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Artificial Intelligence in HR: How It’s Really a “People” Discussion

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While 1 in 6 Connex Human Capital Management Members noted the value of AI in the ever-changing workforce, many others still see it as an emerging threat. However, this is a common misconception that Senior HR leaders must address.

In 2019, approximately 1 in 6 Connex Human Capital Management Members said that AI – or one of the advanced technologies that comprise it, like Natural Language Processing, predictive analytics, and machine learning – was an important consideration in their forward business strategy. These technologies are captivating more Senior HR Leaders with their extraordinary potential to reduce manual effort, improve operational efficiency, and deliver stronger, more actionable insights into the performance of core people processes across the enterprise. And, as AI tools become more robust and sophisticated, organizations are increasingly recognizing the immediate practical value they can generate from a pure automation and data analysis perspective; while the ultimate, long-term impact of AI technologies on complex workflows remains to be seen – and much of that promise remains speculative at this stage – a flatter, more saturated market means these tools have never been more accessible, even to the smallest businesses. Our Membership has expressed interest in using – or is currently using – AI to address a number of key use cases, including:

  • Recruiting

Widespread adoption of AI in the recruiting space is driven by the desire to reduce time to hire by accelerating search functionality, intelligently matching candidate qualifications and traits according to skills and culture expectations, and reducing the extraordinarily manual sorting and review process. Adopting AI-enabled recruiting software enables organizations to retain operational control and oversight over the recruiting process, enhance the value of their existing human and technology investments by making them more efficient, reduce the number of FTEs required to conduct candidate search and hiring efforts, and avoid over-reliance on external providers.

  • Learning & Talent Management

AI and machine learning can be used to enhance the delivery of development, upskilling, and learning content. These technologies are now being used to help design optimal individual development pathways, guide participants to the courses that best match their unique abilities, track online training patterns and behaviors, and streamline data collection for compliance reporting. Some platforms are even leveraging machine learning to better identify internal candidates for job openings, and by extension, maximizing succession planning.

One Connex Event Attendee – the Head of Learning for a large, globally-diversified organization – reported that they’re using AI to evaluate employees against the company’s capability matrix. Through advanced analytics and predictive modeling, they’re able to see where an employee is today, where their skills need to be developed, and even if they’re a better fit for a different internal team. Not only does this allow them to custom tailor development to individuals, but it gives them an unparalleled level of insight into team fit; to both the employee’s and company’s benefits, they’re able to predictively identify lateral employment opportunities.

  • HR Analytics

AI is helping HR departments move from more reactive assessments that provide lagging insights on existing data to predictive models capable of accurate forecasting in key areas like performance management, succession planning, productivity, staffing and recruitment, in addition to exceptionally broad application in population health, risk prediction, and chronic condition management. Human Capital Management leaders have never had a shortage of data available to them, but effectively organizing and interrogating this information has been an intractable challenge for all but the most advanced departments. Achieving true predictive capabilities has largely been the stuff of fantasy, and it’s only with the advent of more accessible, targeted AI-driven technology that more organizations have been able to make this a reality.

  • Chatbots & Employee Self-Service

Consumer habits have shifted over the years towards a preference for convenient self-service models and mobile applications, bringing about a concomitant shift in employee expectations for HR service accessibility and sophistication. Virtual assistants, chatbots, and other AI constructs have the potential to guide employees through key HR functions – such as benefits selection, onboarding, systems training, and even the application process – more efficiently than traditional efforts and with the personalized freedom employees want. These tools enable employers to connect with their employees wherever they are, push the information they need them to receive based on predefined criteria, and limit the need for human HR staff to provide hands-on guidance.

While the potential uses for AI-powered technology in human capital management are extensive, there are a number of related challenges, some obvious and some still emerging, that can stand in the way of effective implementation.

Some of these barriers are classic, straightforward, and fundamentally human obstacles to innovation – mistrust of the unknown, fear of change, and a preference for the status quo. The perceived threat that AI technology represents can lead to intense opposition by some leaders and employees. Fortunately, our research indicates that most of this tension stems from two key misunderstandings: First, that AI is a threat to job security designed to replace as many human jobs as possible; and second, AI is experimental and unproven. The truth is AI is not one thing, but an ever-evolving set of resources that have already engrained themselves in our daily lives. From predictive algorithms that suggest the next word in a text, to personalizing an individual’s consumer experience, its presence is well established. Because AI tools improve with use, and these improvements are widely copied and adapted elsewhere, there are an increasing number of reliably consistent, extraordinarily accurate tools that can perform repeatable work far more efficiently than human workers. And while it is true that this intelligent automation can make some low-level roles less viable, it also creates more opportunities in new fields, helps companies generate more profits that can be passed onto employees, and enables current staff to move into more strategic or high-value roles.

In fact, one Connex Human Capital Management Member reported that automated AI bots were creating new career paths. By layering these bots atop their Workday install, they’ll be able to streamline easily repeatable work like responses to HR support tickets. While this will ultimately do the job of nearly 6 people and be capable of running 24/7/365, it isn’t exactly removing jobs; rather, it’s redefining the skillsets needed to be effective in HR. Instead of entry-level clerical workers, their HR professionals now need the technical skills required to effectively maintain and leverage their AI-enabled systems. Additionally, it creates a learning and development opportunity for existing staff, who will largely be retrained to gain the necessary skills. In a similar fashion, their HR leaders will need to refocus their decision-making strategy based on new KPIs and priorities.

However, even with all the positive value represented by smarter technologies and more automation, there are still reasons for caution when considering the adoption of a new software, program, or third-party partnership.

First, because AI and machine learning have become potent buzzwords over the last decade, with the desire to find and identify a transformative technology reaching a clamor among executive leadership, many providers will misrepresent the sophistication and effectiveness of their solutions in order to attract clients.

Second, even the best AI and machine learning tools cannot replace human ingenuity, critical thinking, and strategic planning. Organizations that wish to implement smart tech must have leadership in place with the vision necessary to adjust workflows, processes, KPIs, and even overall business strategy to ensure they are getting a meaningful return on their investment.

Third, while leaders undoubtedly establish the foundation, no system or technology can function optimally without users and staff who understand why they are using it, what it is capable of, and how to engage with and utilize the available toolsets in the proper fashion. Organizations that lack this level of sophistication may not be prepared for widespread adoption.

Conclusion

The American workforce is being reshaped new, smarter technologies and HR departments must take steps to prepare for and maximize these changes in order to maintain a competitive edge. Successful implementation of advanced technologies will require an honest review of your current environment, an assessment of how you’ll internally respond to disruptions, and collaborative roadmap development with key leaders outside of HR to build a shared understanding of what the transition will take.

The challenge for HR leadership is determining not only whether or not a software features the capabilities it advertises, but whether or not internal staff have the necessary sophistication and preparedness to leverage these tools properly, and whether internal leaders have the vision to work more advanced insights into strategic considerations.

Equally important, the personal element of technological change must be accounted for. While AI isn’t designed to replace workers and leave them with nothing to do, those negative presumptions often need to be addressed proactively. Robust communications, training, onboarding, and change management strategies can all help assuage employee fears and set the stage for helping them understand how their roles will shift and how they can position themselves to benefit.

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