In Conversation with…Martin Kirke on impact of technology on employees: Podcast

15 minute listen

The People Space's Dave Howell speaks to Martin Kirke, former HR director of the Post Office and now adviser to companies in digital and AI tech for the HR marketplace, about how HR can help employees engage with new technologies in the workplace


The People Space (TPS): So, let’s look at what we can do with it and how we can actually start to engage with technology and how it's not as frightening as it seems to be if, and it's a big if,  HR and its supporting networks approach it correctly. So my initial question is, to everyone in this series, when you're having these conversations, is it still overwhelmingly negative about tech or has that shifted?

Martin Kirke (MK): So I think it's important to understand the different impacts of the technology. And I'd say that there are four different impacts. One is to replace the job. Second  is where it enhances the skills required. Third is where it reduces the skills required for the job And, the fourth would be where it creates entirely new jobs.

So if we just take retail as an example of an industry. Actually it was yesterday that a supermarket in the UK, a Sainsbury's, opened where it's completely automated. You don't have checkouts. And clearly there have been lots of talks about Amazon shops and so on. So that to me follows a historic pattern where we've seen many jobs become automated and they no longer exist. And there clearly will be that kind of impact there.

But on the other hand, there are other cases where it's definitely enhancing skills. So for example, one of the technology trends has been to give salespeople really good apps. There's a Dutch company in particular which has created an app which enables salespeople to have vastly more information, very quickly available, but also enables them to connect up with particular customers if the customer agrees to it as well. So that in the high-end retail when somebody goes into the store, for example, it means they can have a particular sales person. So I’d say that's an example where it's definitely enhancing skills.

But there are other areas where it’s reducing skills. One of the big costs in retail is the logistics and distribution and the robotic centres, which are being very heavily invested in at the moment;  this is definitely reducing the skills that the workers in those centres need.

But on the other hand, and in my fourth case where it creates new jobs, if you take Ocado as an example, you've got an organisation which has got a completely new business model where it's a retailer, but then it's actually licensing that technology around the world to other retailers. And it's created a very significant number more jobs than new robotic design engineers. That’s clearly an example of where it’s creating new jobs.

TPS: Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just applying a piece of technology to a role and getting those benefits because the friction seems to be with the people that will use that tech. It's not simply tech for tech's sake. So I'm interested in your view on the whole sort of engagement question and how that can be improved really across all companies where this kind of technology will have an impact.

MK: Yeah. So, so I think, what's important on the engagement side, what I would see as being best practice on engagement, is first of all to understand the workforce concerns. So what are people's fears and worries?  What's their thinking on this? Ironically, actually a lot of this tech is starting to enable us to get much better information on that. So the idea of doing an annual survey for engagement is very out of date already because actually you can get that information very quickly,  particularly from app-based technology like I was talking about before and also in terms of people's comments and understanding what the sentiment is behind those comments. So I think that's a starting point. You've got to understand what those concerns are.

And then what we really needed of course is more education. The problem is that outside work people will say, you know, the robots are coming and it's all doom and disaster and there's clearly a lot of myths that need to be busted. And the best way to do that is to really have an education to the workforce. And unfortunately, probably one of the reasons why that isn't always happening is that I'm not sure business leaders in many cases themselves have really got the education to understand exactly what we mean by artificial intelligence and machine learning, etc.

The other thing is that of course in terms of engagement, you can't separate this out from other things like culture. If you've got a culture which is honest and open  and also open to innovation, then you're far more likely to be having a healthy dialogue about how this is going to change.

And the other thing is that it is engagement, but it's also for me about wellbeing strategies. There’s a huge amount of investment being made in recent years in employee wellbeing and this is really the test of it,  because when people change and there's a lot of evolutionary psychology around the impact that this is happening and people's responses to change then clearly people in many cases will see this as a threat, it will create uncertainty. So that whole support that's being implemented around wellbeing, this is when it really needs to be tested  and HR people really need to step up on that.

And the other area is coaching. You know, there's been a tradition where coaching is very much in executives, but I actually think that the career coaching and coaching people through transition is one of the key pieces of engagement. And again, I see HR as having a key role in that.

TPS: Do you think that, in the future, to make sure that engagement is real and it's practical, we need a different kind of HR?

