‘Learn to be a centaur’: how HR must take the lead in AI and workplace innovation

In May 2017, Frazer Jones in Amsterdam brought together HR Directors from around the world for a HRD Circle. Mandy Chooi, previously Global Director of Strategy & Innovation for HR at ING, looked at how the growing presence of AI means that HR must be an instigator for change within businesses. She also explained what ‘being a centaur in the workplace’ actually means...

In 1997, Steven Hankin of McKinsey coined the phrase ‘the war for talent’, describing the growing need for highly skilled employees and the failure of businesses to attract the best talent at a time when revenues were rising quickly.

That same year, the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov took on the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue and lost – the first time a human had lost a game of chess to a computer.

So began Mandy Chooi at the latest session of Frazer Jones’ Global HRD series. With 20 years in global leadership roles – including most recently at ING – Ms Chooi has led large-scale culture strategy changes in a range of sectors.

Twenty years on from Hankin’s war and Kasparov’s loss, the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) is disrupting the entire working environment – and we’ve still only seen the tip of the iceberg. As arbiters of the working environment, it’s down to HR to leverage the changes.

A changing world
Ms Chooi put forward the case that we are hurtling towards a fourth Industrial Revolution: the Intelligence Revolution. If the first was brought on by steam and mechanical production, the second by electricity and mass production, the third by IT and automated production – the fourth involves cyber, AI and the Internet of Things.

Despite similarities to the third in terms of its tech-focus, this revolution is distinct and the breakthroughs are bigger. “The scope is vastly larger and will impact every country and every industry,” she said.

It’s often said that the Intelligence Revolution will increase productivity and quality of life – but research from Accenture suggests that global economic growth has virtually flatlined since the 1980s. Clearly businesses are not dealing with the advent of AI successfully.

The fear that AI will take away jobs prevails. But, Ms Chooi noted, David Autor, Professor of Economics at MIT says: “Often people only think of AI boosting growth by substituting humans, but actually huge value is going to come from the new goods, services and innovations AI will enable.”

The opportunities are there. The same Accenture research surveyed the top 12 economies in the world and suggested that by 2035, AI will have doubled economic growth and boosted labour productivity up to 40% – but only if countries have state-optimised AI in areas such as government and education. And for the moment, that’s a big ‘if’.

Impact on the workplace
Across the board, seemingly regardless of the source you choose to study, the numbers tally up the same way. Around 93% of companies feel their workforces are not prepared for AI; 95% of workers think they need new skills to stay relevant and only 21% believe their employer is effectively developing them for future work.

For Ms Chooi, these figures are a “call to arms for HR”. She cited a lack of agile culture as the biggest threat to businesses, alongside problems recruiting – both falling within HR’s remit to solve.

The impact of AI is felt by a greater reliance on people and community. “We are underestimating the importance of social intelligence and interpersonal skills in running a business and building a community,” she said. “That is something you will always be better at than a machine.”

AI necessitates a change in managers’ everyday roles. Current figures suggest that managers spend more than 50% of their time on coordination and control tasks – the exact type of work we can expect AI to take over soon.

To thrive in coming years will require employees to excel at ‘judgment work’ – that combination of creativity and social insight: connecting seemingly disconnected ideas in a way that AI cannot compete with.

How HR must take the lead in AI and workplace innovation

What should HR do?
It is vital for HR leaders to talk to the board/business leaders about purpose. As Ms Chooi said: “Purpose drives performance. People want to buy from or work for companies that have a real reason for being.”

In the last 20 years, purpose-led companies have outperformed others by 10 to one, thanks to more engaged, satisfied and therefore productive employees. A clear, company-wide sense of purpose acts as a growth driver, talent magnet and purchase trigger. And it’s within HR’s hands to push its importance.

One thing that’s important to remember is that any change pushed for by HR to senior management should also be reflected in the HR team itself. HR needs to walk the walk – or, as Ms Chooi put it, “eat your own dog food!”

If HR is pressing company boards or managers to focus on the customer experience journey, the same principles must be in place for the HR team itself – with employees as the customers. In that scenario, how is customer loyalty earned? With great performance and commitment.

“HR has a choice,” said Ms Chooi. “We can be the support organisation and let business leaders make these very important decisions [...] or HR can be the trusted and credible voice of wisdom that guides these major decisions.”

Eight-point plan
Ms Chooi suggested eight ways that HR can transform organisations and leverage the advancement of AI:

  • Start now. Get professional help from consultants and experts
  • Get educated and educate the organisation
  • Start experimenting
  • Be willing to disrupt yourself
  • Engage leaders to be hands-on
  • Redesign the organisation
  • Don’t just rely on the ‘usual suspects’ to facilitate that redesign – look to less familiar parts of the business
  • Have fun

They may not all work for every business – so it might be that committing to just a few of these points is more viable. As long as there is commitment to the objective and measuring impact, the transformation will be underway.

Conclusion (and what about that centaur?)

When Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in May 1997, the chess master took some time away to consider the impact of the result. He came back with ‘freestyle chess’ – where a chess player joins up with a machine to take on another human/machine duo. Over time, freestyle chess also became known as centaur chess.

In centaur chess, the human is augmented by great AI. And tests show that each time two good components (one human, one machine) take on one excellent human or one excellent machine, the hybrid wins. Regardless of the quality of that one component, the hybrid is victorious every single time.

The key to that combination lies in communication. “You don’t need a superhuman or a super-computer: you need a super-interface,” said Ms Chooi. “And that is promising.”

Being a centaur in the workplace means taking advantage of machine-learned analytics and adding human intuition. There may be superb data collected by machines on employee satisfaction gleaned from internal data, but human intuition can still make connections and gather emotional insight far beyond that of a computer.

Technology that defines HR is not yet in place. The most promising so far are apps in the space of learning and engagement. Technology for performance management is not yet at a high enough level.

“I really hope that we will see something amazing in the next year,” said Ms Chooi, “because we need it. The technology in HR is sadly lacking right now.”

For the time being, the role of HR is to leverage the possibilities that come with AI by taking the lead in transforming workplace culture – and getting the best of man and machine.

Mandy Chooi - HRD Amsterdam

More about Mandy:
Mandy is a global leader with broad business and cultural acumen and a focus on organizational culture, talent strategy and leadership impact. She has partnered with top leaders in Fortune 500s, including technology, professional services, manufacturing, banking and FMCG firms on their business and cultural transformation journey.

With 20 years in global leadership roles and having lived in the US, Europe and Asia, Mandy created and implemented innovative talent strategies that underscore a high performance culture in complex, high stakes environments where true re-invention is the path to continued relevance.

The two main tenets of her work are purpose and change. Helping organizations to be grounded in and led by their purpose, and helping leaders become self-aware, authentic, purpose-led, bringing out the best in themselves and others. And change; anticipating and building capabilities that position the organization to innovate, respond with agility and stay a step ahead.

At both ING and SC Johnson Mandy led the work in creating the culture change needed to deliver the new business strategy. At ING, as the Global Head of Talent, and later the Head of People Strategy & Innovation, results included a new leadership brand and capabilities development strategy, a transformed performance management approach, joint values & behaviors co-created with employees, and a newly created Leadership Council consisting of the top leaders, all driving an agile and innovative culture. At SC Johnson, as the Head of Organization & Talent Development, the achievement was the rebranding of leaders as enablers of innovation and a major improvement of the internal talent pipeline.

Currently a strategy consultant, executive coach and speaker based in Amsterdam, Mandy helps organizations design and implement their change journeys, with particular attention on the culture, the people processes, and the role of leadership.