Workforce Development, AI, and the Future of Work

In the ever-changing business landscape, how can a company's HR department use AI to navigate the future of work?


Jul 30, 2019

Workforce development has changed dramatically over the last few years. Challenges on how to tackle the future of work and related ethical issues abound. For example, how should companies help older workers transition to new ways of doing their jobs? How can they address the needs of a new generation of employees who care less about work-life balance, and more about work-life integration? And how can HR leverage emerging technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) to better meet employees' needs and help them wade through the overwhelming amount of data available to get answers to their specific problems?

Emily He, Senior Vice President of Human Capital Management at Oracle, has been giving all these questions a lot of thought. Watch the video as she shares her insight into the future of work, talent management, and incorporating enterprise software and AI to help humanize the office environment.

According to Emily, the concept of humanizing work means helping employees be the best they can be while connecting with the company's value. For companies, it also means understanding how their customers engage with the software they use in a conversational way, using, say, voice or text. She sees AI taking shape in enterprise software, freeing up time for workers to do more creative, strategic activities.

Emily also talks about the challenges for HR in helping workers to deal with the automation of their old jobs and to acquire new skill sets in order to transition to new job functions. On the flip side, it also means adapting to the way new employees engage with technology in their lives and incorporating new styles of work into the company's environment.

Overall, she believes HR sits at the intersection of technology, humanity, and work, and enjoys a unique position to use technology to deliver a better employee experience.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Krigsman: In this era of AI, humanizing work, the future of work, the impact on our workforce and even on HR is crucial. We're speaking with Emily He, who is the Senior Vice President for Human Capital Management (Oracle HCM) at Oracle. It's such an important topic. Emily, tell us first about your role at Oracle.

Emily He: I've been at Oracle for two years. I'm responsible for the global go to market strategy and marketing of our Human Capital Management Cloud Solution. I feel incredibly fortunate to have this role because I sit at the intersection of technology, work, and humanity. All three are converging and changing rapidly.

What does humanizing the workforce mean?

From my perspective, humanity and work, or humanizing work, are all about allowing people to be the best they can be. The most productive self they can be at work. It's about bringing their whole self to work and making employees feel that they can connect to the meaning and purpose of their company as well as using the tools they are familiar with so that they can be productive.

I think, socially, there is a bigger trend going on, which is, there used to be this separation between work and life. That's why people talk a lot about work/life balance instead of work/life integration. With the millennials and GenZ entering the workforce, they're demanding a very different mindset in work. They want to bring their whole self to work; they want a sense of meaning and purpose at work; they want to be better connected with the company's value; and they want to understand the social impact of the company in the society at large.

The other thing is, they really want to use the tools they're familiar with because technology is now a very integral part of their daily lives. They're looking to use the same tools that they're already using in their day-to-day lives, whether it's social technology, mobile technology, or artificial intelligence.

How does AI affect HCM practices?

To your point, this idea of humanizing work has existed for a very long time, starting with the agricultural economy and the Industrial Revolution. I think it's taking on a different meaning. Back in the Industrial Revolution world or era, when we talk about humanizing work, it's really about humanizing the condition of the work. People don't want to do repetitive work. They don't want to deal with noise in the factory. They want to work fewer hours, so that's the kind of stuff we were talking about back then.

Now that a lot of people are working in better conditions, they're working with computers. They're working in much better settings. There's this illusion that humanizing work is no longer a topic whereas, I believe, behind the computer screen, the same type of repetition and drudgery is happening. Even though people are working in the office, they are engaging with their computer, they're using software to do work, the way they are using a computer, the type of work they're doing is still pretty repetitive, in many cases, and quite stressful.

In the enterprise software world, if you really think about enterprise software, it's really a way to codify your business processes using software and then scaling the business processes across the entire company. The way you use enterprise software is you pre-prescribe business processes. You codify the business processes. Then every time you execute a business process, you have to do data entry. Then the business process will be executed and an outcome will come out.

Now, you have to do that repeatedly. In many ways, it's the same manual labor. It's the same kind of repetition. I don't believe people naturally want to do that.

The great thing about today is, the way we're engaging with technology is starting to change very rapidly and you already see that in our day-to-day lives. People are already using Siri, Alexa, and they're using Google Assistant to engage with software or technology in their day-to-day lives. They're using things like Google Map to guide them through their daily experience. People want to have the same experience at work.

