More than two-thirds of executives said that technology will soon create greater value than actual employees, according to a new study.
In a survey of 800 leaders of multimillion-dollar global businesses, 67 percent said they valued technology over people when looking toward the next five years, according to research from the Korn Ferry Institute, a consulting firm that specializes in hiring executives.
"While we often hear the frustration from CEOs that there is too much noise coming up to their level, and they wish they had stronger talent, in reality .... their answers were pretty shocking in that they far more highly valued investment in technology and other things, and not so much investment around human capital," said Alan Guarino, vice chairman in Korn Ferry's CEO and Board Services practice.
Nearly two-thirds also believe that in five years, technology will be their firm's greatest source of competitive advantage, according to the August and September interviews of leaders across the globe. People may be made "largely irrelevant," thanks to robotics, automation and artificial intelligence, according to 44 percent of respondents.
The CEOs also ranked products and services, brands and real estate as more important assets than the workforce, the study found. Korn Ferry estimates that human capital represents more than twice the potential value of physical capital in the global economy, especially as more major economies become services-focused.
"What I'm really finding is that customers that invest in talent in new and exciting ways are actually seeing tremendous returns," Guarino said.
Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence have permeated businesses at an increasing rate, and are are central to the rise of some of America's wealthiest companies, like Google and Facebook. But at the same time, consumers are hesitant to adopt the technology, according to a separate survey of 2,000 individuals by creative consultancy Lippincott.
While 81 percent of consumers were excited about the idea of an automated life, 73 percent were scared to trust machines, according to Lippincott's survey.
Guarino said that as automation, robotics and artificial intelligence replace jobs in the short-term, workers will have to evolve and master new skills. Keeping jobs in the United States will also require more mindful regulation that supports small businesses and immigration, he said.
"It's not pretty," Guarino said. "It's painful. It hurts. But ultimately, the jobs move up the value chain, not down the value chain."
Korn Ferry initiated the study after noting that CEOs had a "significant blind spot" in the way they value their workforce, seeing workers more like costs than benefits. Indeed, nearly half of respondents said their organizations don't understand how to measure workforce performance.
"Quite frankly, for the past 50-plus-odd years of modern industry, while we pay people and we give them a salary and compensation, CEOs have seen that more as a cost as opposed to money deployed well," Guarino said.
Part of the issue may be growing pressure from shareholders to invest in tangible assets, like exciting technology, he said. Leaders also lack confidence in their ability to materially influence their employees' performance, according to the study.
To Guarino, an Army veteran, that makes investing in leadership a "no-brainer" for businesses.
"We don't spend a tremendous amount of money and training teaching people on how to lead," Guarino said, noting that the approach leads to a wide range of leadership ability, from capable to weak. "And an ineffective leader can literally destroy the human capital capacity of an organization, and a great leader can create force multipliers... and that means you invest money in training people how to become great leaders, and that money, over time, will return multiples."
— CNBC's Aditi Roy contributed to this report.