The UAE is an intriguing mix of old and new – traditional, patriarchal hierarchies still prevail in many organisations, but meanwhile the country is embracing the fourth industrial revolution and planning to employ numerous AI initiatives to enhance business. Professor Chris Rowley of Kellogg College, University of Oxford, is one of the world’s foremost thinkers about HR matters: he talks to People Management about the challenges this brings for the UAE's HR professionals.

AI is expected to replace jobs. For example, in Dubai, the aim is to make a quarter of all transport trips driverless by 2030. What challenges will a new AI workforce bring for HR?

A new AI smart lab is planned in Dubai to train government and private sector employees to implement AI in a variety of jobs to make residents’ lives easier. Reports say the first robot police officer will go ‘on patrol’ in Dubai imminently. The aim is to have robots replace 25 per cent of the police force, and meanwhile, the first smart police station without human employees will be functional by 2030. The UAE has also announced plans to use AI to support government services, such as using drones to deliver official documents and packages to citizens.

However, there is much scaremongering in this area. Technologies have been replacing workers in agriculture and manufacturing for a long time. It will be easier to implement AI for data collecting and processing, and also in basic physical jobs.

There are caveats with implications for HR. First, new jobs will appear, such as those around the new interfaces with AI – ensuring service translations are accurate and reliable – and also in the AI maintenance, service and upgrading areas. Second, changes to legal frameworks will be needed and legislation and regulatory and liability hurdles are already involved. Third, people will remain ‘the organisation’. All these trends need managing, hence the need for HR management.

How will management hierarchies need to change to reflect the organisations of the future?

There may well be a need for a less autocratic leadership style and more participation, open communication and flatter structures, but managers need to be comfortable with that and have the 3Cs – context, culture and competence – to do that. This may be equally as problematic in the UAE as it is for some Asia Pacific countries with deeply entrenched patriarchal cultures. For HR, this is a real issue and one that they need to face head on, requiring training and management development in areas of not only leadership but also diversity and cultural awareness.

Important-sounding job titles are part of what maintains the hierarchy of power in an organisation, but are such labels needed or even useful?

Obviously there need to be some job titles to identify and reflect people’s different work roles and responsibilities. Studies have found that job titles can act as important symbols, help organisations manage their human capital, and can help employees form an identity.

However, not only has a proliferation in job titles occurred, but so has ‘inflation’, with frivolous and ever-more grandiose titles. Areas where this has appeared include ‘director ’ of ‘X’ and also in the so-called ‘C suite’ with not only the CEO or even chief operating officer, but also chief administrative officer, chief of staff, chief talent officer, chief innovation officer, and so on.

Some organisations practice job title inflation because they understand that job titles possess symbolic value that can benefit productivity or sales, according to research by Martinez et al in 2008. Yet, such trends bring into question the purpose of titles, as they can add opaqueness and verbosity where clarity and succinctness is needed – and so job titles can become meaningless.

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