‘Arnie’ (CBYBORGS), ‘Cyberdyne Systems’ and ‘Skynet’ in the mid 80’s, or something similar, may have been the first introduction to AI for many of us. But today AI technology promises to reshape the way we work.
Siri, Cortana and Alexa, are examples of intelligent assistants or chatbots that may have already had an impact on your daily home life. (‘Bots’ are software that is designed to automate the kinds of tasks you would usually do on your own. Chatbots are based on computer algorithms designed to simulate a human conversation.) Considerable discussion and research by scientists and economists has focused on disruption to labour markets and potential productivity gains from AI, but practically how does this translate in a HR context?
Let’s start by defining AI, Artificial intelligence can be defined as the quest to create intelligent agents that can complete complex tasks which are at present only achievable by humans. It is a broad field that covers logic, probability, perception, reasoning, learning and action. Whilst the beginnings of modern AI can be traced to classical philosophers’ attempts to describe human thinking as a symbolic system, the field of AI wasn’t formally founded until 1956 when John McCarthy held the first academic conference on the subject, where the term “artificial intelligence” was coined. The main advances in AI since then have been advances in search algorithms, machine learning (the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed) and integrating statistical analysis into understanding the world at large feulled by the Cloud, the Internet of Things (the networking of physical devices such as sensors, wearables and other electronics) and massive improvements in hardware facilitating Big Data (extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions.)
A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) study suggests that Companies look at AI through the lens of business capabilities rather than technologies and in doing so, AI can support three important business needs: Automating business processes, Gaining insight through data analysis, and Engaging with customers and employees.
In this context, it is not difficult to see the practical applications of AI in the HR field. It’s commonly agreed that automation of ‘repetitive, low-value add HR tasks’ like those involved in the onboarding a new employee, such as provisioning equipment and triaging or answering common new starter questions or general employee administration requests relating to leave and benefits is a good starting point for the application of AI technologies, namely our ‘bot’ friends. Today, bots can support communication using natural language processing (as opposed to specific commands) via text, gesture or voice.
Efficiency gains are perhaps the most obvious, but by no means the only potential benefit of the application of AI in HR. Insight into vital HR processes like Talent Acquisition or Voluntary Resignations can be supported by using algorithms to detect patterns in vast volumes of data and interpret their meaning, known as cognitive computing and can improve business outcomes by expanding on human expertise and decision making.
For example, AI can assist in multiple stages of the Talent Acquisition process, starting from the job advertisement – by helping Employers recognise and remove language bias improving hiring communications and encouraging diverse applicants; