Synopsis: In this AI Leadership Insights interview, Amanda Razani speaks with Jason Averbook, senior partner, global digital HR strategy for Mercer, about AI in the workplace and boosting productivity.

Amanda Razani: Hello, I’m Amanda Razani, and I’m here with Excited to be speaking with Jason Averbook. He is the senior partner in charge of global digital HR strategy for Mercer. How are you doing today?

Jason Averbook: Great, Amanda. How are you?

Amanda Razani: Doing well. Can you explain to our audience what is Mercer and what are the services you provide?

Jason Averbook: Sure. Mercer is the leading HR consultancy in the world. We provide services to HR organizations to both drive effectiveness and efficiency of the HR organization and what that does to drive impact out to the workforce. Our services range from advisory services, one-on-one consulting services with HR organizations through products that actually help HR organizations drive that effectiveness and efficiency.

Amanda Razani: Wonderful. That’s a good lead in to our topic today, which is AI in the workplace and boosting productivity. A recent study by Axios came out finding that AI boost productivity in the workplace, and we’re going to discuss that today. First of all, who was polled and what are the results of the study?

Jason Averbook: Yeah, so when you look at the Axios study, it looks like that the people that were polled, this is not our study, just so you know, but it looks like the people that were polled are a combination of business leaders as well as individual contributors in organizations that we’re all looking at, are there things that generative AI can do to improve my efficiency at work? So something that used to take me two or three hours, I can do in 10 minutes. Let’s just use that as the example of efficiency. And overwhelmingly, based on the study, people are saying, “Yes, this is helping me from an efficiency point of view.”

Amanda Razani: Got it. So from reviewing the study and from your experience, what do these results mean for employees and the enterprise?

Jason Averbook: So when you think about the employees, employees of all types need to be starting to think about generative AI 101, and when I say generative AI 101, just what could it possibly do to drive efficiency? Now someone’s going to say, “Is that the employer’s job or is that the employee’s job?” We live in a world right now where this is a area that’s changing so rapidly that we really, really, really need to think about how do we share responsibility. It’s going to be the employer’s responsibility to help put in place the guardrails, the barbed wire fence per se, as to what should or shouldn’t we be doing with these new innovative tools that can help drive efficiency. But it’s going to also be on the employee to think about, how do I best use these tools?
This is not a world where I click here, click here, click here, and I’m done. This is a world where I know how to use, for example, prompts to get the right responses that I’m looking for, and that’s going to be something that employees are going to have to learn and build a behavioral muscle on, just like any form of communication over time.

Amanda Razani: So that leads me to my next question, which is what is that first step for business leaders when it comes to harnessing AI and any emerging technology?

Jason Averbook: So the first step is to really, what I like to think about it and think about it this way, Amanda, is to create a mindset for success. And when someone’s like, “What does that mean?” A mindset for success basically means that my mind is I have a growth mindset, or it’s open to thinking about new ways of working. I could stop right there, but I’m not going to. New ways of working, stop. Okay, now what does that mean? That could be doing something a little bit different or it could mean in this case, using tools to augment, notice I didn’t say replace, but to augment how I already do my work, i.e., a calculator versus writing something out on a piece of paper and trying to do long hand math, i.e., push a button to dial a number instead of putting in 9 or 10 digits to dial a number.
So all of those are little efficiencies that technology has brought to me over time. Spellcheck versus looking at a dictionary. All of these, like I said, are efficiencies. The question becomes, do I have a mindset that’s open to accepting those new ways of working? And all of us, no matter what age we are, can remember the first time that spellcheck popped up and said, “Really? That’s the way to spell that word? Do I trust that thing?” That’s the world we live in today, and that’s what we’re dealing with when it comes to generative AI.

Amanda Razani: So much to think about, and I know these companies are all trying to jump on board as quickly as possible, harness it and use it for many purposes. But the big point here that you’re saying is that human element is still the most important. It’s key and AI is a tool in the human’s tool belt.

Jason Averbook: Yeah. I mean, Amanda, I think we have a huge opportunity to squander this technology if we don’t approach it in the way you just explained it. If we don’t put humans at the center, if we don’t keep humans in the loop and we don’t approach it as this is augmentative capability, not replacement capability. If we don’t approach it that way, we are going to squander this amazing technology innovation, which would be a shame based on the early results, which by the way, it’s not that early, the results that we’re seeing when it comes to efficiencies.
Actually, let me just add one more thing. I said efficiencies. It’s also effectiveness. It’s not just efficiency. So we oftentimes get caught up in technology that are going to save money. It’s the ROI on them. There’s also this concept of VOI, which is the value of my investment and my value of my investment in, for example, helping someone get something done 30% faster is guess what? They can spend 30% more time with the customer. That might not be a cost savings, but it might be a value creator. So we have to look at both sides of it. Sorry to interrupt. The ROI as well as the VOI.

Amanda Razani: And from your standpoint, what is the best way for companies to measure the success and the outcomes of implementing this technology?

Jason Averbook: I hate to say it, Amanda, but it’s really output, and that sounds very industrial per se, but just take roles for example. If I’m a salesperson, how many more follow-up emails can I create leveraging tools like this compared to what I was doing in the past? If I’m a nurse, how fast can I get my notes added to my EHR system compared to what I was doing in the past? If I’m a driver of trucks, how fast can I get product from point A to point B following the safety operational procedures that I need to compared to what I did in the past? I mean, that’s what efficiency is, the effectiveness component then we start to look at the impact on business drivers. So is it profit? Is it revenue? Is it sales? Is it customer SAT? Is it the development of new drugs? Whatever my business goals are, that’s going to be the effectiveness side. So there’s the efficiency side and then the effectiveness side.

