AI is about to change the way we all work, just not in the way you’ve been hearing

Much of the discussion today about AI and the future of work focuses on the future threat of automation and job losses.

This is an important discussion, but it remains premature. Even the rosiest estimates put meaningful automation at two to three decades away. As Elon Musk recently tweeted after his Tesla factory was forced to shut down in part due to an over-reliance on automation: “humans are underrated”.

Indeed, there’s a far more pressing crisis hitting these underrated human workers: an astonishing two out of every three workers say they’re ‘disengaged’ at work, according to a recent Gallup poll.

This is a crisis that touches every workplace. Engagement and innovation are inextricably linked, and our failure to address this costs the economy an estimated $500B in lost output every year.

And solutions have been hard to come by.

Our work applying AI in enterprise has given us three insights into this crisis and the ability for AI to offer the capabilities necessary to solve it. What we’re seeing is that in helping to finally solve it, AI is beginning to look far more likely to be a fundamental enabler of future human workforces than a threat.

1. The cost of the workforce engagement crisis

The fact that two in three workers are disengaged at work is a chilling statistic for three reasons. First, low-engagement employees are expensive: they’re roughly 20% less productive and 90% more likely to churn than their more engaged co-workers. Research suggests that the cost of employee turnover alone can run between 30%-100% of a churned employee’s annual salary.

Second, engagement and innovation are inextricably linked. A recent survey mapped employees’ engagement with their performance and found that those who were most engaged were up to 20x more likely than their disengaged colleagues to go out of their way to find innovative solutions to challenging customer problems.

Third, as we continue to transition to a knowledge economy — where growth depends more on effective use of information than the means of production — the value of human innovation is only going to increase. As computers continue to take away more and more menial tasks, nearly every workplace is seeing the estimated 60% shift in the proportion of work that relies primarily on capabilities unique to the human brain like critical thinking and making complex judgments.

The reality is that an engaged workforce is an increasingly important source of competitive advantage, yet businesses are struggling more than ever to maintain this.

Insight 1: Two-thirds of today’s employees are disengaged at work. This affects every business in adding unnecessary operating costs. More importantly, it undercuts an increasingly important source of future competitive advantage for businesses in a knowledge economy: human innovation.

2. Work has changed. Workforce enablement technology has not

The cause of this engagement crisis can be traced in large part to the fact that the nature of work and our workforce have changed, while the way we inform, engage and equip these workers has not.

Over the past decade, work has shifted from career-based to task-based employment, a change which has made work more transactional, transient and remote than ever before. Workers are 3x more likely to have started a new job in the past year, 50% will work remotely some or all of the time, and 93% of employers are actively pursuing flatter management structures.This change has benefited millions in the form of better access to more lucrative opportunities, but it has also come with a cost. Task-based work trades convenience for connectedness, while transience and technological change mean that workers are required to learn more, more often and with less institutional support than ever before.

Despite this change, the way we inform, engage and train our workers has barely evolved. Fully 60% of Fortune 500 companies have no dedicated workforce development system. And those that do probably shouldn’t have bothered: existing corporate development programs receive a score of -31 NPS from their users. Workers are still presented with the usual suspects of the past: stale corporate intranets, outdated learning portals, and siloed information sources, so it’s little wonder that today’s workers only report spending 1% of their work week attending to their own learning and development. This is an unsustainable situation given the demands of task-based employment.

Demographic shifts are about to make this problem worse. Just as Millennials changed the culture of work, the impending entry of Gen Z — the first digital native generation — into the workforce promises to transform the technology of how we work. This is a generation that has grown up on a highly personalized digital diet of continual engagement and constant content consumption. Seventy percent of this group check their smartphones 30+ times an hour and 60% watch more than two hours of digital video each day. With 75% of the workforce forecast to be a combination of millennials and Gen Z in just five years, we are entering the era of the Snapchat generation at work. The company intranet is no longer going to cut it.

Insight 2: The shift to task-based work has fundamentally changed the development needs of our workforce. Yet the way we inform, engage and train our workers remains stuck in the static systems of the past. These static solutions are manifestly unable to address our workforce engagement crisis. Things are about to get worse with the impending entry of the first digital native generation into the workforce.

3. AI provides a next-gen solution for a next-gen workforce

Meeting the development needs of a digitally native workforce engaged in task-based employment will require a paradigm shift in the way we inform, engage and train our workers.

AI looks increasingly likely to provide the technological path to enable this solution.

The core capability of AI is its ability read, analyze and understand large sets of unstructured data — text, video, and images — to find patterns, connections, and matches between disparate data sources.

Applied to the needs of modern workforces, it gives us the task-level ability to understand the needs of each worker and automatically match them to the right information — whether that’s learning and development, news about their industry, or content created by their company — exactly when they’re doing the specific task that requires it. This kind of context is what’s been missing for employers in informing, training and engaging their workforce.

This is the exciting prospect at the heart of the emerging $60B AI-powered workforce enablement industry. AI finally gives us the ability to continuously connect every worker with an always-on feed of highly relevant information that is hyper-personalized to their individual needs. When this technology is integrated into workflows it offers the ability to analyze the specific work done by each employee and match them to the exact information they need in real-time. Employers that can give their employees better access to highly relevant information will not only see higher engagement and lower churn, but also a workforce that is more informed and better equipped to succeed in a knowledge economy

Insight 3: Workplace success depends more than ever on faster access to better information. AI finally gives us the capabilities we’ve been looking for, getting us back up to speed with the needs of today’s workers. The unique ability of AI to process vast amounts of unstructured data to deliver valuable information is the paradigm shift in workforce enablement we’ve have been looking for. Applied to areas like learning and development, internal company communications and industry intelligence, it is giving us reimagined capabilities to connect our workforces with the information they need to succeed at work.

The path forward

Every business is realizing that maintaining a competitive advantage increasingly depends on the ability to maintain an informed, engaged and trained human workforce. This requires an ability to provide workers with better access to highly relevant information whenever they need it.

AI’s core capability of processing large sets of unstructured data presents an exciting opportunity to reimagine the way we connect human workers to the information they need to succeed at work. This is why the work we’re doing in applying AI in the enterprise has convinced us that for the foreseeable future, AI is far more likely to be a fundamental enabler of human workforces than a threat.