Is Your AI Approach Losing its Humanity? - Michelle Gibbings

A group of robots sitting in front of laptops

I am happy to fess up and admit that I have a troubling relationship with self-service check-outs. As the machine yells at me for the tenth time, ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area,’ I think, yes, there is something unexpected in that bagging area—my heart and soul.

My shopping companion and husband, Craig, always finds it amusing how frustrated I can get with that technology. His advice is that I am moving too quickly for the machine and need to slow down.

Curiously, I watched the other day as people went to self-service despite the fact that there was staff on the check-out counters. So accustomed to there being no one to help, their default is now self-service rather than engaging with a human.

Across the workplace landscape, we hear so much about our technological future, but in this race are we losing the human-to-human equation?

Organisations are rushing to adopt AI, particularly the tools available from the large language models. These tools are remarkable, but they come with ethical challenges, and leaders need to be conscious and deliberate about their choices.

Fear of missing out is not a strategic reason for adopting AI technology, and just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

The 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report surveyed 46 countries, representing about 80 per cent of the global workforce, and found that fewer than 5 per cent of occupations could be fully automated, but about 60 per cent could have at least 30 per cent of their activities automated.

They concluded that most fields would change in some way.

Jump ahead to today, and the rapid advance of AI is exposing large new swaths of the workforce to disruption due to the ability to automate non-routine tasks.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report (2023) outlined how 43% of work tasks will be automated, and a quarter of jobs will change by 2027.

Research by Professor Ed Felten and colleagues ranking occupations based on their potential to be disrupted by AI reinforced the message that any process-based tasks could be automated. Their research shows that the professions with the least to fear involve movement and service—for example, dancers and many trades.

Sam Altman, who started the Open AI company, said “…all repetitive work that does not require human emotional connection is likely going to be at least greatly supplemented by machine learning”.

It’s unsurprising, consequently, that we hear a lot about the future being STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths. But it’s never that simple. We must remember the human-to-human equation.

Sharpen Your Competitive Advantage
There is much humans can do that computers and robots can’t.

While the predictable, routine and process elements of roles will be automated or done by robots, what can’t be automated are relational, emotional and leadership skills.

Social-emotional skills are already in high demand, and there are many instances where they are missing or not given enough emphasis.

Shifting Skill Emphasis
This new digital and automated world is shifting emphasis on skills and capabilities. It prizes curiosity, creativity, problem-solving, initiative, adaptability and EQ.

Some of the fastest-growing occupations require higher cognitive capacity and explicit social-emotional skills. Consequently, having strong self-awareness and emotional intelligence is just as important as technical skills.

Wisely Leverage the Tech to Your Advantage
A critical element for leaders is deliberately deciding how to use technology to elevate productivity while maintaining the human element.

Identify repetitive and time-consuming tasks that can be automated using technology. This approach lets your team members focus on more strategic and value-added work.

Streamline workflows and processes through digital automation, eliminating bottlenecks and reducing manual errors. Use analytics insights to identify improvement areas, optimise workflows, and make data-driven decisions to enhance performance.

As part of this, encourage team members to stay abreast of emerging technologies and trends. Provide opportunities for experimentation and innovation and encourage them to contribute ideas on leveraging technology to improve outcomes.

Elevating the Human-to-Human Equation
Technology can’t replace connection. At our core, humans need connection, community and collaboration to survive.

Johann Hari’s excellent book – Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions is a stark reminder that, as humans, we crave connection. Without connection, we feel lost and isolated, impacting our mental health and well-being.

Therefore, if you want a thriving organisation and team, it’s imperative to prioritise the human-to-human equation.

Here are a few strategies to strengthen this vital aspect:

  1. Cultivate a human-centric work culture by prioritising employee well-being, mental health, and work-life balance. A supportive and inclusive work environment fosters interpersonal connections and encourages people to do their best.
  2. Invest in emotional intelligence training because it equips employees with the skills to understand and connect with others. It can help build stronger teams, improve leadership effectiveness, and enhance customer interactions.
  3. Encourage collaboration across different teams and departments to break down silos, promote knowledge-sharing, and enable a diverse range of perspectives to come together for innovative problem-solving.

The central question for leaders to ponder is how they are ensuring that they’re making wise decisions about AI’s use and continuing to ensure that their workplace isn’t losing its heart and soul.

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