We are starting to see our customers engaging with the software in a very conversational way using voice, using text, and they're also expecting a different type of help from their software. They want nudges. They want recommendations. They want insights the computers can recommend. We're starting to really see AI taking shape in enterprise software and it's starting to make work more human in the sense that it's behaving like humans and also is freeing up time for people to do more creative and strategy type of work.

Does automation de-humanize work?

That's the first step. That has been going on for a while. We're taking it to the next level.

A lot of companies talk about digital transformation. Digital transformation is really digitizing business processes that used to be paper-based. The way we're digitizing these business processes is still very form-based.

I think there are better ways to take the automation to the next level, meaning that you don't have to execute these business processes, whether it's approving your expense reports or promoting somebody. You don't have to go through these business processes every single time manually. You can engage with the software in a conversational way and, by doing so, business processes can be happening in the background and you only have to have a conversation with the software either through text or through your voice. You don't have to touch the computer to actually do the work. That's another level of automation we're seeing more and more in the workplace. That's not the only thing we're talking about.

We're also talking about software or technology synthesizing different sources of data and coming up with recommendations. One thing I really love about my phone is, every morning, it tells me when I should leave for work. It's synthesizing my calendar data with the traffic data. It's saying, "Hey, if you have a meeting in Redwood Shores," which is my office and I live in San Francisco, "you need to leave now because the traffic is really bad." Now, that's really helpful and people are expecting more of these nudges or recommendations from their work technology as well, either in the area of career development, learning, or recruiting.

How does AI affect job design and performance management?

To your point, there is going to be a huge amount of job redesign. A lot of the work that's currently repetitive will be automated through technology. I also think the redesign will be happening through the HR function, through leadership, as well as through the employees themselves.

One of the things that I found really interesting is the piece of research that was done by Deloitte. They published this HCM trend report every year. In their recent report for 2019, they talked about this idea of super jobs.

The idea of super jobs is, employees are going to be integrating technology into their jobs and constantly think about how you use technology to automate the things you already know how to do so you can scale those business processes. In the meantime, also think of new services you can offer.

For example, in the HR function, if you're in charge of an HR helpdesk, you can use technology to automate a lot of the HR services through having a chatbot or digital assistant to answer some of the basic questions from employees, whether it's how to access their paycheck, how to get their expense reports approved, or how to navigate through the employee directory. Once you get these basic services automated, you can think of new questions that you want to answer for the employees and automate those or new, additional services you can offer to the employees.

I believe technology will be an integral part of almost everyone's job. That's one type of job redesign. How to use technology to automate the tasks that you already know how to do and then think about creative ways of the new services you can bring to your job.

The other thing is, I think there is going to be a lot more focus on creative jobs, on jobs that require empathy. For example, with digital technology, now there is a great sense of isolation and loneliness. People are spending way too much time on technology. They're not spending enough time connecting with each other. With the aging population, this is creating a sense of isolation and loneliness.

I foresee jobs like nurses in nursing homes and people who are spending quality time with older people to be much more valued and there will be an increase of those types of jobs. There are many angles by which we're going to redesign jobs. There will just be a lot of changes as a result of machine learning and AI.

How can we reduce disruption to workers during this period of workforce transition?

This is a very serious topic because people's dignity is associated with their jobs and their paycheck, so we can't take this lightly and just say, "Hey, your job has been automated. It's up to you to acquire new skillsets and apply for new jobs or embrace new jobs."

We, as a society, really need to think through the transition. How do you handle this transition in the most humane way possible? I think it's up to each company to think through, when they go through this type of transition, how they help the workers whose jobs will be replaced by machines, by AI, and how they can train them to adopt new skillsets so they can move to new job functions.

It also has to do with our educational institution because I think the future is all about continuous learning. Your learning doesn't stop with graduation from college. For your lifetime, if you're going to have anywhere between 15 to 20 jobs, you're constantly learning and acquiring new skillsets. How do we architect the educational system so people can get trained continuously? Is that the responsibility of corporations, is that the responsibility of educational institutions, or is that the responsibility of individuals? It's probably all of the above but, as a society, we need to think through how we handle this type of transition.

How should organizations address talent management and human resources today?

Companies are thinking about that. They can't afford not to think about that because employees now come and go. If you talk to the millennials and GenZ, they're very comfortable with having multiple jobs at the same time or staying in a company for two years and move on to their next tour of duty.

