What role should human resource (HR) management play in the digitalisation of work?

This Innovation Fund Round 3 project examined the role of the HR function in relation to technological adoption in the food processing sector. It explored the extent to which HR managers pursue, support or enable ‘good work’ outcomes from the implementation of digital technologies.

In a manufacturing context, Industry 4.0 (I4.0) refers to the adoption of several complementary technologies, including automation technologies such as robotics and AI, that support the development of a virtual factory through real-time control of quality and production volume and flows. The impact of I4.0 on the manufacturing workforce is likely to be profound.

The research therefore asked: what role do HR managers and the HR function play as intermediaries in I4.0 adoption/implementation? And to what extent does their involvement (e.g., via employee participation, up/re-skilling, job redesign) promote ‘good work’?

The project drew on in-depth interviews with managers involved in technology implementation and other stakeholders in the food processing sector in the UK and Ireland.

Research will continue supported by an additional 13 months of follow-on funding provided by the Productivity Institute to conduct a series of firm case studies, focused on how managers within firms decide whether or not to adopt technologies (automation, robotics, digital) and how these decisions are effected by their existing employment strategies,  skills availability, and productivity requirements.

Research questions

  1. What role do HR managers, practices and the HR function play in the adoption of digital technologies?
  2. What shapes the role of HR (e.g., structural/strategic impacts) in technological change?
  3. To what extent do HR practices/the HR function shape the impacts of new technologies on workers (e.g., changes in work organisation/intensity and skill requirements), and if so, how?

Method

Comparative case analysis across two country contexts (UK and Ireland) and one industry (food manufacturing) with 30 interviews conducted in the UK, and 25 in Ireland.

This was complemented by a grey literature review exercise and an industry stakeholder mapping exercise completed by the RA, and the PI/Co-I.

The research team also attended a number of industry and technology events.

Key findings

  • The involvement of HR managers in technology (e.g., automation technologies such as AI and robotics) implementation varies widely. While some firms engage HR strategically, others utilise HR in a supportive rather than intermediary role.
  • Other managerial roles (e.g., factory, operations, engineering, quality) play a central role in shaping how manufacturing technologies are implemented and inserted onto the shopfloor.
  • Some HR practices, such as up/re-skilling linked to new technologies, are outsourced to technology companies (e.g., consultants and integrators).
  • Adoption of I4.0 in the food manufacturing industry varies by industry subsector and product (e.g., long vs short shelf-life, high versus low margins), production conditions (e.g. mass production versus batch production), and the wider labour process.
  • Automation technologies, including robotics and AI, are easier to implement for products with high margins, long shelf lives, and in large batches. Products with shorter shelf-life or in batch production face greater challenges in technology adoption/implementation.
  • Firms focused on products with shorter shelf-lives and batch production face tension between the flexibility of human labour versus the rigidity of automation. However, these firms have also been under the greatest pressure in relation to labour shortages, having traditionally flexed their workforce.

Research outputs

From farm, to factory, to fork: how do we ensure good food and good work through technology?
Cassandra Bowkett and Huw Thomas consider how the adoption of digital technology can lead to good work in the food manufacturing and farming sector.

Researchers

Principal Investigator: Cassandra Bowkett, University of Manchester

Co-Investigator: Huw Thomas, University College Dublin