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The Role of Automation Will Augment Human Skills, Not Discard Them

“There has never been, nor will there ever be, a better time to be in HR.”

These were the words Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director at Willis Towers Watson, used to open the closing keynote speech at Human Resource Executive’s 2019 HR Tech Conference and Exposition, “Reinventing Jobs: Automation and the Future of Work.”

“When the words ‘future of work’ get thrown around, they mean many different things to different people,” he said.


For some, such words conjure up images of machines doing all the work that humans once did, and where said humans are now essentially obsolete in the workforce. For others, they imagine a workplace in which humans are constantly reinventing themselves. For Jesuthasan, he imagines something in between those extremes — though, perhaps, with a tilt toward the reinvention side.

“The speed and quantum of change has never been higher,” he said. The make-up of the workforce is changing, the nature of the work is changing and how we do that work is also changing.

Consider today’s children, Jesuthasan notes. Not only are they entering a world in which their careers can span 60 years, but they may have more than career during that timeframe.

“Our children will need to reinvent themselves three or four times,” he said.

The good news is that the employers of today see this and are already preparing by moving their learning and development programs from the fringes and to the “centerpiece” of everything.

“The most compelling reason to stay with an organization is their ability to keep [their employees’] skills relevant,” he said.

Enter Automation

The concept of automation is nothing new. Ever since the time of Henry Ford and his introduction of assembly lines, organizations have always been keen to adopt the latest and greatest in the realm of automation.

Consider, for instance, flight simulators, which have been helping pilots and astronauts get the training they need to best do their jobs — but in a much safer environment than a real-life flight.

These days, that typically means adopting the power of artificial intelligence (AI). But even that technology has been around longer than we may realize.

“AI isn’t new,” Jesuthasan said. “It’s been around since the mid-50s. What it lacked was the infrastructure to pull it all together.”

In today’s workplace — and certainly, in the workplace of tomorrow — these “exponential advances” in technology are changing a breakneck speed, “reshaping the ecosystem of the workplace.” Instead of just using automation to reduce errors and save a couple bucks here and there, automation is “changing the way work is done so we can use employees with more skills, as well as employees with less skills.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that machines will soon replace humans all together. Quite the opposite, in Jesuthasan’s opinion.

For one, certain tasks — particularly repetitive tasks — can be automated, acting as a substitute for the human who once had those responsibilities. That in turn gives the human more time to focus on other higher-value tasks. Secondly, some tasks can be done better working alongside technology that augment’s a human’s skills, producing even better results.

“For every small improvement in performance, the value to the organization is exponential,” Jesuthasan said.

And last, but certainly not least, automation transforms the function of the job. But Jesuthasan asserts that this does not mean the job will disappear.

New World, New Jobs

Jesuthasan tells the story of one client, a United Kingdom-based retailer that integrated AI into its customer service. The AI could categorize, within seconds, the emotion of the caller and then direct the call to the representative that could best deal with the issue. So, say you are angry that your order was delayed. You call customer service and are already in a heightened emotional state. The AI picks up on this and quickly goes through the initial phases of the call and sends you to a rep that has been given a script of what to say — or not say, as the case may be — to not only help diffuse the ticking time bomb, but also handle the customer’s complaint as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Jesuthasan tells another story about an oil and gas company that realized most of the tasks performed on its drilling platforms could be done using AI. Those tasks had previously been done by actual drillers, who relied largely on their experience and expertise to determine when to pull which lever or where to drill. But the productivity variants across rigs were reaching 30% to 40% — a figure that immediately gained attention of leadership.

And so, AI was introduced into the process. The humans who had done the work were reskilled to use the technology and were shifted from the dangerous drilling platform to an air-conditioned control room.

“The presence of automation creates a demand for new jobs,” Jesuthasan pointed out.

Of course, productivity was a key metric leadership was focused on: Did AI have an impact? Did productivity variants improve? Hands down, the answer was yes, as the variants fell to 3% to 4% across the many rigs. Other data showed that profits improved by 45%, employment stability (i.e., retention) stabilized and wage premiums rose 7% to 13% — a boon for both the employer and its employees.

Reskilling Clapback

Unfortunately, not all employees will want to be reskilled for the jobs of tomorrow.

“Some are hesitant to be reskilled, even if it means more money,” Jesuthasan said. “I would not underestimate the will of the people.”

He concedes that it will be “a challenge” to overcome the “will gap,” as he calls it. And, while “not a trivial” challenge, it can be done.

For their part, employees, as well as employers, need to realize the need for ambidexterity in their work. Where can the organization be more agile? Where does it need to be more of a formal process? Acknowledging these things can go a long way.

“Technology has conditioned us to expect that it will become obsolete,” he said. “We demand it.” But when it comes to work, we must recognize that those same expectations are playing out.

“To be agile means to recognize that,” he said.

For the HR function, the current and future role of automation is limitless. But it doesn’t mean that the people running HR will become obsolete, but that the way they perform their roles evolves.

“HR can shift is mandate from being a steward of employment and instead become a steward of work,” Jesuthasan said.


Will Robots Kill Our Jobs?

In this Q&A with the Boston Globe, David Autor, a professor of economics and member of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, sheds light on the key takeaways from “The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions.”

Preparing for Automation

Harvard Business Review’s Tiger Tyagarajan considers what the future of automation means for workers. His conclusion: Stay curious and don’t stop learning.

Warehouse Workers on Edge

As Amazon moves to automate more and more of its fulfillment centers, its employees — both current and future — are seeing other opportunities open up in the field of logistics. This piece from KCRW discusses how Amazon’s automation movement is affecting the Inland Empire.

Job Augmentation

MarTechSeries’ Rob Carpenter offers a more positive view on the future of AI in the workplace. Like Jesuthasan, he believes that future will see job augmentation, not job elimination.

Safe from Automation

For those who are still concerned about the impact automation may have on their jobs, Burning Glass Technologies Inc., an analytics software company that focuses on real-time data on job growth, in demand skill and labor market trends, published this list of the 10 tech jobs with low automation risk.

About the Author

Stephanie N. Rotondo is managing editor of Workspan magazine.

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