Rethinking Who We Hire and How AI Can Help
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural-language processing have changed work and, along with it, the focus of recruiting. Over the past 20 years at least, recruiters have focused on finding and hiring technical talent — experts in a field — practitioners of best practice who are highly skilled and experienced. This has led to our current talent shortage and the increased emphasis on STEM education.
That focus is misplaced. There is a shift happening where the most sought-after people and the hardest-to-fill positions will not be in STEM, but those that require a broader and less technical background.
I believe that rethinking the types of positions we recruit for based on the need for innovation, creativity, and teamwork will result in a better appreciation of where recruiting efforts should be applied and more focus on where artificial intelligence could augment the recruitment process.
One of the challenges of leadership is how to allocate recruiter resources and budget between positions. Today most budget and time are spent on the bottom two quadrants of the image you see (click to enlarge). I believe we need to start focusing on the top two.
In looking at the image, you can see that transactional work (lower left corner) performed by people acting as secretaries, receptionists, bookkeepers, legal clerks, and machine operators, for example, is largely governed by rules and procedures that need to be learned and followed with some rigor. There is not a lot of room for interpretation, innovation, or teamwork. Individuals perform these jobs and are rewarded by how well they do individually. Some of these positions require specific skills, but these skills, can be learned fairly quickly and once learned, can be applied without any significant modification for long periods.
AI is likely to take over many or even most of these functions within the next few years. There are currently tools available to answer your phone with feedback and engagement. There are automated bookkeeping systems. Receptionists have been largely replaced with automated sign-in features and in some cases chatbots. Legal research has been automated to the point where a lawyer can ask a system for the precedents on a particular case without any human intervention. Robots have eliminated or simplified manual machine operation and replaced manufacturing skills. And in every area AI and robotics are getting more capable and efficient.
To spend much time or effort recruiting for these jobs is becoming unnecessary and even wasteful of recruiting resources. Recruiting leadership should be focused on finding automated tools to make hiring for these positions fast, effective, and inexpensive.
These are the current “darlings” of the recruitment and work world. Filling these positions is the focus of most recruiters and the area where they spend the most time. There are major talent shortages in specific areas, and the challenges in finding talented people are the largest. This box includes all technical, engineering, software, and hardware positions, and positions where deep expertise is valued and where advanced degrees are often required, including functions such as legal, human resources, financial, and leadership. These positions require people who follow rules but also apply judgement, often augmented by mathematics or statistics, to make decisions. Being innovative is not critical, but using best practices and acting in a predictable manner are. Everything is aimed at not making mistakes. These positions are sustaining and provide continuity and predictability, traits that are necessary but not ones that lead to growth or innovation.
Over the next decade many of these positions will be affected by AI. Artificial intelligence will begin to replace some of these, provide answers to technical questions, even write code, and reduce the amount and depth of knowledge individuals need to be effective. Some of these positions may be augmented significantly enough to allow a junior person to be effective. I envision more focus on how intelligent software could take over many of the routine parts of these positions with job requirements being pared back for the people who remain, thus eliminating any talent shortages. The people who remain will be more like those in the upper righthand quadrant of the image you see.
Collaborators and Networkers
The skills that are emerging as critical for success in an AI-augmented world are not the ones you might expect. As we noted above, technical and STEM skills will be gradually replaced or hugely augmented with AI. The remaining skills will involve working with other people, influencing, challenging, coordinating, and connecting with a global team. We will need people with the ability to work across cultures, built strong relationships, and encourage creative decision making in the face of unknown and unknowable challenges.
AI may offer some help to those in these positions, but that help will be technical and will provide a basis for decisions and interactions that are based on emotion and relationships. These positions require people comfortable working in teams, sharing intellectual property, exchanging and debating ideas, and coming to mutually acceptable decisions. Some of these people may straddle the border with the experts. When this happens, we will have the best of both worlds.
For recruiters and hiring managers, this is the category to focus on, including nurturing skills at creating and hiring for these positions. It’ll be important to influence hiring managers to think outside the technical-requirements box and begin to choose people who may lack strong technical backgrounds but have team and collaboration skills.
Innovators are complex and do not conform to the usual ways of recruiting or work.
Imagine the job description for Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Albert Einstein. Where and how would anyone find people with their eclectic and non-traditional skills. What skills have made them exceptional? What tests or behavior patterns would you use?
Yet, these are positions that will create and build future organizations and keep current ones profitable. We have all seen innovative startups lose their creativity and innovation as they mature. We’ve seen the decline of organizations that were considered the best and that were the most profitable but were not able to hire, develop, or promote the mavericks and innovators that might have kept them booming.
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We need to focus both AI and our recruiting research on how we can find or develop more people with innovation skills, willing to experiment and fail, willing to pick up the pieces and try again. These people need to have a combination of skills that are not normally found or encouraged, and we will need recruiters with same sort of unconventional approach to find and hire them.
While the image portrays a simplistic model and does not take in all the shades of gray that exist, it may provide a useful starting point for thinking differently about positions and what we expect from them. It will, hopefully, begin to help change the narrow mindsets both recruiters and hiring manages have on who their most important hires are and where they should spend the most time and money.
Catch Kevin speaking about ethics in recruiting at ERE in San Diego.