Are we ready to take the 'human' out of human resources?

HR professionals are notoriously busy — so automation that takes care of all your repetitive tasks sounds great. Even better: the robots are way off taking on the really interesting parts of the role…

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Last year the World Economic Forum estimated that more than seven million jobs are at risk from advances in technology in the world’s largest economies over the next five years. Artificial Intelligence (AI), robots and increasingly sophisticated automation look set to drive huge numbers of white-collar employees out of the workplace.

The good news? All the most interesting bits of the HR function are more or less immune from this process – for now.

And the better news is that many of the time-consuming processes around hiring, performance reviews, feedback and training are increasingly within the scope of software agents. Finally free from administrative duties, the promise of AI is that HR professionals will have time to think about the big picture – and, crucially, move HR along the maturity model.

This is a natural progression for existing HR technologies – such as CV parsing – that have long been helping take the labour out of the function. Half of the respondents to Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends Survey last year said they’re involved in automation projects, with a quarter using AI and robotics to perform routine tasks. But only 16% saw AI augmenting human skills – and just 7% to restructure HR work entirely.

So what are we seeing emerge in the HR AI space?

  • There are many specialist suppliers in robotic process automation (RPA) eager to take repetitive or high-volume tasks out of human hands. It helps that their sales pitch is crystal clear: RPA reduces costs, improves productivity and accuracy — and the output will keep compliance teams happy.
  • One of the most time-consuming aspects of HR is informing staff about the processes or the dos and don’ts of the business. We’re now seeing HR chatbots handle routine enquiries.
  • Employee analytics is becoming huge. This works best in organisations with joined-up ERP systems, allowing big data analysis on employee habits to track productivity, behaviour and even happiness.

Why can’t AI do it all?

We love to talk about the potential of 'AI', but these smart systems are not without their shortcomings.

Machine learning programmes excel in sifting through data, finding connections and highlighting trends and anomalies, but when a machine flags up data that suggests 'something is up' – it's only HR that will know how to address the challenge.

The shift towards automation doesn’t mean that HR professionals no longer need to be process oriented or technologically minded. Yes, more AI means less admin, and more application of soft skills, but HR must be able to interact with these systems, act upon what machines are telling them, and implement and lead strategic change.

Above all, it’s only HR who have the knowledge and experience to ensure that the processes are properly implemented and the algorithms fine-tuned. (More on that in a moment.)

Longer term, the picture changes. General AI – that’s able to adapt itself to situations without human intervention – isn’t here yet, but has the potential to start undertaking some of the more sophisticated decision-making around HR requirements and even assignments. One opportunity, for example, might be advanced recommendations generated for line-managers ahead of their staff performance reviews – perhaps even to the level of pay, bonuses and benefits. But we’re some way off that yet.

Why is talent still resolutely human?

There are opportunities right now for HR to have more time to focus on initiatives that build healthier and happier workforces by removing repetitive HR administration. With more resource dedicated to aligning HR to an organisation’s strategic goals, the value of the function rises, not falls.

It also allows HR to focus on the real value driver: talent. But HR professionals should be aware of the limitations of these systems, even in the roles for which they seem well suited.

For a long time one of the selling points for AI was that it would free recruitment from human biases – computers don’t have a preference for gender or race. But if computers are fed data that is tainted by human biases, this – alongside a relentless respect for potentially deceptive baselines – can cause problems. An AI algorithm used by the US parole board, for example, was found to be biased against black offenders.

Or take employee analytics software that watches web browsing, emails and general activity to flag poor performance and low engagement. It might be that these tactics are actually counterproductive to wellbeing and productivity.

HR professionals must retain enough agency to question these functions. Imagine the reputational fall out for a large corporation if it is revealed their AI has been discriminating against job applicants thanks to conscious or unconscious bias. Mitigating these types of risks will become a key for those in HR.

HR and being human

Ultimately, AI is a long way from being free of its reliance upon human inputs. Very few leaders will trust even the smartest ERP analytics over their HR director when it comes to talent management, engagement and culture. And HR experts will always be needed to assess whether a system is on track. The nuance of human interactions is simply too complex to leave it to robots.

But as AI becomes more capable, HR will need to embrace the surrender of the process-driven tasks that eat up so much time. Just like a book-keeper accepting that Excel does their old job better.

As well as focusing on talent, culture, performance and wellness, this revolution will require HR to develop technological proficiency – alongside traditional skills of communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence and a service-orientated approach – to ensure HR seizes the opportunity.

Robots can do phenomenal things. By reducing the time spent managing payroll, web portals and other administrative tasks, AI promises a future where HR can concentrate on the value-adding part of the function. But ultimately it’s reliant upon human knowledge, experience and sensitivities. And that looks set to continue for some time to come.

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Lee Gudgeon
Managing Director

Lee Gudgeon is the Managing Director of Reed Talent Solutions. Lee has over twenty years experience implementing successful recruitment solutions both in the UK and internationally. Lee enjoys identifying resourcing challenges and designing innovative, bespoke solutions that add value. He is a firm believer in keeping things simple and maintaining a focus on delivering real, tangible results.

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