Look For the ‘Human’ When Buying HR Technology

What attracted you initially to a career in HR? Chances are, it wasn’t the opportunity to fill out forms, perform accreditation checks, resolve insurance conflicts, analyze compensation data, or — most of all — create and email spreadsheets.

HR is about people. Its primary task is to add real and sustainable value to the human contribution in an organization. Yet today, HR technologies, for all their benefits, have the potential to separate HR professionals from the situations, skills, and individuals they wish to benefit most.

Technology certainly has an ever-increasing number of important uses in the human resource field. The trick is to know where to embrace it, and where not to. Viewing technology through the lens of human interaction and productivity facilitation can offer an answer. If a digital innovation serves either to eliminate mundane tasks or enhance the quality of employee/employer or peer-to-peer relationships, it’s worth considering adopting.

Automating the routine

RPA (Robotic Process Automation), a prime example, is quickly gaining a foothold in the HR realm precisely because it can automate repeatable potentially mind-numbing procedures. A form of artificial intelligence, RPA mimics a computer user completing a process, executing repetitive steps accurately and at scale. Even seemingly complex procedures across multiple applications — say, compiling data from a payroll system, building and populating a spreadsheet report, and then automatically emailing the report to a list of appropriate supervisors — can be handled via RPA.

Similarly, cognitive data processing technologies have the ability to not only automate common tasks like generating and distributing reports, but also to perform duties as highly nuanced as career coaching across an entire employee base. Machine learning algorithms can learn an organization’s priorities for skills development, help assess an individual’s credentials, then make recommendations for training or positions to consider. Offered to employees through an existing learning management system or a mobile app, such innovations can facilitate large-scale corporate objectives of development and retention and give each and every worker the useful career information they crave today.

Yet some new technologies have a wow factor that makes them seem useful or innovative when they may not be ready or reasonable to replace HR’s role. Virtual Reality (VR) is being touted for all sorts of uses, from eLearning to giving candidates a taste of what it’s like to work for a company. But these should be considered as augmenting traditional tactics, not entirely replacing them. Even for generations newer to the workplace, meeting actual people and having direct, one-on-one interaction is an important part of hiring, developing and retaining workers.

With digital disruption impacting so many areas of business, however, the pressure to adopt next-generation solutions can be intense. Managers are also being asked to do more with limited human and financial resources. While technology can be leveraged to help reduce or eliminate repetitive tasks, it should enhance the HR function, not overrun it.

Other trendy tech examples are pulse surveys, pervasive feedback, and continuous performance management, all important and worthwhile developments in the modern always-on organization. In many organizations, quarterly or annual reviews and engagement surveys are being replaced with frequent check-ins that encourage greater employee interaction and a focus on coaching and development. However, the digital channels shouldn’t rule the processes, either for gathering input or as a replacement for face-to-face interaction. Personal accountability and dialogue are important, which is what the tools should facilitate. But they can erode trust and confidence among workers if they become the next digital “check the boxes” that HR rolls out.

When evaluating HR technology, ask yourself first whether the adoption will improve workforce empathy and the employee experience. Next, consider whether it will simplify day-to-day complexity, giving individuals the ability to focus on the human element and the work at hand. If it removes drudgery and distraction, it will likely benefit just about everyone.

Vendors as partners

Vendors can be major sources of insight and knowledge in this regard. It pays to treat vendors as true partners; many times, the answer with new technologies is not to toss what is already in place, but to augment what’s there with refinements and upgrades. With almost all solution providers experimenting with AI, asking incumbent vendors to improve existing tools can not only help save money, but also reduce training and speed implementation.

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Amid all the technology options on the horizon, some are very promising when it comes to improving productivity. Another form of AI, Natural Language Processing (NLP) offers employees faster, more intelligent ways to navigate benefits, request information and in general, more effectively manage their employment situation and organizational relationships. It can be a win-win for all involved, since NLP/AI can also let HR staff focus on their human value add.

Technology has altered the HR profession forever — but amid all the change, it’s important not to neglect the human aspect. Individuals are complex beings. Personalities, ambitions, weaknesses, desires, and attitudes will always be a part of organizational life. It’s essential for HR practitioners to use technology not to separate themselves from people, but to grow and support the soft skills that raise emotional intelligence and improve the quality of the workplace.

Remember, most employees want to add the most value they can to an organization, and also to feel valued. In this increasingly digital world, getting that balance right is one of the most important goals HR can achieve.

Christa Degnan Manning

Christa Degnan Manning leads technology and service provider research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. In this role, she helps businesses align their workforce support strategies with appropriate third-party software developers, service partners, and governance models. A 25-year technology industry veteran, Christa’s expertise assists organizations in creating functional capabilities and employee experiences that increase productivity, engagement, and workforce efficiency. Frequently cited by business and trade media, she has presented market research on business to business trends, leading practices, and expected challenges and benefits at industry and user conferences globally throughout her career. Christa has a bachelor of arts in English from Barnard College, Columbia University, incorporating studies at University College, University of London. She also holds a master of arts degree in English from the University of Massachusetts and has completed executive coursework on business metrics at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.