The Human Approach to Artificial Intelligence


Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are here, but they aren’t futuristic robots taking over our jobs. They’re collaborative technologies that can help us do our jobs better. These are opportunities, not threats. And since you’re reading this ebook, chances are you’re ready to dive in and learn more about benefiting from AI.

In reality, you already have. AI is in the apps you use every day: Airbnb, to suggest rentals near you; fraud detectors to monitor your credit cards; spam filters to protect your inbox; Facebook, to identify friends’ faces in images; smart home devices to understand your voice.

AI can provide added certainty and reassurance, reduce risk, boost productivity, and save time in our personal lives—and it can do the same for organizations like yours.

Like the other big Fourth Industrial Revolution trends you’ve embraced, AI will be essential for staying competitive and avoiding disruption. It’s also a critical step on the journey to digital transformation.

But to have real success with AI, organizations need to recognize that at its heart, AI is more of a talent initiative than a tech initiative. Adopting AI will ultimately be less about investing in technology and more about investing in the people with the skills to implement it. This ebook will help you identify AI opportunities within your organization and how to align the people needed to implement them.

Hayden Brown

CEO at Upwork

Once the bedrock of competitive advantage, legacy—whether mindset or infrastructure—is increasingly becoming the obstacle to sustainable automation and the future of work.

Ravin Jesuthasan, Managing Director at Willis Towers Watson

Demystifying The Tech BehindAI & Automation

CEOs, leaders, hiring managers, and HR professionals are the principal architects for organizational innovation and growth, and AI and automation will be the scaffolding. In this, your mission, focus, and enthusiasm will be critical to getting your people over the chasm, and your ability to explain its benefits will help get them there.

Let’s break down the tech in all of its forms so you can start to speak fluent AI.

AI & Automation 101

Now that we know what they can do, let’s look at how these technologies can be applied to workplace AI and automation.

In the book Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work, authors Ravin Jesuthasan and John W. Boudreau outline three primary categories for AI and automation tech:

Note: Cognitive automation will be where you’ll likely see the most opportunities for business innovation and growth.

A Step-by-Step Guide to IdentifyingHuman-AI Partnerships

In Reinventing Jobs, Jesuthasan and Boudreau emphasize that the crux of implementing AI will be creating human-AI combinations.

Traditionally you hire for a job and then delegate work. But with AI, you have to think differently: You’re orchestrating partnerships, giving AI tasks where they make the most sense and have the best payoff, then letting humans oversee. Understand that you’re not automating roles, but automating tasks. For example, you’re not replacing your top analyst with a bot; you’re giving that analyst tools to dig deeper into data and automate the finding of patterns he or she might otherwise miss.

To do this, pull yourself out of the old “job description” mindset by deconstructing jobs into individual tasks. From there, you’ll be able to identify which tasks can benefit from automation. If you’ve done any process re-engineering—say, tapping flexible teams—you’ll be familiar with this.

Jesuthasan and Boudreau created a helpful framework for approaching this. We recommend reading Reinventing Jobs for a detailed approach to this, but have summarized the process below.

1. Deconstruct Jobs into Tasks

Start looking at roles as the sum of their tasks. What are the day-to-day operations of that role? What deliverables do they provide, how often, and in what quantity? The authors note that key elements of a job “will reveal the optimization patterns, often hidden when the work is trapped in a job description. ”Breaking jobs down into tasks will be a critical learning curve for you as a leader, and where your front-line people will be instrumental in making it a success.

2. Classify Tasks

Next, classify each of those tasks using the below categories to help you see which are a good fit for AI. Some will be, and others won’t.

Is the task...

Tasks will be a combination of these attributes—for instance, repetitive/independent/physical (e.g., moving a heavy part on an assembly line), repetitive/independent/cognitive(e.g., inputting data into a system), or variable/interactive/cognitive (e.g. suggesting a product to a customer).

Bucket the ones that will align with AI, then determine how AI would augment or help.Here’s where you define what the human-AI combination looks like for each task. Consider:

  • Will AI help a human with the task?
  • Will AI take over the task?
  • Will AI make it possible to create entirely new tasks?

3. Match AI Tech to the Tasks

In some cases, multiple AI technologies may be layered into workflows. A data-gathering tool (RPA) can organize data, then the data can be passed to a cognitive AI tool to do more analysis and reporting before it is passed to humans for actionable insights.

HR software, for example, can augment work all along the employee lifecycle—from independent repetitive tasks to more variable, interactive tasks. AI-powered solutions like Upwork can filter for qualified applicants, then send a shortlist the HR professional can use to interview candidates. Later, automation can engage and onboard new hires and even suggest personalized training opportunities.

If you’re hiring for yesterday’s job description, you’re already at a loss.You have to revisit a job description regularly because it may be based on traditional views of what a job was, but not what it is now.

Davida Sharpe, Director of People, Processes, Projects at Center for Creative Leadership

4. Assess the ROI

Not all benefits of AI will drive revenue or save significant cost, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth the long-term investment.

The most successful businesses and economies utilizing AI right now aren’t focused on minimizing cost alone—there are bigger values and payoffs at play. Here’s where you needto think big (for example, looking at implementations that might help improve retention, engagement, or morale).

