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Machine learning and alternative workforces: the future of work has arrived


By Julie Jares

Several years ago, Dr John Boudreau, university professor, HR guru and author, understood the changes we would collectively face in the workplace. "Tomorrow's workplace will be more than just an array of employees and jobs; it is being transformed into an ecosystem – a 'boundary-less' set of workers and work, not the typical jobs and employees within an organisation today," he said.

Boudreau's vision may not be realised yet, but it's clear we're on that path, and the "2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends" report surveyed nearly 10,000 respondents in 119 countries to get their insights into the changing world of work. The report identified 10 trends for companies to focus on for meaningful impact. In this post, I will explore two trends – the alternative workforce and machine learning – that are affecting human resources leaders.

The alternative workforce – it's now mainstream

Think about eBay’s effect on retail, Uber’s disruption of transportation, Airbnb’s impact on lodging and UpWork’s move into the talent market. It’s no wonder that one of Deloitte’s top trends is that alternative work is now mainstream. In a study from Harvard and Princeton scholars, the researchers found that the percentage of workers engaged in non-traditional work arrangements rose from just under 11% in February 2005 to almost 16% in late 2015. Given this rise, companies must adapt to and embrace these evolving working models and figure out how to turn them into a strategic advantage.

According to the Deloitte report, contract work has expanded to cover many more options. The term now refers to outsourced teams, contractors, freelancers, gig workers (who are paid for a task) and crowdsourced workers. But it isn't just the terminology that has changed; the relationship between employer and worker has also been shifting.

54% of Deloitte survey respondents said they either managed alternative workers inconsistently or had few or no processes for managing them at all.

"The challenge for leaders is this," said Boudreau. "It is not enough merely to be good leaders for their employees, because they may be missing a critical proportion of the people who are really doing the work. They have the chance to engage and lead a whole ecosystem of potential workers who may come to them in many different ways.”

The Deloitte research suggests, however, that "most organisations look at alternative work arrangements as a transactional solution, not as a strategically important source of talent. 54% of respondents said they either managed alternative workers inconsistently or had few or no processes for managing them at all." And yet, these roles are often the opposite of transactional. Freelance CFOs, for example, are sometimes used on a consultative basis to help with a big round of funding or during a transition between other CFOs. The report emphasises the strategic importance as well: "It enables an organisation to put the right talent in place where and when it's most needed to get results in a labour market where traditionally on-balance-sheet talent is becoming ever harder to find."

According to the report, "Organisations that take this workforce seriously can build strategies and programmes to access and engage talented people wherever they may sit in the labour pool, driving business growth and extending the diversity of the workforce."

From jobs to superjobs

Machine learning is quickly becoming integrated into many aspects of our daily lives. Think medical devices, driverless cars, temperature controls in commercial buildings and Netflix recommendations, to name a few.

But many questions continue to go hand-in-hand with any discussion about machine learning and automation: How will these technologies affect job roles? What new jobs will they create? What tasks will disappear?

Roles are changing, Deloitte’s report reveals, but perhaps not in the ways we might expect. Paradoxically, the findings state, "To be able to take full advantage of technology, organisations must redesign jobs to focus on finding the human dimension of work. This will create new roles that we call ‘superjobs’: jobs that combine parts of different traditional jobs into integrated roles that leverage the significant productivity and efficiency gains that can arise when people work with technology.”

Organisations aren’t shying away from the challenge. According to the report, a majority of organisations expect to increase their use of everything from cognitive technologies to robotic process automation over the next three years.

The only certainty in the new world of superjobs is that the balance between human capabilities and technology will continue to evolve as quickly as the technology itself.

The report finds that the need for uniquely human capabilities, such as judgment, imagination and curiosity, remains after some tasks are automated by machines. And that work is "generally more interpretive and service-oriented, involving problem-solving, data interpretation, communications and listening, customer service and empathy, and teamwork and collaboration."

The only certainty in the new world of superjobs is that the balance between human capabilities and technology will continue to evolve as quickly as the technology itself. What organisations must address now, the report warns, is how to “execute this reinvention in a manner that leads to positive results for themselves, their workers, and the economy and society as a whole.”

Embracing the new world of work

Change is the constant that tomorrow's businesses must prepare for, and the skills and jobs that are valuable today may not be the same in a few years' time. Crucially, our own research at Workday finds that chief human resources officers rank competence using new tools and technology, and cognitive ability to cope with constant change, as the skills of most benefit to their function in the next five years. If the last five years are any indicator, the next five will bring even more disruption. The organisations that will thrive are preparing now.

For more insights about the trends highlighted here, and to learn about other trends from Deloitte’s research, read our white paper, "Strategies for your future-forward workforce".