Companies, to make employees productive, to prepare employees for the next job assignment, they have to put the training infrastructure in place so employees can acquire new skill sets easily. They also need to help employees proactively think about their assignment may be within the company because, otherwise, they will be seeking these assignments outside the company. A company's ability to retain employees has a lot to do with their proactiveness in training and educating these employees.

You're totally right in that HR is not the only function that's being impacted by these technological changes, whether it's AI or machine learning. Everybody has been impacted, whether it's employees, managers, leaders. It's everybody's responsibility to think through how technology will impact their business model, their employee experience, and how they can use technology to deliver a better employee experience and, therefore, retain their employees and hire the right employees.

I think HR is sitting in this very interesting intersection across technology, humanity, and work, all of which are being redefined. They can play a leading role in driving that conversation in the company.

In many cases, I think HR can take an inside out approach. In the past, it used to be the customer-facing functions are the early adopters of technology. They would push technology down, more inside the organization. Then HR is usually sort of the last to adopt new technology.

In this case, because we're witnessing a bigger trend of employees wanting to converge their work and life, they want to bring their whole self to work, and they're demanding a different type of employee experience, therefore, they're demanding a different type of technology. I think HR can lead this change by proactively experimenting with the emerging tech, whether it's AI, machine learning, or conversational user interface, use that to drive some of the other functions, and really have the company be sort of the first one to experiment with these new types of technology and have the technology be pushed into other functions.

I believe HR has a really unique role to drive change. Having said that, the HR function itself will go through a lot of automation, as well, and transformation. For example, one of the things we hear constantly from our customers is, their employees are asking for a more conversational way to engage with HR helpdesk and it's really up to them to start implementing some of the emerging tech as quickly as possible to meet the changing expectations from employees.

When designing Oracle HCM software how do these trends affect your investment decisions?

The kind of mantra we've been using to guide our product design, in the last two years, our leading innovations theme has been "Make Work More Human." We are proactively using emerging technology to deliver this humanized work experience so our HR customers can, in turn, lead the conversation around superior employee experience and really deliver that value proposition to their employees.

A few things that we're doing, one is, this spring, we launched the first purpose-built, HR specific digital assistant. Through this digital assistant, you can use your voice or text to engage with the HR helpdesk and get your basic questions answered, whether it's your benefit, how to access your paycheck, get your basic expense reports approved, or navigate the employee directory, just basic HR questions. We're going to continue to evolve the digital assistant to incorporate more HR services.

As well, we're going to make the digital assistant smarter over time. We want the digital assistant to act like your personal coaches and personal mentors, really help you navigate through your career path, and make recommendations on what learning resources you should consume, as well as how you grow your career inside the company.

The other thing we're doing is, we're embedding artificial intelligence and machine learning in all aspects of our products. When our employees use our products, they get a very, very hyper-personalized kind of experience.

Right now, when we talk to customers, they're telling us; employees have this sense of overwhelm with their digital technology. There's a huge amount of digital overwhelm because there are too many tools and people have to navigate through too many different systems.

What we're doing is, when employees log into our HR system, we only want them to see the tasks, the actions, the business processes that are relevant to them personally. They can get what they need to get done quickly, they can get productive much faster, and they can move on to do more creative and strategic work.

What advice can you offer senior-level business decision-makers?

Going back to where we started this conversation, which is to change the expectation of the employees, I think the trend is clear. People want to come to work feeling like they're the same person, whether it's from the perspective of connecting with the company's purpose and meaning or using the same type of technology.

I encourage all the business leaders to take a look at what people are using in their day-to-day lives and bring that to work as quickly as possible. This one is really important for them to have the right technology partner who is proactively investing in emerging technology so they can be prepared for the future of work.

The other thing, especially related to AI, is they don't have to start with something magical or mythical. Sometimes, when people talk about AI, they get scared because it sounds really sophisticated and complicated. It doesn't have to be that way. They can start with some small use cases, whether it's starting to roll out conversational UI, experiment with digital assistants, or use chatbots for their candidate experience.

The more they can experiment, the earlier they adopt emerging technology, the more experience they will have. More importantly, if the machines need to learn, it takes time for the machines to learn as well. The sooner they can start with an AI use case, the better off they will be in the long run.

The last advice I would have is, spend time with young people because, if you spend time with Millennials or GenZ, technology is such an integral part of their day-to-day lives. By talking to them, you can really get a sense of the type of experience they want from work and shape your technology landscape in the company accordingly.

Michael Krigsman: I love that. Let's invite a Millennial to lunch so we can learn.

Yes, exactly.

Published Date: Jul 30, 2019

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 613