Is HR immune to automation?

Article by Stella Voules and Jo Billing, co-CEOs JOST & Co

As our workforce changes, technology advances and shifts to support how jobs and functions operate. Tasks we have traditionally deemed necessary are now streamlined and automated, revolutionising the way we work.

This emerging reality reveals a rare window of opportunity for organisations over the next few years: reallocating effort into more interesting, greater impact areas. Resources will be more fluid than ever before and firms will discover how to take advantage of new tech enabling approaches.

This post explores how technology has evolved in HR today and how it’s likely to manifest in your workplace in future.

 

Big Data 

Big Data is essentially data sets that are so voluminous and complex that traditional data software is inadequate to deal with them.

By 2025, IDC (International Data Corporation) predicts there will be 163 zettabytes of data in the world. To give you some context, in 2009 we had 0.50 zettabytes of digitally stored information in the world.  

The vast majority is unstructured nonnumeric images, text and audio, with the social media boom playing a key role in its accumulation.

So, what good is all this data? To put it simply this ‘hybrid data’ will, it forms the new frontier for complex future analysis.

Big Data will continue growing in importance to workforces – HR departments can access information about their people quicker and easier than ever before.

Even change management is being redefined by the data-driven revolution. HBR summed up the impact of this recently “Data science is becoming a reality for change management, and although it may not have arrived yet, it is time for organisations to get ready. The companies best positioned to change in the next decade will be the ones that set themselves up well now, by collecting the right kind of data and investing in their analytics capacity.”

We wholeheartedly agree.

 

APIs  

API (Application Programming Interfaces) govern how one application can talk to another, making it possible for applications to share data – which has been a significant pitfall for HR in the past.

APIs make it easy for organisations to have software platforms that perform a specific HR function well in a multi-application environment – to which a synchronisation of employee data can be integrated to further enhance capabilities and output.

With the move to cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) all of this is now efficient and economical. Resources are being freed for deployment on more important, impactful, judgement-based tasks. HR is now able, for the first time, to connect all the people data it has historically had in disparate systems that never spoke to each other.  This is critically important as HR now holds the overall picture of the employee experience, and many different levels.  Imagine the possibilities.

IoT 

Finally, the Internet of Things (IoT) plays a leading role in taking HR to new levels.  IoT is an internet-based network that can connect our work devices, home appliances, lighting, phones, voice assistants to share information, talk to each other and be controlled by a single source.

IoT is having a moment right now, but it will be significantly important to the HR industry; due to the huge steps in data growth right now.

It’s growing at a breathtaking pace, from 2 billion objects in 2006 to a projected 200 billion by 2020. Most IoT smart devices aren’t in your home and are more than just your phone – they are in factories, businesses, and healthcare, because smart objects give these major industries the vital data they need and the ability to connect in ways they have not done before.

The IoT contains an enormous variety of connected objects, from computers smaller than grains of sand that can diagnose problems in the human body, to entire cities fitted with mobile sensors and data collecting instruments. It moves far beyond the initial domestic uses we tend to think of.  

Human capabilities will be extended beyond belief, and so will our access to and collection of employee and workplace data. More data means more enlightening and powerful analytics, insights and subsequent actions. 

For example, the Sydney based company ‘black a.i.’ is selling AI ‘black boxes’ which connect to any internal or external space and uses infrared sensors to capture data on how people move around a space; helping us understand how people are using office space: where they are meeting, for how long and how they are interacting.

This real time data can plug into predictive models to help design buildings, set up or select new workspaces.

A similar example of collecting employee data is ‘time tracking software’ connecting every PC and device within an organization, allowing for complex analysis of productivity through data captured in diaries, emails and employee interaction with other software.

So far there is a mountain of speculation with only the first-movers coming through into the real workplace, however it is worth thinking about it now; your staff will be connected to virtually everything through their varied devices.

