Hand pointing at glowing digital brain. Artificial intelligence and future concept. 3D Rendering

The digital age has created a massive increase in the speed and complexity of the business, resulting in the largest job transition since the Industrial Revolution. Given this rapid transformation, the next five years will likely be more disruptive to HR and corporate learning than the last 50. Today’s HR and L&D leaders should focus on these three areas as they evolve their talent development strategies:

  • Workplace Automation Driven by Artificial Intelligence
  • The Coming Skills Dilemma
  • The Competition for Talent

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The fastest growing technologies driving the digital transformation are artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud, and big data. It’s important to gain a fundamental understanding of AI and its underlying technologies because there’s a lot of misconceptions about what AI is and what it can do, especially in the context of HR and corporate learning. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report stated that AI will generate over $13 trillion in business value by 2030 {McKinsey Global Institute}. AI fuels the massive business process reorientation we are currently undergoing.

What is AI?

AI is a set of tools that help automate tasks. And automation is not new; humans have always automated tasks. The difference today is the speed at which automation is occurring. Think of AI as automation on steroids. AI consists of two separate technologies:

  1. Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI). In today’s world, we’re mostly experiencing the rise of artificial narrow intelligence. You see this in technologies such as smart speakers, self-driving cars, web searches, and even in chatbots. We are seeing a lot of progress with ANI right now, which is where our focus should be in corporate learning. It’s important for us to understand at a high level the underlying technologies driving AI. 
  2. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). AGI represents superintelligence: as in, becoming as smart as a human. AGI will be able to do anything a human can do. We are currently seeing little progress with AGI. You may hear a lot of chatter about how AI will take away all our jobs or replace humans and even become more dominant than humans. This is simply stoking fear at this point. We are easily 50-100 years away from AGI creating a superbrain that will think for us and completely replace our humanity. AGI will require many more breakthroughs before we should worry.

The Tools That Make up AI

These are the three tools that make up AI: 

  • Machine Learning. Machine learning is a type of AI that consists of supervised and unsupervised learning. Think of machine learning as giving computers the ability to learn without explicit programming.
    • Supervised learning is the most common form of machine learning and learns input/output or A to B mappings with labeled data.
    • Unsupervised learning takes data without labels and draws inferences from unknown patterns or structures in the data. The AI analyzes the data, summarizes it, and tries to group it based on patterns or structures it finds.
  • Data Science. Data science is the practice of gaining insight from datasets to aid in decision making. We leverage data science to take the output from machine learning and take action. Data is the underlying foundation for machine learning and comes in two formats:
    • Unstructured: Data without labels
    • Structured: Data with labels
  • Deep Learning. Deep learning takes large datasets and forms neural networks that provide more nuanced outputs. Neural networks imitate how the human brain works in processing data and pattern recognition for use in decision making.


Examples of AI in HR and Learning

Recruiting is a good example. Data science is used every day to find good candidates for job roles. Machine learning is leveraged to screen resumes based on specified interview criteria. One of the promises of AI for learning is leveraging it to drive personalized learning. In a recent survey of 400 L&D leaders by Udemy, 31% said they plan to utilize artificial intelligence to personalize learning as a part of their strategies. AI can contextualize content for learners by providing recommendations based on individual behavior and preferences.

The Skills Dilemma

Companies are significantly increasing their investment in digital transformation and are moving at a speed that makes it challenging for their current workforces to keep up. Currently, only 53% of CHROs are reasonably or highly confident in their workforce’s digital literacy (“CGS: Computer Generated Solutions: The Changing Perspective: A Practical Guide for L&D Leaders, 2018”). Additionally, more than 50% of the US workforce is aged 50 or older and are beginning to plan their retirement (Harrington and Heidkamp 2013). This mass exodus from the workforce will leave a significant skills gap for companies to close. Along with the coming talent disruption, companies need to continually attract, develop, and upskill the workforce to appropriately deliver on their digital strategies. More investment in current talent and a strategy to attract new talent is critical. We are on the cusp of a skills dilemma: companies now need to both buy and build their talent, which requires an acquisition and development strategy that presents a compelling value proposition to the candidate in tandem with a comprehensive view of how the company plans to invest in their training. Consider these strategic elements as central to your skilling strategy:

  • Build a digital mindset. The future is digital and the “Big Three” technologies — AI, the Cloud, and Data Science — will continue to change how we live, work and deliver products and services to customers. Your number one talent development strategy has to be building a digital mindset. From now on, every worker in every industry completing every task will interact with technology to get their work done. A digital mindset is about helping your workforce build the skills they need through a personalized digital development plan for each and every worker.
  • Target the right development area and invest. It’s beyond time for HR and L&D to take a leadership role in strategically aligning talent development to the areas that result in the highest business impact. It’s important for L&D to recognize their capability to lead given the constraints in their organizational design. Job architectures must be redesigned with affordance for new business processes, tasks that move from human to intelligent machinery must be identified, and job design must be revamped with more focus on leadership, critical thinking, and innovation at the top of the list.
  • Keep a sharp focus on the human element. As every aspect of work life is transformed, HR and L&D have a unique role to play in ensuring the humanity of work is preserved, recognized, and rewarded. We have a huge opportunity to build healthy habits that help the workforce be their best. Concerted efforts in wellbeing (including physical and mental), ergonomics, and environmental design of the workplace will pay off in a more motivated, healthy, and committed workforce. For too long HR has abdicated its responsibility to design optimal work environments. It’s time for HR to take this effort on and focus on how to design a workplace conducive to the needs of the modern worker.

Talent Acquisition as a Competitive Advantage

As the unemployment rate in the US hovers at an all-time low, it’s becoming more challenging to identify and acquire the talent necessary for companies to execute on their strategies. Additionally, there are shortages of skills reaching significant numbers in both software engineering and in essential skills categories such as leadership, communication, critical thinking, and innovation. Frankly, it’s easier to invest in technology and business process improvement than it is to tackle the thorny issue of talent acquisition and development, but the cold hard truth is companies won’t be able to hire the talent they need for this transformation. There’s simply not enough talent with the right skills. Acquiring and retaining the talent necessary is a strategic advantage because you’re competing in an open marketplace for the shrinking talent pool. Too many companies are leveraging legacy hiring practices that are demeaning and disrespectful to candidates and not enough focus is being placed on providing a candidate experience that appropriately represents the company as a workplace of choice.


With the digital transformation unfolding at lightning speed, are HR and L&D prepared to reorient themselves to effectively and proactively enable and support both people and intelligent machinery for the future?

Important lessons for HR and L&D executives to consider when implementing new talent development strategies include:

  1. Place digital literacy as a primary business imperative and invest appropriately. Increased investment in people strategies as it applies to digital literacy needs to be a CEO-level concern and should be driven by HR and L&D as a strategic pillar across the enterprise. Companies cannot continue to invest heavily in automation and digital infrastructure without significant investment in their people operations as well.
  2. Change the culture to one of a growth mindset. Culture is the most important element in a company to drive commitment, trust, and productivity. As you apply new elements to your talent development strategy, commit to an inclusive culture that ensures everyone plays a part in their own development and in the company’s future as long as they decide to lean into the changes necessary. Focus on linking the business outcomes to this cultural change.

HR and L&D are at an inflection point where key decisions are now necessary for them to remain relevant and people-focused as the digital age continues to unfold. Now more than ever, it’s critical for people operations to reorient for the digital age and resolve to preserve humanity in work. We also need to continuously adapt the workplace to stay aligned with what’s important to succeed and drive the impact necessary for our businesses to flourish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *