AI in HR – hype or inevitable reality?

There’s plenty of hype surrounding AI and cognitive computing replacing humans in the workplace. This seems supported by a 2017 Deloitte survey that found 33% of global respondents already use some form of AI to deliver HR solutions. But is the human aspect of the HR department really at risk of being supplanted by machines?

The argument for AI

AI’s appeal lies in the fact that some tasks are simply more AI-friendly than others – particularly the everyday transactional duties that don’t require deep thinking or creativity. Examples include self-service chatbots that can give personalised answers to common employee questions, or an AI algorithm that can scan a candidate’s resume to check if they meet the requirements for a role.

AI technology can also streamline aspects of the onboarding process. An AI chatbot could answer basic job queries, suggest training courses, or provide names of people who will help the new recruit get job-ready quickly. An example is the AI helpdesk assistant developed by US tech startup, Spoke, which can respond to employee questions through channels like email, SMS and Slack. The more it is used, the more intelligent and helpful it gets. Ultimately, these platforms will allow employees to get set up faster without taking significant time away from other employees.

Data collection and processing is another area where AI is already showing it can greatly outperform people. Known in the HR space as ‘people analytics’, cognitive computing can be leveraged to transform large amounts of data into actionable insights, such as:

  • Better candidate screening: It’s not uncommon for hiring managers to read through hundreds of CVs every day. HR managers can specify the qualities needed in ideal candidates, and use AI to trawl through thousands of resumes, cover letters and other inputs such as social media posts to identify ideal candidates.
  • Improved job satisfaction: AI technologies like natural-language processing, biometrics and text analysis can help offer deeper insights into the moods and energy levels of employees. At insurer MetLife, for example, a voice analysis algorithm flashes an icon of a coffee cup to a call centre agent if it senses that they are starting to sound tired. The same technology might also be used to suggest activities that will boost employee productivity or engagement, such as pairing them with a mentor or stress-reduction tips.
  • Enhanced decision-making: Research has found that people are more comfortable divulging personal information to ‘virtual humans’ such as chatbots than to real people because they’re less likely to feel judged or stigmatised. This could enable AI to collect higher-quality workplace analytics that can be used for better future decision-making.
  • More effective learning: Machine-learning apps could provide real-time feedback to an employee during a training experience, and intelligently recommend a personalised path based on the employee’s progress and responses. The EdCast platform, for example, can provide personalised learning content found on the needs of individual team members. It can also help managers quickly identify where expertise and knowledge are concentrated within teams.

By automating everyday administrative tasks and decisions, AI can give HR managers and their teams more time for high-value work and human interactions that will improve the business.

Why AI can’t fully replace HR

There’s no doubt that AI-enabled technology can offer HR professionals a wealth of productivity benefits. But there’s still good reason to argue that the human HR professional is not going away any time soon.

The limitations of AI automation were demonstrated recently when a US employee was fired by a computer program and locked out of the office because his manager had failed to renew his contract in the system. AI researcher Adrian Hopgood argues that more sophisticated AI wouldn’t have made the same mistake, but it still highlights the dangers of letting machines make important personnel decisions.

In news that is sure to make HR professionals feel a little less anxious, a 2016 McKinsey study determined that activities that involve managing and developing people are among the hardest to automate. Both are skills that HR professionals have in spades and must apply in activities such as mentoring, improving morale, and workplace training. While AI can undoubtedly be a useful assistant in these areas, it can’t replicate the ‘soft’ skills that are vital to their success, such as negotiation, collaboration, mediation, and empathy.

Of course, AI automation and human engagement don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Strategically combining them can deliver better results than would otherwise be possible. In the war for talent, for example, an AI chatbot that can respond quickly and intelligently to job applications may be the critical factor in snagging a talented candidate before a quick-thinking competitor does.

In this way, AI chatbots and other programs would become part of an HR team, working alongside HR specialists to accomplish routine and non-complex tasks. When it comes to boosting employee engagement or improving company culture, though, there’s no replacing the human touch.

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