Amanda Razani: So AI does stand to boost productivity and speed up processes and eliminate a lot of certain tasks. So of course, many people are concerned that there are going to be jobs lost. What are your thoughts about that? And will it simply make room for new jobs though at the same time?

Jason Averbook: There’s no question that it will make room for new jobs, A and B, there’s no question that jobs that people have been doing are going to go away. I’m very blunt about this. This is not something we tiptoe around, et cetera, et cetera. It’s like, “Oh, it might not affect jobs.” If it’s not going to affect jobs, I shouldn’t be doing it. So it is going to affect jobs. Now, what that means is it means that there are going to be new types of jobs and that the people that are doing the jobs that are going to change, the question is, can those individuals move into those jobs?
So for example, if I’m good at transaction processing and I’m not good at interaction, so the difference between transaction and interaction, if I’m not good at interaction, guess what? I’m going to have a hard time keeping my job. I mean, yes, bang, I just said it. Not a lot of people love it, but we can’t run away from this. We have to move us forward. That’s innovation. So is it going to cost jobs? It’s going to get rid of jobs that are what we call RAD, repeatable, auditable, and documented. Think of it this way. There’s hands work, there’s heads work, and there’s hearts work. It’s going to get rid of hands work, which means I’m going to do more heads work and hearts work. Are different skills required?Totally, and that’s going to be the workforce planning/strategic conversation for the next five years.

Amanda Razani: Yes. Speak to that a little bit because the next thought I have is, are we going to see a skills gap or what do you suggest that companies need to be doing now to be sure they have the employees with the skillset moving forward, five years down the road?

Jason Averbook: Amanda, we’ve been seeing a skills gap for five years. So the skills gap is not any different. The reason that skills gaps exist is because organizations don’t future-proof their organizations and plan for the skills that they’re going to need. So to answer your question, what do organizations need to be doing? They need to be looking at their jobs today and saying, based on the jobs I have today, once again, I’m going to do a bang, are they going to exist? Yes or no. Not maybe, yes or no. And then based on that, what are the jobs that I’m going to need more of and what are the skills that I’m going to need to do that? And then working together with the workforce to say, how do we upskill those people?
This isn’t impossible by any means. This just requires some intentionality. Overall, when we need to hire someone, what do we do? Open a req. What do we do with the people that we are not going to have jobs for? Get rid of them. That is not a good use of people. If I’m an employer, I should be thinking about how do I upscale people because they already know my culture, they already know my companies, they already know my organization. Let’s keep those people and re-recruit them into the organization to do this next job, versus, “Hey, let’s open up a req and hope we can find someone.”

Amanda Razani: Absolutely. And I’ve been seeing a lot more of that lately because as you said, yes, there has been a skills gap problem for quite some time, and rather than just getting rid of these employees, many are looking more at their character and their personality types and okay, what skills do they have, how could this translate pretty quickly into some other skills and providing that training on the job.

Jason Averbook: Amanda, those things that you just mentioned are power skills. Those are power skills that you need no matter what you’re dealing with, whether you’re dealing with a customer or whether you’re dealing with a computer, you need those skills. So those are power skills. The variable skills are the skills that continue to change as innovation happens. So those are the more, what I like to say, the more teachable skills. So hang on to those people that have those power skills and then think about how do I add on over time those teachable skills. But some of those things you just mentioned, you can’t teach, in my personal opinion.

Amanda Razani: Very true. So last thoughts that you have for us today, key last thought you want our audience to leave with.

Jason Averbook: So anytime that there’s a new technology innovation like generative AI, along with it comes risks. When the Apple Pencil was introduced and I could draw on my tablet a picture of something that’s inappropriate and push, send and send it to someone, that’s a risk, right? When the shovel was introduced versus digging with your hands, that’s a risk because I could hit you over the head, Amanda, with a shovel, where with my hands, I probably wouldn’t have done so much damage. So every time that technology continues to evolve or anything continues to evolve, there’s always risk. So what’s really important is that we balance the risk and reward here.
We look at the risk, we think about what do we do to protect the organization, protect the organization’s data, protect the organization’s privacy, and at the same time say that’s not a reason not to do anything. The easy answer to this is, “Oh, let’s just wait.” There’s a lot of people that said the PC, personal computer was not going to stay around. There’s a lot of people that said the internet wasn’t going to stay around. There’s a lot of people that said the web, websites weren’t going to stay around. There’s a lot of people that said, you would never use this more as a computer than a phone.
All that being said. There’s risks of this, yet we give it to our nine-year-old. Sorry, long-winded answer. I beg that we don’t use this as a reason not to explore these new innovative tools, but we do it in a way that’s responsible with intentionality, and it’s focused on the human at the center, that the human is still in the center, and that the human drives the overall responsibility of using these tools.

Amanda Razani: Most definitely. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your deep insights about this topic.

Jason Averbook: Amanda, I don’t know how deep they were, but I hope they helped someone along the way. Thank you so much for having me.

Amanda Razani: Thank you.