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SAP SuccessFactors President Mike Ettling: Machine Learning Is at the Heart of HR Transformation

Feature Article | May 10, 2017 by Susan Galer

In this exclusive interview, Mike Ettling, president of SAP SuccessFactors, explains how machine learning, AI, and other innovations are taking HR by storm and how leaders can take full advantage of it.

Ettling also provides a preview of innovations at the upcoming SAPPHIRE NOW event being held May 16-18 in Orlando, Florida, including his keynote, entitled Redefine the Employee Experience with Innovative Digital Solutions.

Ettling said that contrary to fear-based conversations, machine learning elevates HR’s role to strategic business partner.

How are innovations like machine learning transforming HR?

Software intelligence is transforming HR processes. Let me give you two examples. The first is our business beyond bias initiative that’s fueled by machine learning to improve workforce diversity. We’re developing technology empowering people to create job descriptions that are gender-neutral to attract the best possible candidates, whether male or female. This drives a more balanced job applicant pool and employee population.

The second example is learning recommendations that cut through the noise to quickly surface content when employees are ready to learn, in their preferred format. People in the workplace demand the same technology conveniences they experience in their personal lives. These algorithms serve up the courses – internal and external – best-suited to someone’s development objectives. There are plenty of educational options, but too often people can’t find what’s most relevant to them. Machine learning recommends courses based on many variables, including the skills someone aims to build, and courses taken by others with similar career objectives. And, someone can consume this content wherever it might be, whether on a mobile device while they’re traveling, or online at their desktop.

What are the implications for the business and HR professionals?

Contrary to fear-based conversations, machine learning elevates HR’s role from tactical processes to strategic business partner. Intelligent software is enabling the mechanics of workforce management like creating job requisitions, recommending courses, or predicting which employees are likeliest to leave the company. This helps everyone make better decisions. Just as important, it gives HR a strategic, valued voice at the executive level.

Contrary to fear-based conversations, machine learning elevates HR’s role to strategic business partner

For the business, machine learning technology is an opportunity to drive greater efficiency and better decision-making. When you’re able to match candidates to jobs and fill open positions faster, there’s less investment needed in these processes. You can also reduce and manage flight risk with a clearer understanding of who’s likely to leave, intercepting them with compensation adjustments or other less costly approaches.

What are the top things decision-makers need to do right now?

They need to understand the impact of machine learning across HR, including recruiting, retention, learning and skill-building. The old way of performing these tasks is due for reinvention, and it’s on HR to understand how machine learning can help improve decision-making. HR professionals must make sure the right tools are in place across the organization to bring the benefits to the company.

Can you provide some examples of how companies are already using machine learning in HR?

Within SAP, we’re using our job matching capabilities to streamline our candidate pipeline, and make sure we’re matching the right people to open positions. We’re also working with a large U.S.-based hotel chain around learning recommendations, as well as a major global entertainment company to bring the right skill-building content to employees. Like the technology behind Amazon and Netflix, machine learning in HR allows these companies to deliver knowledge based on someone’s unique skill sets and goals. Their employees can access company-specific information, as well as relevant online content matched specifically to their situation. Using machine learning, HR literally learns and delivers the best content for each employee when it’s available and in synch with company and individual growth objectives.

What is the SAP SuccessFactors machine learning vision?

Our vision is to create an intelligent cloud that encompasses the full range of HR processes including recruiting, onboarding, learning and services recommending the best content, insights and actions. We’re building on the wisdom of executives, managers and their teams by providing an intelligence layer with a delightful user experience so they can make better decisions that directly support their business goals.

What can the market expect from SAP SuccessFactors?

We have important machine learning solutions in beta now, including learning recommendations that we’ll deliver to customers. Our objective is to embed machine learning with conversational language capabilities across the SAP SuccessFactors suite, helping companies deliver exceptional learning experiences for their employees for competitive differentiation. As the next wave of digitalization transforms industries, HR professionals that stick with status quo risk falling behind. Machine learning is at the forefront of this new age, and SAP SuccessFactors is committed to help companies find and develop the “all-in” employees who are at the heart of every organization’s success.

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