Reskilling for AI Needs a Fresh Approach

Image credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks

Ask any visionary, and they will paint a future where artificial intelligence (AI) is ingrained into the workplace, workforce, and society.

But preparing your employees for such a future is not as simple as past IT paradigms. The challenge lies in the same quality that makes AI such a game-changer.

“Past technological advancements focused on streamlining, re-engineering, and automating business processes, and are often operated through prescribed approaches and outcomes, for example, Enterprise Resource Planning, Customer Relationship Management, workflow automation,” said Dr. Michael Fung, deputy chief executive (Industry) of SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), a statutory board under the Ministry of Education (MOE).

“However, with AI, we need to delve deeper into the business strategies and reimagine core business functions beyond improving workflow processes. AI provides new capabilities in machine learning through the mining of large datasets, to build intelligent systems that are able to inform decision-making and serve customers in new ways that were previously not possible,” he explained.

Being good at hard skills is not enough either. To become conversant with AI, you need employees to understand both hard and soft skills, be conversant in data manipulation and critical thinking, and be comfortable communicating with business units.

“These are necessary skills to be an effective ‘internal consultant’ for business units across the organization,” Dr. Fung added.  

Humans still needed for AI

Today’s HR leaders are hard-pressed to drive workforce productivity without increasing headcount. Many see automation and intelligence as the way forward to raising productivity while keeping the number of employees constant. AI is also shaping the HR department itself.

Yet, Dr. Fung argued that it is still early days for AI to replace the “human” in human resources. “While AI can efficiently replace and automate certain well-bounded and repetitive tasks, we are still far from the days of true intelligence that approaches what humans have.”

He advised companies to see AI as complementing humans, and not competing with them. “Tasks that require social abilities such as emotional intelligence, empathy, conflict management, and sense-making, are still being handled more effectively by humans instead of AI systems,” he added.   

Even in HR, what AI can and cannot do currently is quite distinct.

For example, AI can generate more in-depth insights into recruitment processes and evaluating employee performance. Companies can use the data to measure employee engagement and analyze workforce trends, to inform discussions on ways to enhance organizational culture and improve employee retention.

“However, in other domains such as staff performance coaching and conflict resolution, humans have a clear edge in communicative, reasoning, and non-cognitive skills to manage such interpersonal matters at the workplace,” said Dr. Fung. 

“We should not be distracted by the rhetoric of robots replacing humans, and rather look for productive ways of complementarity. The focus should be on facilitating workforce transitions by re-skilling and upskilling the workforce to take on even higher value-added job tasks.”

Re-role for AI

Many often equate AI as replacing humans. However, Dr. Fung believes that AI will offer fresh ways to “re-role” their employees.

“At SkillsFuture Singapore, we have re-roled some of our employees to take on data scientist roles, and provide them with the necessary training and opportunities to apply and hone their skills. These employees are required to learn and use different machine learning models on large datasets to identify jobs and skills insights for the future of work,” said Dr. Fung.

These re-skilled employees also evaluate the machine learning models to address anomalies and biases in different models.

“The goal is to ensure that we have valuable and bias-free insights that can be used to inform and support the upskilling of our workforce,” said Dr. Fung.

It takes a village

Companies alone cannot drive AI re-skilling efforts. Governments and regulators also have a role to play.

“AI hinges on data, and with data becoming increasingly valuable as assets, regulators need to implement policies to safeguard against potential threats while harnessing the benefits of data for citizens and businesses,” said Dr. Fung.

This makes public-private partnerships critical for AI transformation and its adoption in a country.

“Private enterprises can innovate, create new technologies and methodologies, and enable implementation. Government entities can be strong use cases in embracing digitalization,” said Dr. Fung.

It is why Singapore is pouring its resources into building AI competencies at all levels of society. 

“The private-public partnership can be seen in the case of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, a national effort involving Singaporeans, businesses, and the government to support better living through the use of technology. A key pillar of the Smart Nation is to transform Singapore’s public sector into one that is ‘digital to the core’,” said Dr. Fung.

Such a comprehensive approach can be challenging for both private and public entities. “It challenges our government agencies to provide easy-to-use, seamless, secure, and relevant digital services for our citizens, businesses, and public officers,” Dr. Fung noted.

But the fact Singapore is the only Asian country in INSEAD’s 2020 Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) may show that the country is at least on the right track.

Image credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks