Connecting artificial and emotional intelligence is the missing link in successful digital transformation
The relentless march of AI continues, with exciting digital innovations unfolding across society and automation knocking on the door of pretty much every industry. The intent of these technological advances is positive. They are designed to make people’s lives easier and to help organisations operate more effectively and efficiently. But employees don’t always see it that way.
Workers worry that AI will eradicate their jobs, fear that it may be unsafe or are concerned that it will be used unethically – and as a result, many resist its introduction. The growing tide of industrial action we see unfolding across the UK, Europe and the US is a graphic illustration of this. Dig beneath the surface, and you will see that in many instances, strikes are not just about pay – they are often also about the introduction of new working practices or changes to job roles brought about by digitisation (witness Royal Mail and the rail companies, to name just a few).
What we are seeing in the organisations being torn apart by these disputes is a fight or flight response, bought about by fear of the unknown. But it’s not AI itself that is the issue – it’s the way companies are choosing to communicate about it with their people.
A catalyst for digital and cultural transformation
HR has a key role to play in paving the way for a positive introduction of AI programmes. But research from the CIPD and Hibob suggests the profession is being left out in the cold. A recent survey revealed that fewer than half of HR teams were involved in decisions to introduce automation and only a third were involved in its subsequent implementation.
This is a real missed opportunity. If organisations want to take their people with them on their digital transformation journey, they need to make a direct connection between artificial intelligence (AI) and emotional intelligence (EI). In other words, they need to underpin their AI programmes with fair, just, inclusive, people-centred and values-driven cultures, where employees feel safe to speak up, share their views and be the best possible version of themselves.
The HR function in the organisation is in prime position to be the catalyst for this culture change, facilitating ongoing dialogue within the business around modernisation, ensuring employee insights are fed into the process and supporting staff in making the necessary shift, both in terms of skills and mindset. When this persistent level of genuine dialogue exists, not only will organisations reap the benefits of an engaged workforce but they are also much less likely to find themselves butting heads against employees in a strike situation, where modernisation becomes a bargaining chip in a poker game. It’s a universal truth that people are more likely to buy into something if they feel they have been heard, valued and are a part of what is being created.
A proactive approach
Making this shift does, however, call for a proactive approach on the part of HR, who need to position themselves as the architects of transformational culture change rather than the passive recipients of an organisational initiative. Outdated perceptions of HR within a business can often get in the way of this. Many leaders still regard HR as a tactical function – one that responds to business decisions rather than being an integral part of them.
The ubiquitous HR business partner title, which still exists in many organisations, is part of the problem. It is a loaded term, which results in employees seeing HR as the organisational ‘police’ or the long arm of management. This leads to a breakdown in trust and gets in the way of the profession’s ability to facilitate the collaborative and compassionate environments organisations need if they are to modernise effectively and at speed.
Senior leaders need to work alongside HR to shake off this mantle, and develop a truly independent and objective people and culture function, where practitioners can act as a conduit between the culture of the organisation and the climate employees experience on the ground.
A transformational blueprint
Like any good architect, HR needs a blueprint to support the introduction of AI while simultaneously driving cultural transformation. The key is to overlay the organisation’s digital transformation strategy with its cultural strategy, mapping progress on both counts, pinpointing areas of convergence and divergence and identifying necessary actions.
This evidence based, data driven approach will also help to set the scene for a big and ongoing conversation with employees and all other stakeholders in a programme to introduce AI. It’s a chance to get clarity around the purpose of what the organisation is hoping to achieve, to talk to people about their needs, hopes, fears and aspirations, and to identify likely hotspots and problems before they occur.
Of course, it’s not possible to put a complete halt to conflict – whether it’s around AI or anything else - it’s part and parcel of working life in every organisation. But it is possible to mitigate it and reduce the chances of it happening, especially if everyone knows that the underlying culture in the organisation is to engage in positive, constructive dialogue when problems do occur.
As we enter into the Fourth Industrial Revolution – characterised by AI, machine learning, blockchain and crypto currency, there are exciting times ahead. I hope that HR will step up and grasp the opportunity to drive digital and cultural transformation in tandem, and to deliver lasting value to the business and its people.