What’s the truth about the AI market for HR software?

Getting beyond the hype is vital, says Jeff Wellstead, as he rounds up some of the most interesting new products out there

Over the past year, it seems all anyone has been talking about on LinkedIn, Facebook, Medium or Flipboard – and even on global news outlets –is artificial intelligence. In particular, how it’s going to take over the planet and disintermediate 90 per cent of us from our current jobs. 

It’s breathless stuff. But it’s worth getting real about this for a minute, and we could start by understanding what AI and machine learning actually is. An excellent definition is offered by PwC in its Workforce of the future report, where it identifies three basic levels of AI technology: assisted intelligence (things that improve what we already do, such as GPS); augmented intelligence (helping us do things we otherwise couldn’t, like the software that powers car ride-sharing programmes); and autonomous intelligence (futuristic developments that will help machines act on their own, including self-driving cars). 

That last one is the particularly worrying scenario that Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the late Stephen Hawking have been warning about – and we're nowhere near close to that coming to life. Where we are playing today is in the assisted and augmented intelligence realm, and that is where HR departments are beginning to become involved in detailed discussions about how technology could radically change the way they operate. 

Experimental prototypes for things like analytics, natural language processing, machine learning and AI are entering the market, albeit slowly and more in North America than the UK or Europe. Beware salespeople and marketing hype-hawkers flaunting the use of AI and machine learning as being core to their product offerings, as there is plenty of reality-stretching occurring to increase product presence and relevance in a very crowded marketplace. 

But there are a strong handful of HR tools employing machine learning and 'assisted intelligence' that promise to make our lives easier, freeing us up from the heavy lifting to shift towards data insights and high-level thinking. One such example is Phenom People, which employs personalised connections, targeted job postings and online assessment to funnel candidates into your company's talent orbit in a seamless and clever fashion. The solution is elegant, but the ROI is critical to prove. What are you saving in real money to then additionally enhance business outcomes – such as better, faster and less expensive routes to finding the best candidates?  

Looking at other painfully manual processes in your working life could lead to other potential areas of focus for AI and machine learning technology, including onboarding (Rippling), teamwork effectiveness (Saberr, CommericalTribe), employee listening and engagement (Culture Amp, StatusToday, Visier), setting and measuring objectives or OKR management (Gtmhub, 15Five or 7Geese), or talent assessment for hiring, promotion, internal mobility or succession planning (Cognisess).  

There are an ever-increasing number of options and solutions coming to market that are worth looking into but, to ensure you're not blinded by science when the salesperson comes around, seek external, impartial and expert support. That means critically examining the process you're trying to improve, understanding the scope, scale and costs involved to target the right price, and considering the complexity and capability of the tools you might buy. It's easy to get lost in the noise of sales and marketing, so ensure it does what it says on the tin, comes with solid, independent references from real users and is well funded, has solid revenues over the last year and will provide great value for money. Additional considerations include:

  • Functionality: create your wish list and stick to it. The right solution should cover 90 per cent of the brief – don’t be swayed only by price, marketing hype, salesmanship or emotive/political considerations.
  • Customisation: this can be very expensive, and also cost you time and future pain in updates or product changes.
  • People analytics: every solution should have an analytics capability in-built, and supply your company with insights, correlations and easy-to-grasp graphics.
  • Mobility: solutions should be cloud-based, secure, available on any device 24/7 and GDPR-compliant.
  • Integration: all applications should have open API connectors and support other initiatives.
  • Implementation/user adoption: seek support from vendors, including additional user training.
  • Budget: consider cloud-only options, piggyback on existing licences, limit apps to three or four, seek multi-functional apps, negotiate your anticipated growth or offer to act as a future reference.
Before you approach any product, check it out first on software comparison sites such as GetApp, Capterra and Software Advice, or visit CognitionX, the largest AI and machine learning community in the UK. Most of all, while AI offers huge potential and could well transform the way we all work for the better, remember that the market is changing and maturing all the time – it’s important to approach it with caution and to temper the enthusiasm for all things AI with a much-needed dose of realism. 

Jeff Wellstead is the founder and CEO of Big Bear Partners