Tech vs Touch: The future of work lies along a continuum

We live in extraordinary times with a digital transformation happening all around us. From mobile to wearable technology, digital has become embedded in almost every aspect our lives. No wonder we often hear the question: Will digital make humans obsolete? Well, in many areas it already has—think bank transactions, cashiers at grocery stores and warehouses. As technology continues to evolve and make inroads in the human resources function, one has to ponder if the H in HR will ever become obsolete.

Let's examine the classic paradox of man vs machine and try to arrive at a framework to ascertain what has supremacy between “Tech and Touch” and for how long.

In today's age of digital transformation where everything in life has a potential digital mirror image or digital enablement, we often hear the refrain ‘Will the digital revolution and technology make humans obsolete?’ The most ironical question is when the same question is asked in the context of human resources function, which is all about people. Let's examine this seeming paradox and try to arrive at a framework to ascertain what has supremacy between “Tech and Touch” and for how long. A unique lens of looking at this problem is to use the Korn Ferry research based digital framework which examines the seven different ways digital and technology is transforming what firms do. The framework further links it through to the job architecture and what a firm is trying to achieve from a customer perspective. A Korn Ferry research indicates that there are seven kinds of digitally led work transformations that organizations may try to drive relate to the seven kinds of jobs a person in digital/technology space typically has to do (See below graphic).

Digital-led work transformations

The framework examines the seven different ways digital and technology is transforming what firms do and links it to the job architecture and what a firm is trying to achieve from a customer perspective

Organizations use technology or digital to sell or generate revenue from customers or they use it to drive better efficiency and lower cost of operations mostly seen in IOT, automation, and ERP deployment. Similarly, firms are also using technology to transform the customer journeys into digital journeys and organizations are all trying to design a fully digital product/service, one which brings a 2-click kind of experience to their customers.

We also find companies using data and analytics to take better focused decisions related to customers or employees or operational efficiency. If you look closely, an interesting pattern emerges i.e. that the “Tech versus Touch” is not a binary choice or outcome but a continuum. This begs the question: How do organizations decide where to place a slider on this continuum when it comes to their firm’s needs, their customers, and their industry maturity curve? To solve this dilemma, the perspectives of the customers, stakeholders, or the employees are crucial.

The decision to have a pure digital e-commerce channel or a hybrid channel that gives customers the ability to touch, feel, and interact with a product depends on a particular customer need or buying behavior. For example, the online born digital furniture and lifestyle e-commerce firms in India such as Pepper Fry & Urban Ladder are setting-up physical experience centers where customers can walk in and look at the different pieces of furniture and home décor items, but then go online and buy. In contrast, in Japan, the consumer behavior related to researching on insurance is partly done online, but the actual physical buying of the policy is in person, with an agent. Many insurance firms in Japan such as AIG Japan have retail kiosks in malls where customers can walk in, discuss with an advisor, and then buy the policy. In both the cases, the need for a human touch is fundamental to the organizational success — for a large e-commerce home décor retailer with only an e-commerce sales channel, and also for a major global insurance firm using the human interface to close a sale.

This can be extended to the HR function. HR in such firms has to ensure that the reality is incorporated into the many HR facets anchored in the way these firms are approaching consumer experience like the job architecture, success profiles, skill-sets and KPIs they create for this tech and touch value chain, hiring for such positions, in developing KPIs for employees driving the online and e-commerce part of the sales process and the physical human touch part of the sales process, and in defining the skill-sets required for the digital resources and the offline sales resources and how they partner with each other.

Let us examine another example where technology is used to drive better efficiency and lower the cost of operations — in HR technology HRMS deployment where employees are the end-customers. Imagine a situation where a firm wants to use chatbots to address employee queries and perform other simple actions. Imagine a setting where the employee base is scattered in tier 3, 4 or 5 cities in India or any other similar country. In such a scenario, having a call center or a way to ensure that employees can execute simple transactions or get answers to simple queries through a “digital assist mode” would be key to having a hybrid “tech and touch” solution. To underscore how “customer” behavior (i.e. employee behavior here) can impact the same issue, just imagine that the majority of the workforce is young (<30 years) and in the same tier 3, 4, and 5 cities in India but relatively digital savvy and active on social apps such Facebook Messenger. Here, a chatbot for Facebook messenger would be extremely easy to adopt and use which will also drive a much better employee experience, higher efficiency, and cost reduction, all in one shot.

[bctt tweet="The tech and touch continuum: you deploy AI in certain situations, but in other situations, you need a human interface" via="no"]

Let's also consider the example of using analytics in HR to take better decisions if we presume that based on analytics and AI we can automate some decisions, such as looking at the performances of employees or attendance regularization. For example, to auto approve leaves or late punch in for high-performers who are highly productive/ high performers. But it's important to balance this with the reality of what the job may require and what the employees actually do. This logic may work well in a sales role scenario where an employee has to be out in the market in front of customers, as high performance is measurable and uni-dimensional. But if we were to apply this context to the situation where we have a customer service or operations job, then arriving on time and low absenteeism is super-critical and the same AI-based digital process improvement would be counterproductive. So again the “tech and touch continuum” comes into play, i.e. you could have an AI, analytics-based logic in certain situations, but in other situations, you would need a human interface to be able to take a call.

There is a symbiotic relationship between tech and touch, and the efficacy of one vs. the other or the bias towards one or the other is defined by what the end-user perceives as a superior experience. It's equally important to understand that the “Tech and Touch” continuum will evolve or change as the experience expectations of customer, stakeholders, or employee preferences change with time or external realities.

Would you like to learn more about the framework for digital transformation? Download: Digital transformation, making it real.

The original version of this article first appeared in People Matters, August 2018.