We may be far from a Terminator/Skynet future, but developments in artificial intelligence have prompted the latest round of concern about how technology will put us all out of work. Which is why it’s refreshing to see a range of articles in the press – including The Guardian, Business Insider, and CNBC – stating that robots may take our jobs but they’ll also create new ones.
The latest report, from the World Economic Forum (WEF), states that around 133 million jobs could be created globally over the next 10 years, thanks to technology. The same report finds that 75 million jobs could be pushed aside, suggesting that almost twice as many new jobs will be created compared to those lost. From an HR perspective, that’s a lot of work, dealing with the changes (most bosses surveyed felt half of the jobs in their organizations would be done by machines by 2025). Not least coordinating all that retraining. The WEF report highlighted the need for a greater investment in training and education.
However, while HR departments are chewing over these projections, they also have to deal with the impact of those same technologies on the work of HR itself.
HR workplace transformation
Arguably, HR has been undergoing a continual process of automation, ever since the first computer-run payroll back in the 1950s. The story continued, with automatic tracking of attendance and hours, staff records databases, and so on to social media-connected recruitment and talent management systems, drawing on data relating to performance, succession planning, and learning and development. The latest practical application of HR tech is robotic process automation (RPA).
For routine, rules-based processes, RPA can streamline and accelerate processes, automatically gathering, checking and collating data by means of software ‘bots, only calling for human intervention at decision points.
Automation benefits for basic HR functions
So, is it goodbye to high-volume, repetitive HR transactions? Maybe not all at once, but definitely we should be seeing the following benefits emerging over time:
- Releasing HR time – Much of HR time is still spent on relatively straightforward transactions ripe for automation. By handing over more of the basic procedural stuff to an HRMS using RPA, HR staff will have more of their time available for the more complex situations or strategic work, almost certainly a more visible contribution to the business.
- Greater accuracy – RPA means less human error. Not that a machine can’t make a mistake but let’s face it, we humans get tired and bored with repetitive tasks. We need fairly constant stimulation, a computer doesn’t. For tasks such as checking paid time off, running payroll calculations, verifying timesheets, parsing job applications and so on, accuracy is critical.
- Consistency – The larger and more dispersed the organization, the more likely HR (and other) processes and systems are being used differently by different divisions, locations or teams. Automation puts everyone on the same basis, with the same application of HR rules and policies. There’s a fairness issue here in that different employees may be receiving different treatment within the same organization. And there’s a flexibility issue in that people may find it more difficult to work across structural and geographic boundaries due to teams not understanding how each other work. Both issues can be addressed with HR automation.
Future strategies using automation in HR
Tasks suited to the use of RPA include data collection (from XLS files or systems), data verification, data entry, pre-population of forms, reports, and email management (including automatic processing and submitting). These are tasks common to many HR processes. For example,
- Time and attendance – Automated clocking in and timesheet management is more efficient and less error-prone – particularly good when that data is used when running the payroll.
- Managing paid time off – Requests for leave are made on-screen, then the employee’s balance of paid time off can be automatically checked, all the necessary information can be supplied for a decision, then that decision is automatically recorded (updating the team’s calendar, etc.)
- Onboarding – New hires tend to generate a lot of paperwork: letters and emails, company manuals and guides, contracts and forms for signing, verification of qualifications, and issue of essential equipment. Usually this is facilitated by a checklist and the majority of these tasks can be described as moving information from one place or person to another – ideal candidates for automation.
Very practical measures but so far, so ordinary? Maybe. However, as artificial intelligence (AI) begins to impact on the workplace, the changes may be more noticeable. As AI is in a boom period right now (US investment in AI companies increased by 847% between 2011 and 2015, and in 2017, the UK saw a new AI company every week) we’re likely to see innovations such as the following two examples:
- Chatbot assistant – Basic HR inquiries can be fielded at first contact by an on-screen popup window: How can HR help you today? Think of an equivalent to Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa in your workplace just for HR questions.
- Virtual career coach – Coaching is often restricted to specific roles (often senior?) or projects. However, it’s possible that we may all have our very own AI-powered coach in the workplace – software capable of reviewing our job performance and skills and knowledge needs and providing feedback and suggestions that help us achieve our career goals and objectives.
The future of HR
The future undoubtedly will feature more automation – that trend is unlikely to ever reverse. However, until AI technology begins to approach science fiction levels, humans will retain the decision-making role. Artificial intelligence can be used to gather, crunch and juggle the data. Human intelligence is still necessary to make use of that data. However, given that the “use” should be more efficient if the gathered data is more complete and of better quality, we seem to be looking ideally at a machine-human partnership. And maybe that future is not so far off…
This guest post was written by Dave Foxall. Dave has worked as HR Manager for the Ministry of Justice for a number of years, he now writes on a broad range of topics including jazz music, and, of course, the HRMS software market for HRMS World.