Is HR ready for AI?

Is HR ready for AI?

AI could supercharge human resources – but only if they proactively prepare for it, experts say

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If AI is going to have deep impacts on the human workforce, it stands to reason that human resources will need to play a vital role in how organizations adapt. That’s no small task. Are HR departments moving fast enough to prepare?

“No, they are not, and it is evident in the fact that we are still using archaic metrics, if there are any metrics at all,” says Dan Broekhuizen, VP, people at Nexient. “With the exception of turnover rates, there is not a quantifiable way to determine the ‘people health’ of an organization. Perhaps a yearly engagement survey will give you an idea, but yearly surveys are like bowling without seeing your score or shot until the 10th frame: too little, too late. [It’s] a lagging indicator.”

Broekhuizen notes that there are some “aggressive or progressive” companies getting ahead of the curve, but these are the exceptions rather than the norm. If you zoom out for a bigger picture about HR and AI, it doesn’t get a lot rosier. A January 2019 story in the HR industry publication Workforce ran with a brass-tacks headline, “AI is coming — and HR is not prepared.”

“IBM, PWC and Deloitte (among others) have all done surveys on AI’s impact on HR in the last 18 months, and the message is clear: companies want AI, but they don’t have the talent, leadership or confidence in their human resources team to make it happen,” the story reads.

In effect, HR leaders will need to undertake transformation efforts similar to those that their IT leader counterparts have well underway.

Broekhuizen sees several reasons why this might be the case. First off, HR departments – like IT organizations commonly used to be – are still often viewed as cost centers rather than strategic business units. In effect, HR leaders will need to undertake transformation efforts similar to those that their IT leader counterparts have well underway.

“To this point, any expenditures made on behalf of HR, or people, are seen as an expense and not an investment. Because people issues are seen as ‘soft’ issues, investment in them will always lag behind investment in a better ERP or infrastructure or finance tools,” Broekhuizen says. “People teams are still fighting and talking about ‘getting a seat at the table.’ How can we expect to have investment in AI or even be considered for any type of technology investment over and above the standard ATS and HRIS?”

[ Related read: AI in the enterprise: 8 myths, debunked ]

Other factors include a possible lack of executive support, especially from the CEO and CFO offices – which may overlap the budget and prioritization issues. Another issue might be harder to see but is no less crucial: No one has actually expected HR to anticipate or plan for – or even have a baseline understanding – of AI.

“How many organizations put the expectation on their people teams to be cutting-edge when it comes to technology and AI? As a group, we’re more concerned about liability, following the rules, retention, and treating everyone fairly and consistently than using the predictive and prescriptive capabilities that can be unlocked via AI,” Broekhuizen says. “Rarely is the people team expected to be the most advanced when it comes to technology and AI. We haven’t a clue because it hasn’t been expected of us.”

Indeed, HR has typically been considered – fair or otherwise – a laggard when it comes to new technology adoption. Its approach to AI to this point isn’t doing much to change that reputation.

“Many times HR decision makers are intimidated by technology tools,” says Terry Simpson, technology evangelist at Nintex. AI is probably even more intimidating because of its vast potential scope, but Simpson says companies can get past this with an early success story. HR is actually ripe for this because it has plenty of common, repeatable processes.

“Once they get a few quick easy wins it becomes very addictive and soon other processes follow,” Simpson says.

How AI and HR fit together

Before HR can help the rest of the organization plan and evolve for long-term impacts of AI – a story that’s still in its prologue in most companies – it needs to understand how AI might change its own department. Simpson notes that HR work itself can be a good starting point for getting started with AI, or at least with greater automation, even if it lacks cognitive capabilities at first.

Before HR can help the rest of the organization plan and evolve for long-term impacts of AI – a story that’s still in its prologue in most companies – it needs to understand how AI might change its own department.

“Most HR organizations typically have a lot of processes that must be followed in a very consistent manner,” Simpson says. “Some of those processes include on-boarding, off-boarding, employee reviews, policy sign-offs, benefits, general inquiries, complaints, and more. Many of these processes are very time-sensitive as well, so introducing AI into the mix removes many constraints that us humans tend to introduce by adding documentation and [other tasks] to each step.”

[ Robotic process automation can be a stepping stone to AI. Learn how to identify RPA opportunities.]

Simpson points to employee off-boarding as an example of a time-sensitive task that, especially if unplanned or unexpected, can cause a fire drill. “By configuring a technology to handle the scenario it will allow HR employees to focus on more important tasks and also provide a great experience for non-HR employees,” Simpson says.

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Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.

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