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Special focus—Technology: a devil’s bargain?

May 26, 2015

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

From the time we wake up to the time we sleep, technology pervades our lives. Technology has helped improve lives in many ways, but the increasing pervasiveness of technology brings pitfalls that promise only to multiply. HR is on the front line of dealing with them.

For example, almost all of us have smart phones. How many of us will admit to reviewing work emails or texts or documents while driving the car? The liability is great and obvious. Assume you are reading an email while driving, and you get into an accident where you are injured. Is your employer liable?   

  • Even with a no-distraction or electronic device policy, you may be able to prove that company culture and practices regularly disregards these policies; therefore, you may be able to collect Workers Compensation for these injuries. 
  • You may also be able to sue the employer for damages to your car.
  • Your employer may be liable for all damages to the third parties.

Yet liability can attach in less obvious ways also.  Suppose there is no accident and you make it home safe, but still reading emails. 

  • What is your exempt status?  Is it clear which level of the organization has email accessibility off hours and on which devices?  Overtime liability may arise.
  • Is the phone encrypted?  Even President Obama’s blackberry was hacked.  If you have sensitive employee information attached to emails, HIPAA or other violations may arise.

A parallel issue is the talent pipeline. There is a definite disconnect between what recent college graduates think and what employers think. 

According to 2015 research from Accenture, the vast majority of 2015 U.S. college graduates are confident about their working future, with eight in 10 reporting that their education prepared them well for the workforce.  However, a 2013 study by Addeco found that 66% of hiring managers do not think new college graduates are prepared for the workplace. The major reasons, said the hiring managers, are   poor interviewing skills, the inability to articulate skills, and failure to make eye contact during interviews.

But even more telling is the fact that 30% said young interviewees were perfectly willing to check their emails or to text during their interviews.

The saturation of young people and educational institutions with technology does not bode well for future talent pipelines.  The fact that someone can use technology does not mean that he or she will make a good employee. Nor does it help that knowledge fund workers—those who have accumulated valuable institutional knowledge and know-how over time—are retiring and organizations do not know how to effectively mine that knowledge and pass it on to the next generation.

And yet, as employers push to do more with less, technology is the indispensable solution.

Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM, talked of the advantages of Watson, the IBM version of artificial intelligence in an interview by Charlie Rose:

“What Watson can do — he looks at all your medical records. He has been fed and taught by the best doctors in the world. And comes up with what are the probable diagnoses, percent confidence, why, rationale, diagnosis, odds, conflicts. I mean, that has just started to roll out in Southeast Asia, to a million patients. They will never see the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as you and I have here. [But] they will have access. I mean, that is a big deal.”

Watson is a vision of where technology is going. If it outstrips even the most proficient of today’s younger practitioners, and Watson suggests that it will, where will that leave the practitioners? 

Bill Gates warned in March 2014 at an American Enterprise Institute meeting of the use of technology as a solution for workforce issues:

“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. …  Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. …  20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

Whether we wanted to or not, perhaps we have entered into a devil’s bargain. Technology is the indispensable ingredient in our future success. But it will exact a price, and the price may be very high.

We are entering the age of technology disruption. HR needs to rethink its role. The talent war will likely be won through effective use and deployment of technology unless HR steps up and prepares today’s workers for the time when their proficiency in technology will no longer be enough, by itself, to sustain their value proposition to their employers.

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