How can HR embrace the benefits of automation?



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10 mins

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Automation isn’t just for machinery; HR teams could be saving time and money if they take advantage of the automated opportunities offered by their HR software

The early 2020s have produced a perfect storm for employers, from dealing with a pandemic to mounting skills shortages, increased wage bills and hybrid working. It’s perhaps no surprise that, according to a survey by consulting firm EY, 41% of businesses plan to accelerate automation as a way to replace jobs in the coming years.

In the HR function, self-service has been on the increase since the late 1990s when business professor Dave Ulrich popularised a ‘three-legged’ model of HR which pushes much of the administrative side to shared service centres and passes more responsibility for basic tasks (such as approving time off) to managers and employees. But increasingly, robotic process automation (RPA) and AI technology could replace a much greater range of repetitive tasks: a survey by Willis Towers Watson with the Singapore Ministry of Manpower found that 24 out of 27 HR roles would be impacted in some way by automation. This could mean the end of some entry-level administrative roles, it argued, and for more senior HR professionals a way to escape repetitive administrative tasks and focus on higher-value activities.

RPA tends to work best with repetitive, rules-based tasks. A computer ‘bot’ can learn the steps in the process and be given conditions under which it does one thing or another. This could be via a consumer-friendly user interface such as a chatbot, or an engine that works away in the background. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a technology expert to put RPA to work in your HR function. There are companies that specialise in RPA, such as UiPath and Automation Anywhere, that can help with process mapping and offer a menu of prebuilt automations organisations can buy off the shelf. For those used to Microsoft platforms, its Power BI tool can automate simple data-related tasks such as populating spreadsheets or distributing reports. You might also find that your HR software already enables you to automate some key HR tasks.

Some examples of how automation might be used in the employee lifecycle include:

  • Recruitment: booking interview times, screening applications/CVs, scanning job sites, posting ads, and sending out assessments
  • Onboarding: arranging computer equipment, linking start date to payroll, setting up email accounts, alerting managers about new starters, and sending out communications about company
  • Pay and benefits: managing paid leave, approving holidays and expense claims, timesheets and scheduling, and payroll calculations
  • Performance and engagement: sending reminders for reviews, sending out pulse surveys and compiling results, and sending alerts related to HR cases such as grievances
  • Offboarding: use offboarding software to schedule exit interviews, update records, issue the final payslip, remove access to applications, and remove an individual from the employee directory

Recruitment is a natural fit for RPA because so many aspects of the process can be time-consuming and rules driven. A study by automation software company Workato found that the use of recruitment automation grew 547% over the course of the pandemic, compared to 257% growth in use for automation in HR services and 242% growth in learning and development automation. Onboarding and offboarding staff makes up for 34.5% of all automated processes, according to Workato. “Lots of automation happens in recruitment without being obvious,” explains Anthony Wheeler, author of HR without people? Evolution in the Age of Automation, AI and Machine Learning. “It’s not just scraping candidate data from the web – it might be gamified web tests or something testing a candidate’s decision- making without them realising.” Early-adopter organisations are moving to automate first-round interviews by using AI bots to ask questions or asking candidates to record a video response based on a series of questions, which will then be reviewed by an algorithm.

Since HR is the ‘people’ function of the business, it may seem anathema to many organisations to automate any aspects of the employee lifecycle. But, because “HR departments often make the ‘human’ part of their department a point of pride, this can translate into a mentality where HR professionals are used to rolling up their sleeves and getting things done themselves, which could make automated processes seem like cheap ways to get around doing the hard work,” says Mel Kasulis, project manager at Skynova, which specialises in technology for small businesses.

However, adds Kasulis, “HR is also typically one of the best- suited departments for automation, given the high volume of mundane tasks HR professionals have to tend to.” Some of HR’s reluctance to embrace automation is driven by fears that the technology is too complex, when in actual fact lots of modern RPA solutions don’t require many new skills, she says. “They’re made to be easy to use without much technical knowledge once they’ve been properly configured. Once the automation is in place and paperwork is taken care of by the product, HR departments can focus on the human part of their job: supporting employees directly, hearing their concerns, and helping them find solutions to their problems.”

