AI, analytics and the contingent workforce named as major disruptive forces by University of Bath expert panel

HR professionals must grapple with a number of disruptive forces in the workplace – and in particular must become the masters of people analytics, according to an expert panel debating the future of work.

At an event organised by the University of Bath, HR professionals and academics considered the way technology and the new economy will affect businesses and the people profession in particular.

Analytics, AI and the shift to a contingent workforce were identified as particularly profound issues. And Juani Swart, professor in human capital management at the University of Bath, said ownership of data was a vitally important matter for HR.

“We no longer work within a single set of organisational boundaries – we work in a very networked way,” said Swart. “It challenges the notion of what an employee is, and it challenges the HR models we use to manage people. In particular, we need to understand how networks manage people.”

Employees increasingly take on multiple identities and roles and work across multiple teams, she said. Suppliers operate as part of client organisations and people from different disciplines are likely to collaborate on projects, rather than existing in fixed departments.

Such shifts have given rise to an explosion in analytics, said Swart. There is an opportunity for HR professionals to upskill themselves to master the topic and offer real value to their organisations; but there is also a danger that ‘superstatisticians’ will teach themselves HR and take ownership of the agenda. “Depending on which route dominates, it will change what happens in HR,” she added.

“We need to shift the profession rather than panic. We need to understand the shifts in professional work and the talent market, and understand how to shape HR practice accordingly.”

Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, pointed to the contingent workforce – whose rise has been documented in People Management – as a particularly pressing issue for HR. “We’ve got to think creatively about where we’re going to get our skills and talent in future. The workforce of today, let alone tomorrow, is heterogeneous,” he said.

A debate was overdue, Cheese added, about the nature of ‘good work’, and the government, he said, would increasingly intervene actively in the labour market.

The panel agreed that AI, and the impact it could have on HR roles, was little understood at present. “The impact of technology – in terms of how it will affect jobs, how and where we work, and the relationship between knowledge, people and capital – is very profound,” said Cheese. “There’s too much complacency about technology – we have to think very deeply.”

A focus on more human skills, such as empathy and creativity, was a potential upside to the wider adoption of AI in the workplace. But Swart said the changes wreaked by AI and technology more broadly would also put the issue of resilience firmly back on organisational and personal agendas.

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