The ultimate challenge for Artificial Intelligence in the workplace?

I am lucky to have a portfolio career and among my portfolio roles I work as a workplace mediator, I consult in workforce transformation, and I am a trustee of a charity supporting people with learning disabilities.

These three roles are causing me a significant intellectual challenge at the moment as I am trying to work through the impact on the workplace of the arrival of “bots” and artificial intelligence technology.

While the global technology and outsourcing companies have been early adopters of the new disruptive technologies many leaders in the workplace are still at the stage of getting to grips with the concept and looking at the potential opportunities to make the workplace more efficient or improve customer service, for example through chatbots. In time, mainstream companies will integrate artificial intelligence into their day to day operations, but it is the impact of artificial intelligence in the areas of conflict in the workplace and in the provision of care to people with profound learning disabilities which is exercising me.

In the area of workplace mediation I have recently conducted three mediations involving Directors of organisations who cannot work together – in one case the Directors were in adjoining offices but only communicating via emails (in block capitals and colour coded to emphasise their entrenchment). In another, the two Directors of a company would only sit in a room together if they had a witness present.

These cases typify many mediations – if only someone in authority had intervened at an earlier stage or even if the parties themselves had recognised the signs of conflict and taken action to defuse tension and de-escalate the situation. By 2030 will we have developed robot Directors who have learned what humans struggle to learn – resolve the issue as early as possible, and learn from our mistakes? It is too early to tell.

I discovered one interesting App recently which is an excellent start at deploying technology to assist employees resolve their issues early in the workplace and avoid the escalation of conflict. Think of the Emoquo App as your personal online business coach which enables employees and managers to watch bite-sized, easy to use, personalised coaching videos on issues such as “how to have a difficult discussion”. Switched on business leaders will recognise the need to provide this type of digital support to employees, given the preference of millennial and generation Z employees to turn to their smart phones for all their needs.

In time it should be possible for employees to benefit from truly personalised technology which recognises them as individuals – whether they are introverted or extroverted, stressed or not stressed, and dealing with a specific problem etc. It will be excellent if employees can be coached step by step to de-escalate tension, work constructively with colleagues, and avoid negative conflict. But will technology be able to truly replicate the expertise of a workplace mediator who can support colleagues through very emotive, raw, sensitive issues in order to recognise each other’s needs, encourage acknowledgement of inappropriate behaviour, and agree actions to build communication and trust?

In my role as a trustee of a charity which provides support to people with learning and other disabilities I recently attended a consultation with service users to understand their needs and aspirations, and to gather their feedback on the charity’s strategy and priorities. I was humbled by the facilitator’s ability, in what was a truly chaotic environment, to work through the agenda and gather really impactful feedback. I was truly humbled by the way in which the service users were able to contribute really insightful points on their need to operate choice in their lives, when most people would assume they are unable to communicate or contribute in this way.

I was incredibly impressed with the carers’ ability to deftly assist the service users, e.g. in translating and clarifying their contributions. To do this the carers had to really understand the individual service user, constantly dynamically assess the situation to refocus if necessary and understand the service user’s requirements. Could a robot be able to replicate this role in future? At this point I really cannot see how a robot could operate with the levels of sophistication and finesse which a carer has to deploy to enable effective communication with a service user who may not be able to read and who cannot speak.

Perhaps the innovation lab of one of the global technology companies is ready for these challenges!

David A Evans Managing Director

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