Will We Need HR If We Have Bots?

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May 15, 2017

Henry Ford is often credited with saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Though there’s no evidence he ever said that, it shows up often in conversations about industry disruption. And Ford was certainly a disruptor who pursued mass producing automobiles, giving us the Model T and, years later, one other of the most popular vehicles ever made, the Mustang.

Fast forward to today and the company admits that it needs to transform from a traditional automobile company, to an “automobile and mobility company.” Why the change? Three words: Ride hailing technology.

The disruption of the transportation industry by companies like Lyft, Uber, and others over the last few years has been remarkable. While Ford’s introduction of the Mustang in 1964 may have been a symbol of freedom and mobility, ride hailing is the new symbol of freedom for today’s youth.

What does this have to do with HR?

Traditional HR has been around almost as long as the automobile. The first “personnel” professionals focused on creating a physically safe working environment, and over time, their focus shifted from representing workers to balancing that representation with compliance of company policy and procedures.

Today, many see the HR function as administrative and transactional in nature. We frequently respond to questions and requests instead of proactively reaching out to help solve real business problems. So, how can a Lyft-like approach help us transform the HR function from reactive to predictive?

It all starts with data

Many organizations have a number of HR technologies that they use for payroll, benefits, recruitment, scheduling, performance management, and training. Frequently, these are disparate systems with little to no connectivity, meaning accessing the data and then aggregating it in a meaningful way is extremely cumbersome. So, it all starts with getting access to that data. How is this done? The cloud.

Enterprise software vendors have made the shift to offering HR systems (as well as finance, supply chain and others) in a cloud format – making access to this valuable data easier. The cloud enables the consolidation of data from the different HR systems to be consolidate the. Once that data is readily available, the question becomes how to develop new ways of getting it into the hands of our front-line employees and managers.

According to Gartner, “Conversational systems shift from a model where people adapt to computers to one where the computer ‘hears’ and adapts to a person’s desired outcome.”

Interactive HR automation – chatbots in most cases – already are beginning to come to market. ADP is nearing initial deployment of a first generation system, and in recruiting, two companies have launched bots that interact with candidates.

Alexa and other PDAs

Amazon Echo is a smart speaker that connects to a voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service, Alexa. Alexa uses natural language processing to field a wide variety of questions from the user: inquiries about the weather, requests to play music, turn on the lights or add bagels to a virtual shopping list. Since “her” (yes, I realize I just called a glorified speaker “her”) release in late 2014, the majority of the new “skills” that have been added have been focused largely on our home lives. But, what if we started to think of Alexa as an assistant for our work lives as well? After all, for many of us, the blurring between our personal and professional lives has resulted in the acknowledgement that there is no distinction any more.

The use cases are almost endless: “Alexa, has my paycheck been deposited yet?” “Alexa, what time does my shift start on Thursday?” She is essentially a personal digital assistant (remember PDAs?) that not only responds to verbal questions, but could also potentially be used in a proactive manner. More organizations are using assessment technologies that bring to light deficiencies (and strengths) that could be accessed by Alexa. Just like Amazon recommends merchandise based on previous purchases, Alexa could recommend training courses or books based on information in your electronic HR profile.

According to a World Economic Forum report, “In such a rapidly evolving employment landscape, the ability to anticipate and prepare for future skills requirements, job content, and the aggregate effect on employment is increasingly critical for businesses, governments and individuals in order to fully seize the opportunities presented by these trends.”

The robobosses are coming

The reality is that many of us have already interacted with artificial intelligence (AI) and may not have even realized it. Chatbot technologies have been used for years by organizations looking to automate interactions with customers around simple questions and requests. And this technology may eventually replace traditional “manager” tasks that frequently consume considerable time in most organizations. At its recent IT Expo, one of Gartner’s key predications was that by 2018, more than 3 million US workers will be supervised by a “roboboss.”

Think about it – systems could be set up to automatically trigger communication if someone’s behavior fell outside of appropriate parameters. A manger would not have to contact their employee if they forgot to punch in to the timeclock, or if they were late turning in their self-evaluation. The roboboss would be able to track that data and communicate directly with the employee to encourage them to complete these administrative tasks without any need to involve their actual manager.

Last week, Microsoft introduced an AI system to monitor employees. Here’s a look at what it does and what it may mean for workers: Microsoft’s New Tool That Tells the Boss Everything.

And we haven’t even gotten into the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable technologies, that would allow us to track our employees using geolocation services. If you have an employee who is mobile, you could track his or her physical location throughout the day to assign pay codes or determine the most efficient routes. Physical time clocks could quickly become a relic like a fax machine.

Love it or hate it, HR disruption is coming

The McKinsey Global Institute predicted that 50% of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055. Others feel differently. MIT Economist David Autor believes the degree to which machines will substitute for human labor is overstated. While it remains to be seen how much new technologies will change our lives, we can either choose to embrace this new “freedom” and disrupt traditional models as Lyft and Uber did in transportation, or we can rebel against it.

As HR professionals, we can use the availability of data to drive better decision-making. We can leverage technology to automate the transactional functions of our role, and even use it to predict outcomes based on statistical correlations. And above all, we can let the technology handle the policing of compliance-related policies while we pursue the development of stronger relationships with the people in our organizations. A recent study by Deloitte suggested that the in-demand skills of the future will include empathy and collaboration – very human traits that technology will have a hard time emulating anytime soon

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