Before embarking on any automation journey, HR can build strong foundations for success by working with other departments and involving employees in the process itself. “Automation works best where there is a core team of interested and invested people,” says Len Pannett, a business transformation consultant. “Where it fails is where people assume processes are fine but they actually have a lot of variation, or where they don’t think about how they will scale up from an initial pilot.” Culturally, getting employees used to having aspects of their jobs automated can be a challenge, so transparency helps. Pannett adds: “The last thing you want is your RPA team doing this in a room somewhere where no one can see them. Sit them in the middle of the floor, and once employees see boring aspects of their role taken away, they see how good it is and start making suggestions.” From here, it then becomes a case of prioritisation and process management, he advises.

Once automated processes are up and running, the return on investment can be quick and significant, adds Pannett. This is where teams will need to make decisions about whether they invest their budget in new hires to take over basic functions such as data entry or CV scanning, or scale up their technology. “With RPA, you don’t necessarily need to hire another person if the size of your workforce doubles. A bot doesn’t differentiate between 10 repetitions and 2000,” he says. It makes sense to train up employees in different areas of RPA (such as process design, process management and system integration) because it can be highly scalable. He adds: “When this is done right, return on investment can be measured in weeks and months. We’re seeing marketplaces of preconfigured bots emerge that can conduct basic processes such as pulling data from a database. Or larger companies are creating one RPA and using it many times across the business.”

How does this impact the human side of the HR role? Professor Adrian David Cheok, professor at the i-University in Tokyo, argues that AI can augment people professionals’ decision-making on top of automating the more mundane aspects of the role. “The decisions around someone asking for leave or calling in sick are not so complicated because if you feed the AI the rules, it makes the decision for you,” he says. “But it can also pick things up early, such as patterns where people are taking sick leave frequently, prompting HR to have a conversation about the absence.” As automation and AI becomes more sophisticated, organisations can programme more flexibility into them, adds Professor Cheok. “You could create a +20% wiggle room for something or program in more conditions that makes it ‘friendlier’, or you can make it more rigid, depending on what you’re using it for,” he says.

According to analyst company Gartner, the next step in RPA will be ‘hyper automation’: a combination of tools that augments an employee’s job rather than simply replacing aspects of it. Hyper automation would see employees becoming ‘citizen developers’, it argues, delegating tasks to their robot ‘twin’ and using other aspects of AI and machine learning to improve other parts of their role. RPA company UiPath argues that anything in an organisation that can be automated should be, and, by training staff to think and act as developers, employees can readily see any process flaws and fix them. In response to this, we’ll see organisations build centres of excellence to oversee the automation of processes across the business, says Pannett. “To make this sustainable, organisations will need to build up a way of managing RPA – where someone looks after not just the technical pieces of the transformation, but also the business case, how you manage updates, how you test processes and the like.”

One of the major challenges in embedding automation will be the ethical considerations around what can – or should be – automated. Wheeler believes that, despite high investment in automation and AI, many organisations are still grappling with the ethical issues around the impact automation might have – not just on the workforce, but on decision-making. “Companies are asking questions such as: the technology is here but should we use it? What does this mean for our workforce? What is the safety net to deal with technology displacement?” Multinational companies may also find the shift to automation difficult as different countries may have varying legacy systems or different local attitudes towards aspects of certain roles being replaced. “For HR, this means their role becomes highly strategic, because in some areas they may be operating at high speed, while in others, they face a more traditional infrastructure,” Wheeler adds.

He concludes that the HR professional of the future will need to become adept at being the interface between people and technology – identifying where an organisation deploys technology, where they deploy humans, and where humans and technology can work together. “[HR will] not only be a strategic business partner but a tech business partner, working in really complex environments,” he says. It’s a daunting opportunity, but one HR professionals will need to embrace.

Five key takeaways

  1. Start small and simple: repetitive and rigidly defined processes work best
  2. Identify ways to scale up: once a few processes have been automated, how can you apply this to other areas of the business?
  3. Take employees on the journey: be transparent about what you’re automating and engage employees in the suggestion and development process
  4. Upskill your workforce: seek out training opportunities in aspects of RPA such as business process management and integration
  5. Consider the ethical implications: just because something can be automated, doesn’t mean it should be

This is an extract from Good Work, Great Technology: Enabling strategic success through digital tools, published by us

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