Is Posthuman (or Superhuman?) Resources Management Needed?

McKinsey & Company (2016) released a research based article entitled “Where machines could replace humans – and where they can’t (yet)”. The conclusion they made were involving analysist of 2000 plus activities from more than 800 occupations from US Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net. It is worth noting that the report was not considering only the jobs but rather the details of activities (within the jobs). Activities were categorized based on their feasibility to be automated by current technology and machine, such as robots and artificial intelligence. In conclusion, jobs that involve predictable (routine) physical work (78%), processing data (69%), and collecting data (64%) might be replaceable. In another side, jobs that involve unpredictable physical work (25%), stakeholders’ interactions (20%), applying expertise (18%), and managing others (9%) are still less likely to be automated with currently demonstrated technology.

Frey and Osborne (2013) from Oxford University Engineering Sciences Department and the Oxford Martin Program argue that 47% of total employment in the US is in the high risk category. By saying high risk, Frey and Osborne (2013) refer to the automation expectancy at a decade or two. It is true that computerization has already taken some tasks with explicit rule and routine based activities (Autor, et al., 2003 in Frey and Osborne, 2013). However, big data, artificial intelligence, and robots are rapidly entering the area of pattern recognition for doing non-routine tasks, even enhanced with senses and various skills which previously were done manually (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011; MGI, 2013 in Frey and Osborne, 2013). Thus, it is believed that nature of work in various industries and occupations will be changed significantly, although Frey and Osborne (2013) see that some bottlenecks of computerization and automation will make the process longer, especially in the activities and jobs that involving perception and manipulation, creative intelligence, as well as social intelligence.

In other released article, McKinsey & Company (2015) stated that less than 5% of whole jobs can be automated using current technology. Yet, 60% of jobs could have 30% or more of their activities to be automated with current technologies, including robots and artificial intelligence. In other words, most jobs would need quite significant redefinition as well as business processes transformation in the near future. Bessen (2017) argue that based on the data of manufacturing employment in the United States since 1950, there is a strong evidence that the view that automation eliminates jobs wasn’t always true, with consideration of globalization as well. This statement is supported by other evidences, for instances from Gaggl and Wright (2017) which stated that “technology tended to raise employment in wholesale, retail, and finance industries, but had no statistically significant effect on other sectors, including manufacturing”. Gregory, Salomons, and Zierahn (2016) find “that automation of routine tasks tends to eliminate certain jobs (activities), but that net employment increases”.

As a scholar in human resources management and industrial relations, who have been working for 4 years as an HR practitioner and consultant, some reflections related to that issue will be discussed in this article. I will try to deliver two important perspectives related to whether HR jobs will still be relevant and what kind of HR leader is needed in the future.

In a book entitled ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, Harari, (2016: 56) argued that “Human species is not going to be exterminated by a robot revolt. Rather, human is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process…”. He added that ‘humans will make a bid for divinity, because humans have many reasons to desire such and upgrade, and many ways to achieve it”.

Sophia, a robot that received a citizenship from a country. Photo source & article:

Clearly, Harari believes that human species (in his term Homo Sapiens) would continue to experience kinds of evolution to be ‘more than human’ or I will use the term ‘posthuman’ in this writing. ‘Superhuman’ could also be an alternative term, yet more references and previous writings by scholars we found using ‘posthuman’ term. The term ‘Posthuman’ is actually not a new concept. The origin of it was at the cybernetic movement in 1940s. It became quite explosive in 1990s because Donna Haraway’s Simians Cybors, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature in 1991. Haraway’s doesn’t use the term ‘posthuman’ in explicit way, yet her believes that boundaries between human and other creatures (in this context is technology) is ‘no longer secure’, and is able to be a hybrid, or cyborgs. However, in this age of technology, posthuman is being used to describe “a time in which ‘human is no longer the most important things in the universe’, where ‘all technological progress of human society is geared towards the transformation of the human species’, and where ‘complex machines are and emerging form of life” (Pepperell, 2003:177 in Gane, 2006). The term ‘posthuman’ gains various critics in previous years, but it becomes clearer today that “a new culture, in which the ‘purity’ of human gives way to new forms of creative evolutions” is being more acceptable (Gane, 2006).

Some evidences show that the process of this kind of upgrade or creative innovations are already happening for marking the ‘posthuman’ era. Gray in BBC Story (2017) uses a term of “another level of convenience” to describe how an employee of a software firm Mozilla was voluntarily being implanted with a rice-grain-sized microchip, which enable to open doors, log in into computers, and contain his all contacts address. Further updates related to this matter, the New York Times reported that on August 1st 2017, employees in Three Squared Market, a technology company based on Winconsin, were offered to be injected a chip in between their thumb and index finger. Once it is done, anything related to RFID jobs such as accessing office building or make payment for foods in office cafeteria can be done with waving the hand. It was not a compulsory, but as much as 50 out of 80 people were voluntarily being injected with the microchip. This program, as believed to be the first in the United States, was cooperated with a Swedish Company, Biohax International, which also already applied in another Swedish Company, Epicenter.

