The War With Talent, Part 3 — Elimination vs. Personalization

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Aug 19, 2015

This final installment of a three-part series about the increasing tension between employers and talent (i.e., the war with talent), explores the role technology is playing in redefining the relationship between humans and work. The first two installments have focused on the present day, looking at the importance played by psychology and candidate experience in building emotional connections (positive and negative) between employers and talent.

This final installment looks to the future, and seeks answers a very scary question about the impact of technology on the future of the human workforce. Namely:

“Will technology (e.g., artificial intelligence and robots) replace the human workforce and destroy the psychological connection between humans and work in the process?”

At present there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the answers to this question  While some feel humans and machines are moving hand in hand towards a future of blissful symbiosis, there are a lot of other folks who seem to be waiting for the other robotic shoe to drop. No matter what your opinion, the dynamic between employers and humans is ripe for major disruption.

When it comes to the future of humans and their work, hiring is a great example of how advances in technology are setting the stage for major structural changes.

Understanding the long-term outlook begins with a look at two powerful trends that are defining the outcome of the war with talent in the here and now:

  1. Elimination: Technology is taking over jobs performed by humans. In the most extreme view, this trend is setting the stage for a technological armageddon in which machines marginalize humans by denying them the ability to earn a living.
  2. Personalization: Technology is empowering individuals with information about themselves and providing them with the opportunity to take ownership of who they are and how they want to live their lives.  

Employers, and the talent acquisition professionals who work for them, are becoming increasingly familiar with these megatrends, and any prophecies around the future of hiring require a closer look at the complex interplay between them.

Elimination. This trend is real and it’s coming soon to a workplace near you. The number of stories about technology (artificial intelligence and robotics) replacing human workers seems to be growing exponentially these days. The writing on the wall is being authored by some really smart folks and it points directly to some major shifts in the status quo. While some have theorized a draconian future where humans are replaced by machines, others are predicting a more symbiotic relationship.

No matter which stance one takes about the future of technology and jobs, the idea that technology will simply kick most of the human workforce to the curb — creating a ragged mass of unemployable zombies — is a bit narrow minded. But it is human nature to fear this kind of thing, and there is historical precedent for it.

The story of the Luddites, a group of workers who raged against the machine in the 1800s, is an often cited example of the impact of advanced technology on the psyche of workers who stand to become irrelevant. While the Luddites were correct in the notion that technology would take their jobs, their uprisings were short lived and the massive net gain in employment opportunities realized via the industrial revolution gives credence to the Luddite Fallacy (i.e., the idea that new technologies bring new opportunities instead of mass extinction).

What does Elimination mean to talent acquisition? In the here and now, the boat has not been rocked too much. While Neo-Luddites may call our attention to the fact that robot writers are quickly replacing humans at newspapers worldwide, a great many jobs in our global economy still involve qualities that are uniquely human (i.e., intuition, creativity, innovation, compassion, imagination). In fact, while jobs that are mainly comprised of extremely repetitive, manual tasks, remain in peril; extinction of human work is clearly not an option. The truth is that job creation is a real phenomenon and at present new jobs for humans are being created just as fast as old ones are eliminated. (More here.)

Being scared of machines taking jobs is a waste of mental energy. The harsh notion of job “elimination” is really a more of a benign “re-definition” of the concept of what constitutes a “job” (Check out the innovation for jobs ecosystem for some great thought leadership in this area). Jobs are not being lost as much as their meaning is evolving as technology creates an increasing separation between the concepts of “a job” and “work.”

While humans have an innate and powerful connection with work, last time I checked there are no rules that say satisfying this connection has to exist within the traditional paradigm of a full-time job. As technology evolves, humans will become increasingly de-coupled from the full-time job concept and work will be accomplished via shorter, more focused engagements.  This shift to “micro-hiring” will re-define the context in which work occurs and drive a tectonic shift in the relationship between humans and our work.

To understand the role of micro-hiring in the outcome of the war with talent, one must look at it  in conjunction with another technology driven macro trend: Personalization.

Personalization. It’s happening at unprecedented levels across all sectors of the economy. By providing individuals with a laser-guided path directly to the things they love, technology is creating the largest-scale democratization ever known in human history. When people are able to access things that have meaning to them, great things happen. And they are! We are all benefitting from technology that allows us to be ourselves in every aspect of our lives — romance, commerce, personal style, and of course making a living.

When it comes to employment, by providing individuals with direct access to work that allows them to be themselves, technology-driven personalization has given the average Joe (and Josephine) the tools needed to completely change (for the better) their relationships to work. Micro-hiring and the on-demand economy are definitely the current manifestation of this trend. People who making a living selling doilies on Etsy or throwing giant moustaches on the front of their cars are a great example of what is possible. While the bulk of the global workforce still holds “real jobs,” personalization is a trend that will continue to impact the workforce on a global level via the following:

  1. Self awareness. It’s never been easier for an individual to understand his or herself and to make decisions that are in their best interest. Technology has provided everyone and anyone with the ability to:
  1. Access. The information superhighway has exits ramps that provide individuals with the opportunity to make a living doing what they love. In today’s emerging personalized work economy:

The above trends are forcing a re-definition of the job concept while also impacting the psychological connection between individuals and employers. The rapidly growing gap between how employers treat job seekers/talent and how talent expects to be treated is a great example of the relationship between technology and human psychology. This gap in expectations is blocking the development of positive psychological connections between talent and employers. These connections are extremely important because they form the foundation of a very meaningful psychological contract that binds employees and employers. The formation of the psychological contract begins during the hiring process and has a lasting impact on important outcomes such as motivation and employee engagement.  

Engagement is a very popular topic these days — and justifiably so. There is no mistaking the importance of an engaged workforce on profits, and lack of engagement has been shown time and again to be extremely costly. Make no mistake — employee engagement is based in human psychology. There is a great stream of literature (and practice) within the discipline of positive psychology that links a meaningful and positive “flow” experience to a huge number of positive outcomes that benefit both employer and employee. That’s right, when people are using their natural talents and and enjoy the act of “doing,” good things happen!  

People who are unable to find a path to flow and engagement in their lives via traditional employment now have a choice. They can use technology to find access to a meaningful life outside the paradigm of the traditional job. Employers who are not able to provide talent with the love they need to feel engaged will increasingly find themselves losing access to the humans needed to get the job done.  

Understanding the role that technology is playing in the evolution of human work psychology is critical to answering questions about the future of the human workforce. Like many other aspects of our lives (i.e., privacy), when it comes to work, technological advancement is a double-edged sword. Technology will undoubtedly usurp jobs from humans causing pain and suffering. But it is also redefining the way humans relate to their work. By enabling personalization via self-awareness and access, technology is also offering humans new options for leading fulfilling and meaningful lives. A world of people who are engaged in the pursuit of happiness through their work can withstand the pressures created by killer robots and brain-sucking artificial intelligence.

Peace in the war with talent will come when companies truly become humanists and recognize the value of meeting job seekers where they are at. This begins with simple things like understanding the deep psychological impact of the hiring process on talent and examining the need to redefine how jobs are structured.

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