Automation isn’t a threat to HR’s role; by using technology to hire better candidates and communicate more effectively, you’ll have more time for the human interactions that matter

If you believe the media hype, it won’t be long before humans will be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), thanks to the advent of driverless cars and increased levels of job automation. But, counters the World Economic Forum, a 2017 McKinsey study found that just 5% of US jobs could be automated fully, and that two-thirds (60%) could be partially automated. “In other words, automation does not mean that human work must disappear, only that it could become more productive.”

The prospects for the continued existence of HR roles also looks bright. A 2019 study by the CIPD and PA Consulting found that HR is the business function that is least likely to be involved in investment decisions and systems implementations related to AI and automation. Other departments – from IT to production, operations, procurement and sales – were found to be far more likely to be involved in decisions related to AI projects, suggesting that HR, so far, is least affected by workplace automation.

What is AI?

AI uses machine-learning algorithms to imitate cognitive functions, meaning it learns to predict what a human would do in a situation, and then carries out the appropriate task at the right point in time.

AI can be categorised as either ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. You might not yet use strong AI systems – which can find a solution to an unfamiliar task without human intervention, such as self-driving vehicles or even C-3PO in the Star Wars films – but you have probably made use of the weak AI in your smartphone or smart speakers, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant.

You might be using AI at work, too: a January 2019 study by Gartner found that the number of organisations implementing AI systems had risen 270% in the past four years. More than a third (37%) of organisations it surveyed have already deployed AI systems or plan to do so shortly.

How can HR use AI?

Established technology firms and small startups alike are still grappling with how far AI can be applied in an HR context. So don’t expect AI to change the nature of AI completely; it’s more realistic to expect that it will automate, augment and amplify the way we already do things.

Cognition X, an AI research company, estimated in 2018 that around 60 companies were developing HR-related AI products in spaces as varied as candidate sourcing and selection, employee engagement, HR management, career management, and organisational effectiveness. While many of these products might take a few more months to come to market, here are three ways that you could apply AI to your HR initiatives now.

1. Recruitment

AI can help employers more effectively navigate some of recruitment’s most significant challenges, including more accurately comparing candidates’ abilities, reducing bias, and streamlining time-consuming processes.

Let’s start with candidate assessment. Erica Hill of HireVue, a developer of video interviewing and assessment software, told Personnel Today that AI “can help assess candidate and speed up time to hire.” She says that a 15-minute video interview can generate 20,000 data points related to facial movement, intonation, and word choice, which can be aggregated and used to compare one candidate against another.

Other AI programs can scan CVs to automatically match candidates for positions based on keyword searching and matching – making hiring faster and, hopefully, more successful.

“Using algorithms to determine what characteristics are required to succeed in a certain role has allowed companies – such as ourselves – to massively evolve their recruitment strategy,” says Richard Hayes, CEO of Mojo Mortgages. “AI enables us to make [a] far more informed decision about a candidate over and above our gut feel of whether they’re the right candidate or not.”

Employers can also deploy AI to help reduce conscious and unconscious bias. Google’s internal recruitment program, qDroid, gives hiring managers a set of questions based on attributes they want to test, helping them to better predict how a candidate might perform in a role. The best candidates stand out because of better examples and reasons for decisions they’ve made, rather than answers to questions that may trigger the hiring manager’s biases.

All of these AI applications will help HR teams work more strategically, rather than eradicate their roles entirely. “If aspects of the recruiting and HR job can be automated, the HR workers can have the freedom to directly work with people in the business or potential hires, spending the quality human time necessary for a great HR department,” said Xavier Parkhouse-Parker of PLATO Intelligence in 2018. “It might seem paradoxical, but the more AI a company deploys in HR, the more ‘human’ a company it can be.”

2. Communications and administration

We’ve already seen how AI can potentially be used to speed up hiring. Broaden out these time-savings to other areas of a traditional HR role, and busy HR teams could soon find themselves with a lot more time on their hands to work on long-term, strategic projects.

How often, for example, are you asked how many days holiday employees are entitled to a year? Or for the name of your organisation’s pension provider? Or when the office will be open during the Christmas holidays? Plug these questions and answers into a friendly, approachable chatbot, and not only can your staff get answers instantly, they can do so without needing to call on you.

Sparkhound – a US business and technology consulting company – is just one company using chatbots to inform staff about their employee benefits. The switch has been met with positive feedback from staff, especially around its responsiveness and ease of use, says director of people strategy Sandy Michelet. “Many believe that AI will reduce human contact in HR but I believe it will do the exact opposite,” she says. “Instead of an HR generalist answering the same questions again and again, [they] can use that time to discuss an employee’s development or internal process improvement.”

Consider also how much time you spend pulling together data about salaries and performance rankings – while it might take you a couple of hours to compile this information, an algorithm could do it in a matter of moments.

3. Talent management

Last but no means least is talent management, a space that many of the emergent HR AI tools sit in, as they seek to not only improve the timeliness, but also increase their relevance and effectiveness. In fact, a 2019 survey by Alexander Mann Solutions found that almost a third (29%) of HR managers believe AI and process automation will be the greatest talent management opportunity their organisations will be presented with in the near future.

It’s the breadth of potential AI applications that has got talent management professionals so excited. Algorithms can predict the likelihood of an employee leaving by looking at employee data such as pay, performance, time in role, and overall staff attrition levels. Being forearmed with this knowledge enables talent managers to proactively address problems before they become too serious – potentially preventing you losing valuable staff.

AI can also be used to improve your corporate training and coaching: it can assess existing skills and qualifications, and make intelligent suggestions about what further training is needed to help an employee succeed in their chosen career path.

“Through AI apps and large datasets, it’s now possible to identify possible tracks based on work experience and career paths of previous employees,” says Neil Cains, CTO of Allegis Group’s Innovation Lab. “This capability helps companies navigate through inconsistencies in language (ie titles don’t always indicate real job duties) and see potential paths.” These programs can also analyse what job moves will yield positive results, he adds, and support conversations you have with employees about their career direction and development to maximise their value to the company.

And that’s the ultimate benefit of using AI in an HR context: some of the more time-consuming, tedious tasks you have to deal with every day can now be done by a chatbot or algorithm – faster and more accurately than you are able to. If you think of AI as enhancing, not supplanting human HR, there’s nothing to be afraid of – not until Skynet takes over, anyway.