We will have access to data on movement, thermal levels, decision flows, communication preferences as a starting point. The ability to treat groups of people at work as customers to, predict and customise their experience is fast becoming a reality.

In a similar vein to the birth of the internet – where the companies who failed to adapt often failed to survive –the companies who embrace integrating the emerging new technologies will thrive.

HR has an exciting role to play and has a duty to embrace the opportunities that are emerging in the people space.

 

Artificial Intelligence 

AI can be considered a catch-all phrase for several different technologies, and for the purposes of this article we’ll use the term broadly. Let’s start by stating the obvious – AI is creating incredible change to our daily lives.

We like to think about AI across a continuum of capability – and how it can be integrated in HR: 

AI in Human Resources

Bringing it closer to the HR space, there are infinite opportunities for AI to help HR reallocate resources to more meaningful work, as it will radically reduce the labour needed to fulfill the transactional nature of the function. It’s important to remember that this AI application won’t necessarily create redundancies across the HR function, however it will augment it greatly. After all, HR has been ranked in the top 5 professions ‘most safe from automation’

We think that augmenting the HR function by embracing AI, could be achieved by better managing industrial instruments across large workforces.   When working with our clients we often see that large amounts of time spent by many HR Business Partners is on case management and managing Employment Relations support, often linked to organisational changes. We believe there is room to explore AI platforms that can be seeded with EBAs and case management libraries. In simple words, the system could use machine learning to deal with most of these issues and queries – and, it can be done cost effectively.

We also think that advances in Virtual & Augmented Reality show lots of potential, where despite the ongoing experimental nature of the technology there is huge opportunity, particularly in internal communication, training, learning and development. The power of augmented reality where environments and situations can be amplified with information to propel both learning and decision-making is inspiring.

As a result, this can free HR teams to focus on more impactful work. And as many know, there’s much more meaningful work to be done than responding to common HR queries.

Currently within some organisations, AI provides incredibly useful solutions such as:

Onboarding employees: searching policies and procedures and providing instant responses to queries
Recruitment: researching qualifications and other details required for inputting into applicant tracking systems
Gender and diversity programs: keeping tabs on all employment profiles and alerting potential issues

Starting projects like these sooner rather than later is imperative to secure a competitive advantage, as both the system and the vast pool of data it will draw from need to be carefully built, the algorithms need time to improve, and advanced data science skills and large computing capacity is also needed.

Though a few years off from being unleashed at full force, you can see how AI will propel HR to a place where delivering on the organisational purpose in a very deliberate way will be possible.

 

Integrating HR & Technological Advancement

Traditionally, HR hasn’t had the power to numerate the people space very well, and so, the function has been perceived to be more art than science. The most exciting hallmark of the fourth industrial revolution is the harmonisation and integration of recent breakthroughs –cloud computing, big data, IoT, advanced analytics– and it is with this that we can now move the data dial in HR.

The cloud has been a catalyst as it has allowed us to collect big data. Big data is allowing for the capture and storage of vast information about our people. And now, the IoT is promising us even bigger data on our people, which we can plug into sophisticated analytics like neural networks, to design powerful people programs driven by Artificial Intelligence that better predict human beings.

This better prediction of human beings means that we will be able to explore growth opportunities, identify business risks and intervene with incredible accuracy and confidence.

Technology now allows for powerful analytics to drive HR, and at JOST & Co. we believe that HR is one of the many beneficiaries of the tech push.

 

Conclusion

It’s easy to see that change of an enormous magnitude is coming, and there’s no hiding from it.  Step by step, with access to new technology and powerful analytics we are getting closer to understanding what impact our investments in talent, learning and development, workforce planning, culture and engagement have on our organisations, and what we can to do about them.  

JOST & Co. is well positioned to support you in reviewing your strategy, analysing your data and recommending a way forward.  Working with our talented JOST & Co strategic partners who specialise in technology and analytics, we can help guide you through exploring opportunities for growth and preparing your organisation for the future.