Despite of the debates whether it’s risky or any other perspectives among employees and society in general, this phenomenon is as exactly as what Harari (2016) mentioned above. Slowly, human will upgrade and evolve themselves to be integrated with robots, that would enable them to redefine jobs, create new employment systems / environments, and transform existing business process. Indeed, this will not be happened in a day or in a year, but slowly, the ‘posthuman’ will be new normal.

Reflecting to aforementioned two perspectives related to HR and referring to automation feasibility from McKinsey & Company’s report, some activities within HR related jobs are already automated (personnel administration, payroll, some parts of learning and development, some degree of recruitment process, and some of compensation and benefits). Yet, some other activities that involve managing others (e.g. talent management), stakeholder’s interactions (e.g. industrial /employee relations), applying expertise (e.g. organizational development, employee selection), and even unpredictable physical work (e.g. organizing employee events) might yet to be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence. With the raise of ‘posthuman’ in the making, HR practitioners will also need to be ‘upgraded’ in order to be relevant and to be able to shift from human resources management to posthuman resources management.

Before going deeper to posthuman resources management, it is important to note that HR team would be dealing with managing people in business transformation process affected by robots and artificial intelligence. As some predictable and routine activities and jobs in, for instance, manufacturing are replaceable by machines, HR team would be in charged to determine redundancy (laying off certain number of employees) or design and implement relearn / reskill for its employee to be allocated to other activities or jobs in order to avoid redundancy. This indeed will depend on business strategy, financial condition, and board management’s goodwill.  Nevertheless, high level skills of project management, communication, interpersonal, and emotional intelligence would be needed to be equipped by HR team to make sure the process run smoothly.

The Circle movie, starred by Emma Watson and Tom Hanks which released on April 2017, tells a story of an employee in giant technology company and how she’s worried about damaging implications resulted by the company. Albeit receiving many negative comments and critics because of its story plotting and flat content, some movie segments show the condition of how current technology transform some HR related jobs such as performance management, employee engagement, as well as integrated employee health, compensation, and benefits. In the time forward, when business transformation came into its shape by embodying robots and artificial intelligence in most sectors. AS posthuman are coming to the workplace, a new face of posthuman resources management needs to born.

In 2015, The World Economic Forum, in cooperation with Accenture, released a report entitled “Industrial Internet of Things: Unleashing the Potential of Connected Products and Services”. One of the highlights is discussing how the emerging job market will demand new and different skill set of the workforce. This ‘new skill set of workforce’ is underlined with an emphasize of ‘new mindset’ towards the emergence of robots and technology. By saying ‘new mindset’, posthuman resources management leaders need to equip themselves with the understanding of posthumanism and how to collaborate with them in making sure the organization’s goals are achieved.

In attempt to be a future leader in post-human resources management, some skills and technology augmentations need to be done. Organization design might be different in posthuman era, in which some kind of structures might be needed, some others might need to be dismissed. The recruitment process would also need to be improved in selecting the most suitable ‘posthuman’ with the new form of jobs. The learning and development process might be integrated into certain database embedded in ‘posthuman’ individual, and would be continuously aligned with the business processes. The performance management system would be easily assessed and recorded, yet needs to be adjusted with the posthuman conditions in new jobs era. The form of compensation, benefits, and even pensions might need to be transformed into different types of packages.

In conclusion, I don’t feel worry if my job as an HR practitioner (or at least I don’t feel anything yet) would be taken by robots and/or artificial intelligence – as from the perspective of ‘can’t do anything except to embrace’. It is believed that human species will be continuously evolved, transform themselves with creative ways, and being integrated with the robots (Harari, 2016), which in this writing is referred to ‘posthuman’ era (Gane, 2006). Thus, the HR management field of jobs might also be evolved to PostHR management or any kind of it. Towards becoming a future PostHR practitioner, I believe that owning a ‘new-mindset’ which allow to open more learning processes in all HR management spectrums from organization design to compensation, benefits, and pension scheme. At the moment, it is important to keep being relevant by following the updates and gaining understanding of what is happening, as well as being relevant with the updates of technology in HR management fields by being connected with employers and related innovators.

The next question might be whether the new set of ethical leadership / management is needed for this era. Will see 🙂