Future Friday: Why Automation Won't Remove Humans From HR

Sara Carter

Something new today. This is the first time I have published a guest post on Future Friday. This author seemed appropriate to do it with, however. Sara Carter is the co-founder of Englighted Digital. She is a consultant and freelance programmer, who has been fascinated with technology since childhood. 
Is a robot coming to take my job? It’s an age-old question with roots in science fiction, but it’s become increasingly more common. The human resources field, in particular, has been experiencing a software renaissance. The influx of new software solutions has had a significant impact on the evolution of HR roles, as well as our collective understanding of the relationship between hard data and employee experience.
The prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning-powered solutions has certainly expedited routine HR job functions. Thus, it’s not premature to consider a future in which a computer algorithm could deeply impact the way professionals work. This blog post takes a critical look at our increasing reliance on HR software, as well as why you can’t take the human being out of “human resources.”

The rise of automated solutions

The over-automation of processes is a common concern for those wary of a robotic HR takeover. The online publication Digital HR Tech discussed AI and automation in HR in a recent article, speaking to the reasons behind its increased adoption as standard practice.
According to Digital HR Tech, HR departments implement AI-powered solutions for three reasons:

  1. In the short term: They are automating to increase cost savings, improve user experience, and drive quality and accuracy.
  2. In the medium term: They are augmenting training and development initiatives, including predictive actions, machine-to-human interfacing, and self-learning behaviors (such as implementing chatbots or predictive analytics software).
  3. In the long term: They are amplifying the efficacy of human job functions, performing autonomous work, and driving better decision-making capabilities.

Integrating these solutions has implications at every stage of an HR strategy. As such, a myriad of software solutions have been developed and brought to market as of late. In fact, Gartner reported that the number of companies deploying AI-powered applications had grown nearly 300 percent throughout the last four years, tripling in the last year alone. Prior to that, implementation had been fairly rare. The overwhelming number of successful use cases has served as a proof-of-concept that the technology is worth exploring, despite fears to the contrary from some in the HR community.

Emerging HR jobs

Automation is intended to increase the accuracy and speed of service. Services are performed with increasing quality and accuracy, at scale. Experts like Oracle’s CEO Mark Hurd argue this means the automation of tasks won’t replace HR jobs in their entirety, but will instead replace certain basic functions while opportunities arise for other, more specialized skill sets.
Hurd says, “These jobs have not been created, and frankly they’re just beginning to be imagined. But it requires a freeing up, basically, of people to be able to apply to these jobs.” Deploying a software solution that uses AI to optimize candidate screening and monitor employee engagement, or using a chatbot to handle basic administrative requests, may well result in the next wave of higher-level HR professionals.
A 2018 economic study from the McKinsey Global Institute took a closer look at the potential for redundancy as a result of automation. The “automation potential,” as McKinsey calls it, decreases significantly the closer you get to the senior level. Although junior roles like payroll administration had an automation potential of nearly 90 percent, an HR manager’s potential was only 14 percent.
If more than half of all junior-level roles could be performed by a machine, what will the job market look like? Although Hurd cautions that post-automation roles are barely in their infancy, futurists like the ones at Forbes are taking note of emerging roles at leading enterprises. Here are two examples of companies adding roles that rarely existed a short time ago:

  • Vice-President, Data, AI & Offering Strategy, HR: IBM recently appointed Anshul Sheopuri to spearhead the company’s efforts to create technological solutions that impact employee engagement. Sheopuri works with a team of people analytics specialists, data scientists, and software engineers to develop machine-learning solutions geared toward “proactive retention.”
  • SunTrust: Senior Vice-President, Employee Well-Being & Benefits: Using employee-sourced data, the financial holding company Suntrust created a new HR department to address the biggest pain-point of their workforce—their own financial stress. Their initiative led to the development of online financial training resources and benefits programs for employees, with nearly 80 percent of employees participating. A post-initiative survey revealed 18 percent of employees wanted to remain at the company as a result of the effort.

The roles uncovered by Forbes reflect the understanding that the data collected with the support of AI-powered solutions is integral to strategic retention. They are also indicative of the idea that an evolving HR role in the digital age brings with it an enhanced set of capabilities.
Automation won’t replace the need for human expertise. Designed as a niche application, it augments the existing skill set of HR professionals, allowing them to focus on bigger-picture tasks. Looking to the future, this could set the stage for an era of human resources where man and machine work collaboratively together to ensure companies have access to the tools and processes that make their people strategy effective.

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