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I’m speaking next week at Symposium’s Successful HR Business Partnering conference, in a session on how HRBPs can use new technologies to help them in their roles.

As I reflect on what I’m going to be talking about, and what would be most useful to share, I’ve been watching proceedings at the Drucker Forum in Vienna, which aims to build on the thinking of the late Peter Drucker, and which this year has been focusing on ‘Managing in the Digital Age’.

There have been a number of excellent sessions, as I’m sure there will be next week too, but the one I’ve found to be most inspirational has been a short input from workplace thinker and author Tammy Erickson about the role of robots and humans in the future of knowledge work.

Erickson argues there are a number of areas of knowledge work which can all, and therefore at some point will all, be performed by machines.  These include using, creating, and categorising expertise which can all be done by computers.  Plus there’s assessing the outputs of this and making recommendations based upon it, and machine learning is starting to step in here too.  So for example IBM’s Watson (the computer that won Jeopardy) is making diagnostics about people’s healthcare, recommending treatment plans and is starting to outperform doctors in these tasks.  You can also get smart phones which are programmed to recognise your mood and are opening the doors to the ‘attentive company’ in which computers will step in for people I detecting and expressing emotions.

Then there’s deciding and innovating.  Computers can contribute towards these areas but there will always be areas humans can contribute towards as well.  But this is going to be in ever smaller slices as machines will increasingly erode our advantages.  However there is some good news too – firstly the total amount of innovation will grow so the human part of this may grow as well.  Secondly new tasks will appear.  And thirdly, some sector will prefer ‘human made knowledge’ though this will be somewhat nostalgic and will come at a high price too.

Based upon this analysis, Erickson suggests the most productive areas for human focus will be:

  1.   Relational tasks – connecting, sharing and empathising
  1.   Decisions involving values and morals
  1.   Things to do with change


I’m still thinking through what these points mean for my session next week but they certainly have some interesting consequences for business partners.

Firstly, the workforce is going to change substantially.  As Erickson suggests, we can’t fight the machine but we need to get ourselves ready to work alongside it.  We also need to be clear that what makes us special is leveraging our intelligence.  Since this is the case would we ever create a silo, hierarchy, or hire a purely functional specialist?  If we’ve not changed the way we’re organising it’s because we haven’t realised that we’re faced with a different question today.  I think it’s a brilliant opportunity for HRBPs, as well as a requirement for the future of our organisations, that we’re putting these questions to our business leaders, and coming up with some suggestions for how we answer the questions too.

Secondly, it’s interesting to note that HRBPs seem to operate at the epicentre of Erickson’s future human work, being based on relations, organisational values, and change management.  Unlike the rest of HR which I’m afraid faces a largely computerised future, HRBPs (or similar generalists focusing on business needs) are always going to be needed.  But this doesn’t mean that we can’t develop our effectiveness by smart use of technology – we obviously can and I think we must do so too.  It’s this that I’ll be trying to focus in my session in the conference.




Jon Ingham works as a strategic people management and organisation development consultant and trainer for Symposium. He regularly speaks and provides training in Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia and has also lectured in strategic management, change management and human resources on executive MBA courses in both West and East Europe.

Jon is also the author of ‘Strategic HCM: Creating Value through People’ (2006) and is currently completing a second book called ‘Social Advantage’. He also posts regularly to blogs with these same titles and has recently been recognised as the top global online influencer in talent management.

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