Why Your Work Automation “Climate” Matters As Much As Upskilling

New research on workplace climate offers important insights for measuring, facilitating and enhancing successful work automation. John Boudreau and Benjamin Schneider share why workforce automation readiness requires more than just enhanced worker capabilities.

When it comes to preparing for future work automation, the dominant focus is on upskilling worker capability, but equally pivotal elements are worker motivation and opportunity. Research on workplace climate offers important insights for measuring, facilitating and enhancing successful work automation.

The Future of Work seen as a “skills” gap

Of course, accelerating work evolution requires workforce reskilling.  Daily new findings, such as the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, and by IBM and Prudential, describe a workforce unprepared for future work.  Leaders are setting a higher priority on reskilling that is faster and more accurately suited to future needs. Organizations like AT&T and IBM have reskilling initiatives, including “capability academies,” that teach more than technical skills.  

But workforce readiness requires more than just enhanced capability.

Capability must combine with opportunity and motivation

Research shows that skills or “Capability” is just one of three vital elements for workforce effectiveness. Pete Ramstad and John Boudreau noted in “Beyond HR” that workforce performance required three elements: (1) Capability (“Can they do it?”); (2) Opportunity (“Do they get the chance to do it?”) and (3) Motivation (“Do they have a passion and desire to do it?”).  HR and industrial psychology researchers apply a similar framework: “AMO” (Ability, Motivation, Opportunity).  These three elements must combine so if any of them is low or non-existent, enhancing the others has little effect.  

Work automation efforts mostly focus on “Capability,” upskilling through better recruitment, selection, training, team-building, gig-like marketplaces, etc. However, McKinsey notes that successful change requires both skills and “mindset.”

So a fixation on “skills” can risk overlooking Opportunity and Motivation. HR leaders and their organizations must adequately account for these additional pivotal elements. 

Motivation and Opportunity may be lacking

Is there sufficient Opportunity and Motivation? Evidence suggests perhaps not. Only a minority of workers appear to welcome and believe they will have the opportunity to benefit from work automation. A 2017 survey of 4,135 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center found: 

  • 72% of people worry about a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs,
  • 76% of people would not apply for a job where a computer program selected applicants,
  • 58% of people agreed there should be limits on the jobs businesses can replace with machines even if machines are better and cheaper than humans,
  • 85% of people favor limiting machines to performing jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans

A recent survey by Prudential was more optimistic, describing a majority of workers who believe that technology saves them time (78%), automates redundant tasks (74%), and drives their company’s growth (67%); only 23% believed that technology will “replace their job in five years.” This is important, but these questions reflect outcomes for the company– not the workers–and replacing a “job”–even though work reinvention, not job replacement is more likely.

If leaders, workers, investors, and policymakers must look beyond skills, then how can organizations measure the Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation for work automation?

“Work automation efforts mostly focus on “Capability,” upskilling through better recruitment, selection, training, team-building, gig-like marketplaces, etc.”

Workplace Climate

Decades of research suggests how to predict worker performance by measuring worker perceptions in specific focus areas. This is called workplace climate. Measuring climate is different from measuring general culture or work/organization satisfaction, which are important, but can be too generic to capture the specific Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation to perform specific outcomes like work automation.    

Benjamin Schneider and his colleagues have worked for decades on measures of specific work climate. Their research shows that to predict work outcomes, measure worker perceptions about those specific outcomes. A good example is “service climate.” Schneider’s research indicates that a good predictor of customer perceptions of superior service is workers’ perceptions of service climate, measured with items like these, where workers rate: 

  • The job knowledge and skills of employees in your business to deliver superior quality work and service?
  • Efforts to measure and track the quality of the work and service in your business?
  • The recognition and rewards employees receive for the delivery of superior work and service?
  • The overall quality of service provided by your business?
  • The leadership shown by management in your business in supporting the service quality effort?
  • The effectiveness of our communications efforts to both employees and customers?
  • The tools, technology, and other resources provided to employees to support the delivery of superior quality work and service?
  • The atmosphere in your work unit for promoting superior quality work and service?

(These items are copyrighted by the American Psychological Association and used by permission of the author)

Notice how these questions focus on a specific outcome, “superior quality work and service,” and encompass not only Capability (job knowledge, skills, etc.), but also Opportunity (“tools, technology and other resources; work atmosphere; leadership”) and Motivation (“measure and track; recognition and rewards”).    

“Benjamin Schneider and his colleagues have worked for decades on measures of specific work climate. Their research shows that to predict work outcomes, measure worker perceptions about those specific outcomes.”

When workers experience practices and procedures that specifically focus on quality service, they attach meaning to those experiences: “This organization values and believes in service quality.”

Measuring work automation “Climate”

Increasingly, organizations recognize that work automation will pivot on factors beyond technical automation adoption and deployment. McKinsey consulting recommends creating an “AI-oriented culture,” and that your budgets include “workflow redesign, communication, and training.” 

But how will you measure progress?  

Taking a cue from the service-climate items above, a future work automation climate measure should gather information about how leaders and employees perceive these issues:

  • The knowledge and skills to deploy work automation with impact and fairness
  • The ability to deconstruct jobs and reinvent work that integrates humans and automation
  • The willingness to share what you know about how automation could enhance work
  • The belief that automation can be a collaborator rather than a competitor with human workers
  • Efforts to measure and track the quality, fairness and impact of work automation
  • The recognition and rewards for implementing work automation with impact and fairness
  • The overall quality of work automation
  • The leadership and management supporting fair and impactful work automation
  • The effectiveness of communication about work automation
  • The tools, technology, and other resources to support fair and impactful work automation
  • The atmosphere in your work unit for promoting high-quality work automation
  • The trust in leadership and management to implement work automation with fairness and impact
  • The competence of this organization in introducing change effectively

Of course, successful work automation, like all strategic change, pivots on culture, mindset, commitment leadership, organization, trust, and change readiness. Beyond these general factors are specific automation climate perceptions. 

HR and other leaders must better track work automation climate through the specific beliefs and perceptions of those who must implement it.

About the Authors:

John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and Boudreau is the author of two forthcoming books, “Human Resource Excellence” with Edward E. Lawler III and “Reinventing Jobs” with Ravin Jesuthasan.

Benjamin Schneider is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and an Affiliate Research Scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations, USC.

Author Photo
John Boudreau |
John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and Boudreau is the author of two forthcoming books, “Human Resource Excellence” with Edward E. Lawler III and “Reinventing Jobs” with Ravin Jesuthasan.