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A Frank Conversation about Automation at Learning Technologies 2019

A Frank Conversation about Automation at Learning Technologies 2019

I came away from Learning Technologies 2019 with this one critical insight: automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are fundamentally reshaping the workplace, and if organisations are not already talking about and prioritising strategies to manage this change they must start now. Consider the following research from PwC on the economic implications of AI for the UK.

AI is one of the most critical influencers on the job market, the economy, and society.  To ignore or underestimate its power is to consign your organisation and yourself to the history books in the company of Blockbuster and Kodak. As HR and L&D professionals, it is our duty to ensure organisations are prepared for and possess the skills and knowledge not just to survive but thrive in this new future.

Start with open dialogue

In her opening address Marcia Conner, CEO of Impact Ingenuity, asked attendees to speak candidly about our feelings, our fears about what’s happening right now and why so many of us are anxious about the future. She acknowledged that while the list of reasons for this anxiety and in many a sense of disorientation are numerous, one of the main concerns for us as a society is automation, and the perceived threats it will bring.

Such fears are nothing new. In fact, Daniel Susskind, Day Two’s keynote speaker, reminded us that the human fear of automation and robot overlords is as ancient as Homer and Plato. As reassuring as it is to know that we share a common concern with such brilliant minds, the question for us as L&D professionals is how do we adapt to the evolving needs of a workforce that is fundamentally changing and will continue to change as automation seeps further into every aspect of modern life?

What L&D can do now?

Marcia believes that to prepare for the future we must start making decisions about it now. These decisions must begin with a candid and honest look at what our talents and skills are and what it is we as humans can do better than robots. Following on from this introspection, she then highly recommends that everyone acquires an understanding of predictive analytics and importantly use the data to determine organisational outcomes and identify trends. Here are just a few of the essential questions every organisation needs to ask:

  • What data is your organisation collecting?
  • What ways are you interpreting this data?
  • What actions are you taking based on the data collected?
  • Who is responsible for collecting, collating and analysing the data?

Her final piece of advice is that rather than develop training courses just for the sake of it, L&D must design and create learning opportunities that give workers the confidence to navigate a workplace heavily structured and influenced by automation and AI.  As Marcia said, “This is our moment”, the ideal time for L&D to get the honest conversation started.

Think in terms of tasks not titles

As I mentioned earlier, Daniel Susskind started his speech with a trip through history reminding us that the human race has a long and complicated history with automation and fears of robot overlords. Daniel took us from the earliest “dark menace” to today where we see artificial intelligence that is capable not only of beating human chess masters but also of exhibiting creativity and “human behaviour” when Google’s AlphGo beat the world champion Ke Jie, in Go, a complicated strategy game.  However, before we all throw our hands up in despair and resign ourselves to a Matrix-styled universe, there is hope.

Humanity though will have to adapt to survive, and this will involve a massive shift in how we perceive work, and careers or professions. AI’s innate capabilities and functionalities mean we have to start reducing traditional job categories to activities or tasks. We need to begin by breaking roles down into their basic elements—are they solving a problem, a judgement or diagnosis and then depending on the skill involved train for that expertise. In time we may have a robot capable of performing all the tasks associated with the following titles: professor, doctor, and lawyer. The only way humans can compete therefore with AI will be our focus on learning. It will, therefore, fall to L&D professionals to facilitate this.

Daniel recommends that for L&D to accomplish this, they must prioritise:

  • What they teach: people need to possess basic digital literacy to compete with AI or build their skills to outperform AI.
  • How they teach: what other methods of delivery are you exploring or offering? Think about it, the classroom setting has not changed much in the last 100 years!
  • When they teach: we must move away from the idea of a fixed education at the start of life towards the concept of continuous education throughout our entire life cycle.

This last point resonates with me, and the message Skillsoft conveys regarding the need for continual upskilling and reskilling. While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and seemingly unequalled capabilities of AI, I feel assured that if humans look to learning as the way forward, we will have a future that sees us working in perfect harmony with our robotic colleagues.

Learn more about the steps Skillsoft is taking to ensure your organisation is prepared for the future at Perspectives, our annual user conference.


Agata Nowakowska is the Area Sales VP UK, Skillsoft EMEA.

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