How AI Will Influence Asia’s Agenda

HCLI Research
Published 18 September 2017

What are the five themes influencing the workplace evolution taking place across Asia, and how will AI impact the role of the HR leader? John Antos, Vice President of Strategy & Marketing, at ADP, shares recent research on the evolution of work and AI.

New statistics around how the workplace is changing across the Asia Pacific (APAC) are released nearly every week in markets around Asia. These data points on talent, benefits, and new technologies all provide a single focal point for HR leaders to understand the talent equation, which over time, will highlight a single truth:  as the workplace evolves and the needs of employees change, HR is at the centre of leading that change in their company.

HR leaders have a window into future workplace changes via data drawn from human needs based research.  This understanding of what drives us unlocks a view into the guiding principles that fuel how your employees view their jobs today, and what career choices are likely to be appealing in the future.  This puts the HR leader in fine company of marketers, product designers and others that use this basic research to better understand long-term changes.

The ADP Research Institute began globally studying the evolution of work in 2015, and took a human-needs based approach to their research work. Surveying both employers and employees in Singapore, Australia, India, and China provided insight into what employees expect as part of this changing workplace, their hopes, and their concerns.

Not surprisingly, the APAC region turns out to be a complex mix of culture, traditions, emerging and modern economies that all impact how employees in respective countries view the evolution of work. Five themes emerged from the ADPRI Evolution of Work study data in the first round of research released in 2016, which provides a view into the human side of the workplace evolution taking place across Asia:

  • Freedom: Self-definition of schedule/location and mobile technology to enable work.
  • Knowledge: A belief that technology will enable deeper personal connections. Workers  will be constantly shifting roles that require learning new skills, but a trust that technology will allow them to learn anything needed to be successful.
  • Stability: The workplace may shift towards exclusively contract workers and the gig economy exclusively.  Companies will search for the best talent globally, which will lead to  talent mobility in and out of APAC.
  • Self-Management: Automation will become prevalent for repetitive work, so technology can be used to proactively adjust performance. There will be a shift away from departments and hierarchal structures toward a more flexible work structure.
  • Meaning: A desire to work on things of personal interest, work wherever my skills are needed, and organisations will use technology to measure and impact our well-being.

Viewing each theme individually provides insights on the types of desirable roles, how and where employees plan to work, and the level of confidence they have in technology.  Taken together, the themes offer this potential image of the future workplace:

A flexible flowing workforce, made up of talent defined by skills; employees focused on skill development become increasingly adaptive and are comfortable with the changing ebbs and flows of business needs. This comfort is driven by a huge amount of belief and trust in technology, personally that it provides freedom to mix work and life activities, is a teacher to learn anything new that is required to adapt to new roles, and will help measure performance and well-being, breaking down the need for rigid organizational structures. Business leaders understand these trends and look globally for talent, increasingly on a project basis than a permanent role.

The energy and passion unleashed by this freedom and technology would be channeled into working many jobs for various organizations, driven by the individual looking to converge personal interests and meaning in what they do, with self-management and technology enabled mobility.

This interpretation is based on visualising the five themes together, and to highlight a possible interpretation of the trends and where they may lead us.

The ADPRI Evolution of Work study data also showed the degree of variability in how eagerly this evolution will be embraced.  The timing of when these trends will occur is the first division point in the region – with Singapore and Australia respondents seeing these changes (like workplace mobility and the gig economy) already occurring, and India and China respondents seeing these as future trends.

Today’s Workplace: Where Singapore respondents were the highest out of all countries surveyed:

  • 73% people will use technology to learn anything, anytime anywhere.
  • 65% technology will allow for deeper personal connections across distance and time.
  • 67% companies will search globally for the best talent.
  • 54% employees will work wherever their skills are needed rather than being loyal to one company.
  • 46% automation, smart machines, and artificial intelligence will replace people for repetitive work.

Optimism around this vision of a changing workplace also varied.  Australia respondents are most comfortable with the status quo, and believe many of these changes may not come to fruition.  They also feel more pessimistic on what these trends could bring.  China is most optimistic – with over 90% positive feelings towards most trends across all five areas.  Similarly India respondents felt positive: they ranged between 75-90% for most themes.

Employers in APAC should take the long view on all these trends and believe they will come slowly over time. A few key finding are that the future of retirement may not survive in a future workplace.  Respondents in China (82%), Singapore (74%) and India (70%) felt a standard retirement age will cease to exist and that most people will retire by choice.  In this changing workplace, employers in India (61%), China (56%) and Singapore (55%) foresee the need for employees to constantly shift roles and learn new skills quickly.  Facilitating this may come in the form of more contract workers in China (68%) and India (58%) seeing the future workplace where companies may exclusively use contract talent focused on what is needed on a project-by-project basis.

As we move through the next five years,

HR will be the leaders of designing and implementing these changes in the workplace.  These changes will be accelerated by technology – like mobile devices enabling themes of freedom, knowledge, and self-management

but increasing by  new technology, digital talent and tools enabled by artificial intelligence.

To better understand this developing trend, ADP sponsored research by MIT published in the MIT Technology Review (Nov 2016) to understand “Asia’s AI Agenda”.  The combination of research and interviews highlighted the potential impact of AI in Asia in the workplace:

  • Respondents overwhelmingly feel technological advancements in AI and robotics will have very positive effects on most industrial sectors in Asia.
  • They believe even more strongly that these technology advancements will increase their firm’s competitiveness, and their ability to delve into customer data to achieve better insight.
  • Only a small percentage of respondents are currently investing in AI development in Asia – 25% of firms have done so at a global level, another 50% are planning to do so.
  • More than two-thirds of HR executives surveyed feel AI and robotics adoption will result in job losses in Asia in the next five years.
  • HR managers and talent professionals feel their roles will evolve into broader more strategic “productivity management” roles with two-thirds saying their roles will encompass the management of both human and digital talent within the next five years.

Correlations between human needs, company objectives, and timelines provide a convergence around technology driving change, employees embracing and believing in technology to allow them to adapt and prosper in a changing environment, and HR both leading this change while itself changing into a more productive and strategic function.

Each company will adapt to these changes as best suits their individual business.  But the one constant for all firms in the Asia Pacific region – of all sizes and across all industries – is both technology and human capital will each evolve, putting HR leaders at the centre of managing change in an evolving workplace.

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