MK: Well, I do think that actually HR’s role has never been more important and I think many of the core skills in HR around, for instance, the coaching and the learning are absolutely key. So I'm confident that  HR is a profession that has got the right tools to do this.

I think the issue is more about understanding the different kinds of impacts, that it's easy to be overly pessimistic about this and sort of mass unemployment and so on, but equally it's important not to be so optimistic that you're not being realistic and open with people. I'll give you another example, which is driverless trains. Now at some point it is clear that there will be technology change, which has already happened in some areas. There are some driverless train systems in the world which were purpose built and clearly that's an area where the job no longer exists. And I think you've got to be very careful about thinking that you have an engagement programme, which is going have a positive outcome with people whose jobs are clearly at threat like that. But on the other hand, if you do it early enough and if you do it at the point of hiring  you will be able to find retraining and learning opportunities so that those people can be redeployed into other areas and some of them will be in growth areas. And the more that you can look at the underlying skills that people have got, the more likely it is that you're going to be able to train them effectively for new roles.

TPS: Do you think that's what a next gen HR strategy looks like? It's that kind of forward thinking. It's not simply that we have a piece of technology that will impact on a section of our workforce, how can we mitigate that, how can we retrain, move people over to other skills? It’s more about the long-term view, having to factor in where the business needs to be in say, five years' time and how technology will help them get there. But then, of course, how does the human element also have a large role to play? That seems to me to be really what HR is about these days. It's that overview, that long-term holistic approach that isn't as simplistic as matching one person's skill set to a job anymore. It’s certainly more multifaceted than that, isn't it?

MK: Definitely. And I have seen this managed very well in the past because I was with Ericsson in Sweden at the time there was the huge growth of mobile telecoms and also online data. We had a workforce which have very large numbers of  skills, which were clearly going to become completely redundant in a few years' time. Things like technicians and  ) which was all in the future about software and about mobile apps and so on. And probably part of the culture, but what I saw that was different is that we did a lot of assessment to look at what the underlying skills were and trying to assess people's potential and potential for learning and development, and work with education organisations to develop those people for the jobs which were required in the future. And I think sometimes we were a little bit less willing to do that in the UK, especially as we've got quite a low productivity, low skill base. And I think if we could focus a little bit more, one on the longer-term planning, and then two in the development programmes for the skills of the future. Because at the same time as this is going on, we've got really significant skill shortages, which as HR people we’re often struggling with.

TPS: And is it about a new skill set for HR because we could flip the whole thing and say, well actually HR needs a new skill set to be able to deliver that kind of engagement to a workforce?

MK: Yes. I think that there are new skills required and I think HR is often less aware than some other functions about the potential impact in its own area. In my experience in recent months, there's been a huge increase in the amount of investment from private equity venture capitalists in AI applications within the HR space. And some of this is still quite early, but I think I haven't seen previously that much confidence or future investment in areas  which are really traditionally within the HR space. And the kind of things I'm thinking of are, again, wellness applications, engagement applications, and also all the learning side of things; a lot of development around gamification of learning to make it more interesting for people and also to apply the more social media aspects of it. So I do think it is going to be incredibly important that HR people really do keep up to date and realise that a lot of this new technology is going to impact us as well and how we do our job.

TPS: OK, well the final thing I'd like  to ask is what your advice would be if someone said: ‘Look, we were trying to understand what a digital inclusive workforce, let’s use that phrase, looks like. What advice would you give to HR professionals who are trying to understand what that means for their business?

MK: So  I think you need to start at the top. I think there are ways that you can start using to educate the leadership of the company. And some of the organisations I've worked with recently have started to do that so that the leadership really understands the technology and where it's going. And then, for it to be truly inclusive, I think you've got to look at  these differential impacts because it will be different for different groups. And I think it's really important that we're open and honest with people about it because it isn't going to feel inclusive if my job is at threat. Because if it's being invested in purely as automation to replace jobs and skills, then it's hard to see that as inclusive. But there are many cases where actually we'll be enhancing skills and where it's enhancing skills. I think it's important  that  we really look at what  learning is required in order to really leverage that technology. And the best people to do that are the people who are doing the jobs themselves. So it is really about making sure that the people who do the jobs understand what the potential is of the technology and what they need to do to apply it effectively in their work.

Published 26 June 2019
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