Nouri, ‘due to the lack of diverse engineers and researchers, the products that are developed and used by billions of users may result in the propagation of bias on a large scale’. When it comes to AI, the Eritrean computer scientist Timnit Gebru claims that there are ‘almost no Black researchers’ and ‘we are in a diversity crisis’. Even if we do factor in and successfully utilise diversity, the nature of AI is such that bias is always likely to exist in data sets.     

The damaging risk we are left with is that due to biased repetitive programming, outcomes could be less accessible and less equal technology, when the intention is to create the opposite. A lack of diversity and inclusion in our teams can and will create rotten consequences. Thankfully, the inverse is also true: if we can design with diversity and inclusion genuinely at the centre, we can create great outcomes. HR leaders with responsibility for recruiting and retaining talent need to hold these ideas close.

Industry 4.0 is also seeing the reinforcement of existing economic and labour inequalities within economies, cultures and organisations. Automation, contrary to popular opinion, is unlikely to create a mass (human) unemployment event. In 2017 McKinsey found that while 50% of tasks performed by workers could be automated, only 5% of actual jobs could be fully automated. Nonetheless, many jobs will be surpassed. And as the World Economic Forum stated in 2020, ‘inequality is likely to be exacerbated by the dual impact of technology and the pandemic recession. Jobs held by lower wage workers, women and younger workers’ were harder hit. We know that it is predominantly marginalised ethnic and socio-economic groups who occupy the lowest-paid, highest-risk roles. People leaders need to think deeply about this if they have the ambition to build diverse and inclusive teams.   

The prize and how to achieve it

The happy news is that if we get it right technologies such as AI and automation can be a force for inclusive good in building talented organisations.    

At Included, we break down complex challenges using a simple but powerful intervention model that has helped HR leaders to categorise and catalyse diversity and inclusion work for more than a decade. This mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive (MECE) framework is constituted of strategy, data, governance, leadership and systems work. Ideally, these are approached sequentially, in that order.   

  1. Strategy
    In the era of Industry 4.0, the uncomfortable reality for many organisations is that top-down purpose statements and strategies often fail to inspire. Once we have both broader and localised strategic directions clearly set, empowering local teams to forge their own paths, we can ensure that any Industry 4.0 interventions in our organisation are meaningful and supportive. Don’t implement new technologies for implementation’s sake. Consider why it is that we are introducing this technology, and what they can do to help.   

  2. Data
    Taking an evidence-led approach is the second critical step in getting D&I work right in the age of Industry 4.0. We must first hold up the mirror to our teams – and we can use Industry 4.0 tools to help do it. Who are we in terms of diversity right now? Who are we going to be in three, five or 10 years? How are we doing in terms of inclusion? And how are we going to leverage technology to keep monitoring progress? Such interventions, executed regularly, will provide powerful actionable insights.

  3. Governance
    What is clear is that those who look after organisational governance cannot be passive when it comes to reconciling Industry 4.0 and inclusion. This means ongoing self-education: listening to your organisation and external expertise to truly understand the risks, challenges and long-term benefits that will arise from the intersection of technological change and inclusion. It means providing the oversight needed to empower teams to experiment and to control new technologies, rather than being controlled or led by them.

  4. Leadership
    In his 1935 essay In Praise of Idleness’, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that ‘modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all [but] … we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines’. ‘In this,’ he reckoned, ‘we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever’. For leaders, the most powerful feature of a pandemic-heralding Industry 4.0 is not robotic process automation or augmented reality. It’s empathy. The direction of travel and the source of corporate excitement with Industry 4.0 seems to be frictionless productivity. This is a very dangerous place to go without thought for the human consequences. In its simplest form, inclusion is adaptation. And leaders need to adapt to teams, rather than expecting teams to solely adapt to them.

  5. Systems
    Systemic challenges require careful, systemic approaches. Institutional racism has been a centuries-long process; we cannot dismantle it overnight. The fifth key approach to D&I is to build it into all our teams, functions, processes and activities, whether in talent and HR, marketing, procurement, investments, operations or product design, or anything else. Industry 4.0 has a huge role to play here. Its emergent technologies are themselves being systematically introduced into all imaginable categories of work processes, and if we can get the inputs right, we can harness these advances to accelerate systemic change and to create inclusive teams.   

The prize is great. Businesses have a lot of waking up to do, but they will continue to have a huge role to play in our communities. We know that accessible products and services are better for everyone. We know that diverse and inclusive teams are happier and stronger performing. For HR leaders, as the custodians of organisational wellbeing and performance, it is inclusion that could be the path through the staggering technological changes the planet and its people are undergoing.

Nick Basannavar, pictured below, is head of consultancy at Included and a contributing author to The Key to Inclusion: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity and Belonging for You, Your Team and Your Organization, edited by Stephen Frost, published by Kogan Page

Nick Bassannavar

Published 27 July 2022
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