How big a role should technology play in HR?

Chris Underwood explores the pros and cons of automation in the people profession

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Dubbed the ‘big deliverer’ for businesses in the next decade, automation is expected to transform and disrupt workplaces. Technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), can help organisations scale up operations, gain efficiencies and improve user experience. 

Advancement in automation will impact the HR function in two ways: managing a capable workforce and digitising HR operations. Top performing organisations are three times more likely to run a talent strategy alongside digital transformation – investing in technology without having the right people to land it will simply result in future technical debt. HR teams will be tasked with recruiting and developing talent with the skills and experience needed to lead transformation. Get this right and they will mitigate the technical and personnel challenges that change brings. 

Organisations will explore how digital capabilities can streamline people management processes. Human in its name and nature, how big a role should technology play in HR?

Greater transparency in recruitment 

Candidate and employee experience contribute hugely to overall brand reputation, after all, workers are often an organisation’s greatest ambassadors. Automation can bring clarity into the recruitment process and help HR teams to manage upskilling, training and development as well as recruitment. 

In some scenarios, we expect quick responses. Automating basic interactions, such as confirmation emails, can reassure both candidates and HR professionals that the process is progressing. It can remove the burden of administrative tasks such as scheduling interviews, issuing reminders and chasing for outstanding information, reducing the pressure on HR teams. Mapping tools that show applicants where they are on the journey can hugely improve candidate experience.

However, when it comes to emotionally charged conversations, AI is not sophisticated enough to respond appropriately. We have all had frustrating encounters with automated telephone answering services, but negative employee experiences can be more damaging for the business than a bad customer review. Interactions that tackle sensitive topics such as performance, change, dismissal, health and domestic issues are best handled by humans.

Eliminating bias 

Automation is led by data; therefore, the output is only as good as the data that goes in. Technology can help teams to shortlist viable candidates for entry-level or technical roles. By reviewing binary yes/no data entries, automation can sift through huge numbers of CVs to ensure applicants are appropriately qualified. However, this checklist approach is unreliable when assessing soft skills so is not effective for management and leadership hires. 

When setting the parameters for selecting candidates, organisations are likely to use data based on the experiences and skillsets of previous people who have held the role. However, this approach can actively go against diversity and inclusion agendas and reinforce bias by overlooking talent with diverse backgrounds. 

The perils of automated interviews

Organisations are increasingly inviting candidates to automated interviews. The appeal is clear – where there is no need for an interviewer, there is more time to do other things. However, the reality is stilted, one-way conversation that does not get the most out of the candidate or allow them to respond to the visual cues of a normal interview or assessment. Within a set list of pre-ordained questions, there is little room for applicants to share relevant experience or show personality. This hampers candidate experience. It also suits candidates who ‘fit the mould’; meaning organisations could overlook valuable candidates who bring different perspectives and experiences, again counteracting diversity ambitions.   

Effective skills assessments 

Only 17 per cent of UK employees say they have been part of reskilling efforts to address the global skills gap. AI can support HR teams to audit existing technical skills within the company through employee surveys and database management. It can also identify patterns and ‘skills hotspots’, enabling L&D professionals to maximise learning experiences across teams. 

As recruiters and career developers, HR has become an important shaper of business strategy – ultimately, it sources the talent for the C-Suite. Developing leaders that can become strategic business planners rather than just order takers requires a set of specific behaviours. 

While technical knowledge can be shared in virtual forums at scale, soft skills and behaviours are more difficult to impart remotely. Developing emotional intelligence, communication skills and agile resilience – the ability to adapt quickly but also have the grit to see plans through challenges – is traditionally achieved through shadowing or in tacit learning exchanges that take place in offices. In remote or hybrid settings, it will be a challenge to ensure that the physical separation of the workforce does not inhibit professional development, especially for junior careerists.

To automate, or not to automate?

Automation and AI is still in its infancy and, while it is quickly growing up, we cannot expect too much too soon. Technology has the scope to give more time and resources for HR teams to focus on work that develops people and builds culture and community. 

At its heart, the human resources department deals with human emotions, responses and personalities, which are too complex for machines to analyse and react to appropriately.

The key to success is automating the right processes and defining when it is time for humans to step in. Automating the wrong processes, or processes that use out-dated data and approaches, could undo all the good work HR teams have done on wellbeing, diversity and inclusion. 

Chris Underwood is managing director of Adastrum Consulting