HK enterprises want AI to augment jobs, not kill them

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"Some may say a receptionist is a lower-level job that could easily be overtaken by AI, but that’s not so." – Victor Lim, VP of customer research and consulting operations at IDC Asia/Pacific, May 8, 2019. Image credit: Microsoft

ITEM: Hong Kong enterprises have a ways to go before they’re ready to capitalize on AI technology, but once they are, the good news for employees is their managers don’t plan to use AI to replace them.

Last week, Microsoft and analyst firm IDC released a survey of enterprises in Hong Kong (extracted from a broader Asia-Pacific survey released in February) assessing their “AI readiness”, which IDC assessed using a six-dimensional model weighing factors such as AI investment, strategy, capabilities, infrastructure, horizontal and vertical access to company data, and internal culture.

Long story short: Hong Kong scored well on investment, but not so well on everything else, especially corporate culture. Ideally AI-ready enterprises would sport a culture of flexible bottom-up decision making, risk-taking and cross-departmental collaboration (as opposed to the traditional culture of top-down decisions, risk aversion and rigid silos). Hong Kong enterprises aren’t really there yet, said Victor Lim, VP of customer research and consulting operations at IDC Asia/Pacific.

“Organizations’ management should make AI a core part of their strategy and develop a learning agility culture. They have to continuously invest in this transformative technology for the long-term success, sometimes without immediate returns,” Lim said. “There is an urgent need for talents and tools to develop, deploy and monitor AI models, along with the availability of a robust data estate with the adequate governance.”

The study also found that management and workers have diverging views about how ready their company culture is for AI, particularly when it comes to cross-department collaboration – 70% of managers say they encourage such collaborations, but 70% of workers said the opposite.

However, one point managers and workers do agree on is that AI isn’t something to be afraid of as far as job security goes.

While AI has something of a reputation as a potential job killer as it enables automation of certain job functions, a number of early AI adopters say that they’re using AI to augment jobs rather than replace them outright. For instance, Walmart recently announced it would be deploying more in-store robots to handle tasks like cleaning floors and checking shelves, which it says won’t result in fewer employees, but will instead free them up from repetitive tasks so they can spend more time helping customers.

The Microsoft-IDC survey found a similar attitude in Hong Kong – 58% of Hong Kong business leaders and 68% of workers believe that AI will either help to do their existing jobs better or reduce repetitive tasks.

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Image credit: Microsoft and IDC Asia/Pacific, “Future Ready Business: Assessing Asia Pacific’s Growth Potential Through AI”, 2019

“For example, some may say a receptionist is a lower-level job that could easily be overtaken by AI, but that’s not so,” Lim said. “When we speak to companies, they say that they value the IQ, the empathy, and the experience that the receptionist has built up over the years. So they’re going to use AI to take away the boring work – answering the phone, dealing with wrong numbers or having to direct the call to the right department – and use [receptionists] to handle the second- and third-level complicated stuff and helping people. Which is why it is more about augmenting and upskilling. The skills that a lot of workers have today are valuable to organizations – those will not go away.”

Lim clarified that the survey doesn’t just cover white-collar employees whose job skills may not be as easy to automate as lower-level workers – it covers a variety of sectors, including agriculture, automotive, education, financial services, government, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, services and telco/media.

The study does mention that employees will likely need to learn new skillsets to be employable in the future as AI becomes more prevalent in the workforce, particularly digital skills, adaptability/continuous learning, and analytical/statistical skills. On the bright side, the survey found workers are more willing to reskill than business leaders think they are – 27% of management felt workers have no interest to develop new skills, whereas only 17% of workers said they’re not interested.

On the downside, the survey also found that while 87% of managers said they are more than willing to invest in the necessary human capital to help skill and reskill workers in the future, 73% of them currently have no concrete plan to actually do that.

There’s also some disagreement between managers and workers on whose responsibility it is to facilitate reskilling efforts (although both seem to agree that the responsibility lies chiefly with someone else). Both do agree that governments should play a role, but two-thirds of workers think the company should take responsibility for reskilling, as well as industry/trade associations. The majority of managers say it should be up to trade associations and educational institutions.

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