Here’s an example of how this process may flow:

The Endless Opportunities for AI

AI can make a positive impact on nearly every area of an organization. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be investing in an army of robots. The changes may be subtle at first, with minutes and tasks here and there moved from people to AI. With repetitive, time-consuming tasks delegated to AI, humans’ roles can become more impactful and create greater opportunities for innovation.

Here are a few examples of how AI can make an impact within every department, team, and workflow.

From Org Chart to Working Smart: Reengineering an AI-Driven Organization

In the book The Technology Fallacy: How People Are The Real Key to Digital Transformation, the authors note that “digital transformation can’t just be a top-down mandate to change.Instead, it involves creating the conditions in which existing employees start thinking and working differently, driving change from the bottom up as well.”

For leaders, this will mean rethinking old processes and restructuring legacy architectures.AI is not a Band-Aid for inefficiencies and high costs—it’s a critical piece of a bigger digital transformation puzzle. You can’t make the leap to AI by doing things the same way you always have—and that includes filling future talent gaps.

We’ve established that, with AI, roles are defined less by job descriptions and more by skills.With that in mind, imagine a “networked” organization. It’s less of a traditional hierarchy and more of a network from which you can match talent—on-site and contingent—to projects based on their skills and strengths. (Envision an internal job board where employees can shop for projects they’d like to work on.)

In doing so, work becomes more democratized, the organization’s architecture is more fluid, and people are more productive. Staffing this new network will be more fluid, too.AI-specific skills will be needed to stand up AI programs and evolve them as they mature, which makes flexible access to this in-demand talent paramount to success.

Groups tend to make better and faster decisions than individuals. This lends credence to the theory that networked systems are not only more equitable but also more productive.

Steve Hatfield, Principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP

Staffing this new network will be more fluid, too. AI-specific skills will be needed to stand upAI programs and evolve them as they mature, which makes flexible access to this in-demandtalent paramount to success.

Upwork’s own engineering team constantly taps remote talent right off the Upwork platform to its evolving Agile teams. This allows the department to leverage the latest development skills quickly for specific projects, then reallocate those skills to another team where their skills are needed next.

Evolution of the Organization: From “Legacy” to Longevity

Reskilling Will Be Even More Important

Ultimately, AI is a talent initiative. Making it work will be less about software and tools and more about investing in the people with the skills to implement them.

While some AI will be set-it-and-forget-it, advanced cognitive technologies like deep learning will need oversight and interaction to improve. In these human-tech collaborations, human data scientists will help the AI to learn—but that will require skills many organizations don’t have

And AI skills are evolving fast. The current half-life of a skill is around 5 years, which means many skills learned today are predicted to be obsolete in 10 years.1 Reskilling and promoting ongoing development programs will help you reinvest in your most precious resources: people.

Jesuthasan predicts that the best future leaders will be those who are proponents of talent development strategies, and who provide ready access to great development and learning platforms like LinkedIn Learning. And where niche automation and data science skills are required—and hard to find—you can tap a talent pool like Upwork to fill those gaps fast.

Here’s where you and HR can be major partners to build a better organization. HR can help identify and customize reskilling pathways, and head off attrition by offering new and more rewarding opportunities. And where talent gaps arise, you can enable HR’s own AI transformation with platforms like Upwork.

Nurturing this culture of reskilling requires a leader who encourages development and values soft skills, which we’ll cover next.

The Human Advantage: The Irreplaceability of Soft Skills

Skills may have shorter half-lives than ever, but soft skills never expire—and they can’t be replaced by AI. Only people are capable of empathy, brainstorming, risk aversion, innovation, problem-solving, up selling, and communication skills.

Case in point: Google launched Project Oxygen to study what makes a successful manager, and of the top 10 capabilities listed, not a single tech skill was included. Instead, soft skills such as creating an inclusive environment and being a good communicator. These skills aren’t important just for leaders; anyone with soft skills can directly impact a company’s bottom line by raising productivity, increasing retention, and reducing workplace stress. One study shows a company realized a 258% return from investing in soft-skills training of its garment workers.

You’re probably used to focusing on hiring for specific credentials of a job description. But with more automated roles, you’ll want to invest more upfront in solid soft skills, with the understanding that ever-evolving technical skills can always be developed as needed. This allows you to focus more on the entire person you’re hiring, not just the parts of their resume that adhere to a role.

It’s one of the more human side effects of AI, and it can help you draw more value from your people in the long run.

Remember, jobs are changing—the need for humans isn’t. As if emphasizing the need for humans, most of the skills categories predicted to grow as a result of AI involve soft skills that are difficult to measure such as leadership, critical thinking, and communication.

David Abramson, Head of Growth at Upwork

Upwork + AI: Smart Staffing for theAI-Driven Organization

At this point, you might be wondering: Where will you find those niche skills that crop up as tech evolves? And what if certain roles are condensed? Will certain projects be a better fit for independent talent, and how can you orchestrate that?

