From Versus to Plus in Future of Work: Human + Machine

New studies are published weekly, many with polarizing views: some suggest that automation will contribute to heavy job losses; others propose that some jobs will change, but quality of work will improve. And some posit that artificial intelligence (AI) will generate new categories of jobs.

Eva Sage-Gavin

Senior Managing Director of Accenture’s Talent& Organization Practice

When it comes to the debate around humans and machines, it’s primarily pessimists versus optimists, losses versus gains.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see an innovative view from my Accenture colleagues Paul Daugherty, Chief Technology & Innovation Officer, and Jim Wilson, managing director, Information Technology and Business Research, in their book, Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI.

The authors reframe the debate entirely—moving it from versus to plus, or +. Notice the emphasis in this quote, “AI systems are not just automating many processes, making them more efficient; they are now enabling people and machines to work collaboratively in novel ways. In doing so, they are changing the very nature of work, requiring us to manage our operations and employees in dramatically different ways.”[1]

 Focusing on job content

Reading Human + Machine reinforces many of my beliefs about how digital technology is changing the future of work. With much of the current jobs debate focused on versus, I believe HR leaders and other business executives are missing a key point: the impact of automation is not related to the number of jobs, but rather on the actual content of jobs themselves.

The research underpinning Human + Machine indicates the greater power of AI is in complementing and augmenting human capabilities. In other words, people will increasingly collaborate with intelligent machines to do more complex and higher value work that requires judgment, experience and expertise. That’s an exciting new way to think about the concept of jobs. It also changes the foundation of the HR profession.

As shown in numerous examples throughout the book, companies across multiple industries are realizing that intelligent machines go well beyond automation. Artificial intelligence can amplify and improve the work people do—making it more human.

In this new world, HR leaders must reimagine the unique tasks of humans—and modify the content of their work in order to help the company achieve growth. This is the “new normal” that HR leaders must embrace while helping employees to develop new HR skills, or human + machine fusion skills, and capabilities.

I believe this is a compelling invitation to fundamentally reinvent the HR field and the very concepts of work, tasks and employment. It’s time to be innovative and boldly navigate these shifts.

The starting place is redefining traditional jobs. While certain job tasks might always be a better fit for either human or machine, many old jobs will be transformed, and new jobs will emerge around human-machine teams–new ways of working that are largely missing from today’s economic research and reporting on jobs.[2]

Another area is rethinking employee roles. Imagine ones that change fluidly based on a given project. Think of the outcomes that multiple people–each with their own skill set and domain expertise–could create by assembling around a stakeholder need. This liquid workforce model will change core HR practices, many of which are based on traditional functional jobs with a fixed set of tasks.

And what about talent acquisition? Human + machine can improve this process, too. For example, a global consumer products goods company is applying AI to help hire employees.[3] For the first round, job applicants play a series of online games based on tests from the field of cognitive neuroscience. The games assess certain traits, like risk aversion and ability to read emotional versus contextual cues. There are no right or wrong answers to the games because an appetite for risk might be suitable for one type of job while an aversion to risk might be better for another.

If job applicants make it to the next round, they submit a video-recorded interview in which they answer questions designed for the specific position. The answers are analyzed by an AI application that notes the wording, body language and tone the applicant uses. The best candidates for the position are then invited to the company offices, where they can then be assessed by humans who make the final hiring decision.

The results? Among other benefits, the average time for the company to hire an employee dropped from four months to just four weeks, and the time that recruiters spent reviewing applications decreased by 75 percent.

 Succeeding together

While it’s hard to predict what the future holds, we can all see that the world is changing fast. In terms of talent and organization, I especially appreciate this perspective from the book, “The companies that succeed think of AI as an investment in human talent first and technology second. They value workers who are adaptable, entrepreneurial and open to retraining. Then these companies provide support to ensure that their workers and AI systems can succeed together.”[4]

Clearly, yesterday’s HR models will not work tomorrow. Humans plus machines shows us a way forward. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the HR field. We have an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine and reinvent fundamental concepts of employment and job content—with a sense of innovation, agility and exploration.

How is your company thinking beyond the great automation of jobs debate? 

How are you moving from versus to human plus machines?

It’s time to reimagine the future of work and reshape our workforces to thrive.


Eva Sage-Gavin

Senior Managing Director of Accenture’s Talent& Organization Practice

[1] Human + Machine, page 2

[2] Human + Machine, page 105

[3] Human + Machine, page 50

[4] Human + Machine, page 106

  • Published in LinkedIn originally on May 10, 2018