The future of HR automation (and AI)

Automation is changing the future of HR, and has been for some time. After all, job applications used to arrive on paper (either a resume or an application form) whereas now they’re electronic and probably the result of a button-click on LinkedIn. If you have an HRMS, this and much of your routine HR load is at least semi-automated with the system facilitating and prompting the steps in your HR processes.

The latest advance seeing significant adoption is robotic process automation (RPA) which takes previous HRMS automation to a new level.

RPA can be used to streamline and speed up day-to-day, rules-based processes. While a human intervention might be required for interpretation of information or for decision-making, routine tasks, such as gathering, checking and collating data can be taken care of by a robot helper. Although, if you’re imagining an HR staffed by Blade Runner replicants, please stop – these ‘bots are strictly software. Though software with the advantage that they use your existing programmed processes, and don’t require you to replace your current HR or payroll systems.

HR automation benefits

The opportunity for the HR department is to use RPA to say goodbye to high-volume, repetitive, transactional HR tasks.

The first advantage of such a transformation would be the freeing up of HR time, enabling people to tackle more nuanced or decision-based work instead. Anybody in HR knows that much time is spent on straightforward exchanges that aren’t directly related to HR’s strategic goals. When the mundane, procedural tasks are done or part-done automatically, HR’s human element are free to apply their critical thinking skills to more complex people issues.

Deloittes offers the example of a large consumer and commercial bank. The bank deployed 85 bots to run 13 processes; a total of 1.5 million requests per year. The additional capacity in terms of employee time was equivalent to 230 full-time employees (though at only 30% of the cost of recruiting the extra staff).

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Secondly, processes are less prone to error. The mechanical, repetitive tasks – checking paid time off, running payroll calculations, verifying timesheets, parsing job applications – that must be done accurately, on time, and without variation? They will be. And with no chance of human boredom resulting in Friday afternoon mistakes.

Sticking the Deloittes example, the bank noted a 27% increase in tasks performed “right first time.”

Thirdly, you have consistency throughout the organization, especially important in large, multi-site corporations. With the use of RPA, not only will each office have the same processes and procedures, they’ll also be applied with the same speed and accuracy.

HR automation opportunities

RPA bots are well-suited to tasks such as:

  • Data collection (from XLS files or systems)
  • Verifying data for completeness
  • Data entry
  • Pre-populating forms
  • Running reports, 
  • Managing emails (including reading, processing and submitting)

With the opportunity to streamline processes that require such tasks – e.g. onboarding, benefits enrollment, payroll, compliance reporting – the challenge is to leverage RPA in order to realize the maximum benefit to the organization.

For starters, the following core HR functions should be early candidates for automation in any organization:

  • Onboarding: welcoming a new hire and setting them up to succeed in their role attracts a lot of paperwork and communication: letters, emails, provision of company manuals, contracts and forms for signing, verifying qualifications, and equipment to be issued. All of this is essentially moving information around in line with a checklist of tasks – much of which can be automated.
  • Time and attendance: automated clocking in, timesheet management, and then using that data for payroll processing is all far more efficient than carrying out the same tasks and calculations manually; and far less prone to complaint-inducing errors.
  • Paid time off requests: with an automated process, the employee’s balance of paid time off can be checked, approved and the leave recorded on the system according to agreed criteria. What’s more, the employee requesting the time off can probably do so via a self-service portal – they don’t need to track down the supervisor or trust that they’ll open an email request.

So, is AI now transforming the HR workplace?

Robotic process automation is not artificial intelligence (AI). As already mentioned RPA handles rules-based, standardized tasks. It makes for smart working, but it isn’t smart technology – any time there’s a decision that requires some experience rather than scoring the situation against preset criteria, it prompts an intervention.

Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, is about designing (and teaching) computer systems to perform tasks normally done by people, including visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. In the world of HR technology, AI may not have transformed the workplace yet but it’s on the way and uses are beginning to emerge.

1. HR chatbots:  online chatbots are becoming more common on shopping platforms or on the websites of professional services providers. Chatbots in the workplace – similar to Apple’s Siri virtual assistant or Amazon’s Alexa – can also be the initial user experience for those with an HR request or information query.

2. Recruitment: when it comes to HR, hiring is often the first activity to be automated. The sheer length (and sometimes complexity) of the recruiting process holds quick wins for automatic communications and notifications when the next action must be taken.

When it comes to applying technology the judgement side of hiring, it’s possible to automatically parse resumes, searching for keywords relating to the ideal candidate profile. We’re still a long way off being interviewed and assessed by the company AI, however, as progress is made with machine learning and matching algorithms, who knows… Although before that slightly science fiction scenario, recruiters (and succession planners) are likely to be using machine learning-enabled analytics in their talent-related decisions (49 percent of organizations plan to use predictive analytics in talent decisions in the near future.).

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3. Learning: learning management systems offer access to online training materials, booking of courses and events, recording training attendance, and prompting managerial follow-up. However, in the future, it’s possible that context-aware learning modules could personalize the service by analyzing individual knowledge and skills needs, and then recommending training solutions. Another option is to take the chatbot virtual assistant as a starting point, add AI equipped with learning heuristics, grant access to stored performance data, and you have a virtual career coach, potentially able to: 

  • Deliver feedback on how well workers are doing while they are working, in real time.
  • Comment on progress in applying newly learned concepts to work tasks.
  • Recommend email wording when working with organizational leaders or decision makers.
  • Advise on next career steps or career changes based on preferences and competencies

(Excerpt from Gartner’s Predicts 2016: HCM Applications Transform to Support the Emerging Digital Workplace)

What will be the impact on HR and careers in HR?

The future of HR? Certainty is the province of professional soothsayers but it does seem that the latest wave of automation in the form of RPA, and the possibilities of artificial intelligence, are holding up some signposts.

The good news is that humans will still be managing human resources. Nuanced decision-making is well beyond any immediate workplace applications of this technology and people are still necessary. However, that begs the question, what kind of people? And here we might see changes in the typical HR hiring profile.

As HR becomes ever more reliant on data and the increasingly sophisticated technology necessary to use it, the HR specialist skills list will include interpretation (and creation) of statistics, evidence-based decision making, and hypothesis testing.

Likewise, the need for other, more traditionally HR, specialist skills may rise. If automation results in diverting resources, attention and priorities to more strategic concerns then organizational development, behavioral science, performance coaching, and leadership and engagement may become even more in demand.

HR automation is here to stay and currently going through a further wave of advancement. But with ‘thinking machines’ on the horizon, that wave is unlikely to be the last.

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Dave Foxall

About the author…

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.

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Dave Foxall

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