For AI strategies to succeed, talent strategies need to evolve. Going agile with independent talent will be one of the most important pieces of the digital transformation puzzle. In fact, most businesses that have seen success with AI so far are those that have embraced a hybrid model, partnering with platforms like Upwork to tap in-demand skills.

Upwork uses advanced AI and data science to provide accurate talent matches, faster. The solution is so efficient that more businesses are empowering teams to find and hire talent directly, whenever needs arise.

This can transform the entire talent acquisition process, connecting front-line staff to the talent they need, when they need them. And as AI strategies evolve and roles transform, moving your talent acquisition strategy closer to the teams leveraging it can help to accelerate growth. Also, using AI-powered solutions like Upwork to improve sourcing, governance, and reporting can reduce risk, improve talent engagement, and ultimately free up HR to be more strategic partners.

It’s one way AI itself can help to accelerate your organization’s successful AI adoption.

The new world of AI will require a shift in you and your employees’ focus and priorities:

For companies to ensure access to the types of skill sets they need, they should recognize on-demand talent markets as strategic resources. Individuals may come and go, but the on-demand talent market should be nurtured and maintained with an eye toward the future.

The Technology Fallacy: How People AreThe Real Key to Digital Transformation

Shaping the Future of Your Organization

At Upwork’s Work Without Limits Summit, Lisa Bodell, founder of Future think, summed up how leaders and hiring managers should reframe their thinking for the years ahead: “What is your company or function going to do in 10 years that it’s not doing today? The future isn’t who you are, the future is who you are becoming.”

In short, AI can transform the work your organization does, but your people—and how you help to develop them—will be the most critical component to your success.

To lead in this new world of work, you’ll want to:

Who you become relies directly on who you hire.The talent you hire will help you fulfill next steps.

Lisa Bodell, Founder/CEO at Futurethink

What about Millennials?

This generation cares more about meaningful work, looks for mission-focused companies to work for, and are more likely to change jobs frequently than generations before—all of which makes them well-suited to a modern, AI-fueled organization. Look to these workers to be ideal, enthusiastic partners as you evolve.

AI Isn’t a Threat, It’s an Opportunity—And It’s Time to Seize it

It’s time to seize the day with AI and automation. Think long-term, and big picture. When you do, the benefits can be significant and transformative.

You can focus more on an individual, and on retaining your top performers.

AI puts your people in charge of how they work. As this happens, jobs can become more interactive, mental, and collaborative. This can increase personal work satisfaction and in the end, inspire people to contribute more value.

Certain AI-powered platforms can help you identify employee dissatisfaction, and recommend ways to proactively address issues or suggest development opportunities that can improve retention.

You’ll have more time to think big.

AI can free teams up to do more strategic thinking by removing time-consuming, inefficient and repetitive tasks (that they may not even enjoy). Expect results like better customer responsiveness, agility, cost control, and fewer mistakes. And when your people can think bigger, you’ll increase opportunities for growth and ROI—the real big picture of AI

You can create a “virtuous cycle” of reduction and growth.

It’s not about replacing people to reduce headcount. Work may end up streamlined and roles condensed, but you’ll have happier people working on meaningful tasks they do well.Longterm, that’s the secret sauce that drives productivity and revenue, and furthers growth.

Jobs used to be black and white—you hired an employee or you didn’t. Work to day is many shades of gray. It’s time for companies to position themselves to capitalize on this changing landscape by leveraging a combination of uniquely human skills alongside new technological capabilities.

Zoe Harte, SVP of HR and Talent Innovation at Upwork

In Conclusion

Remember: AI is here to help. This ebook should help you begin to see all of the possibilities for human-AI combinations and prepare you to take strategic action. And when you do, with AI on your side, you’ll be ready for whatever lies ahead.


Hayden Brown

As CEO of Upwork (UPWK), the leading online talent solution, Hayden is working with her team to transform work. Driven by the company’s mission to create economic opportunities so people have better lives, she becameCEO after eight years at the company, four of which she led Upwork’s product, design and marketing teams. She’s passionate about the transformational impact Upwork has by breaking down outdated and unnecessary geographic barriers that too often constrain both organizations and talented individuals, keeping both from realizing and tapping into their full potential.

Prior to joining Upwork, Hayden was the head of corporate development at LivePerson and previously held strategy roles at Microsoft includingDirector of Corporate Strategy and M&A. She started her career in the strategy group at McKinsey & Company. Hayden is an online marketplace and product visionary, and a champion of building modern, diverse and inclusive workplaces where women and minorities thrive. A mother of two, sheco-founded the Upwork Women’s Group and the annual Women’s Summit.Staffing Industry Analysts included her in both their 2019 “40 under 40” and“Global Power 150 – Women in Staffing” lists. Hayden holds an A.B. in Politics from Princeton University.

Download your copy

We may communicate with you about the information you've requested and other Upwork services. The use of your information is governed by Upwork's Privacy Policy.

Success Image
Thank You

Your copy of The Human Approach to Artificial Intelligence will be delivered to your inbox soon.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Side Banner Image
Join the world's work marketplace

Recommended research

No items found.

Join the world's work marketplace

Find great talent. Find great work. Are you ready to move your business or career forward?

Find talent
Find work
Get Started
Main CTA Icon
No items found.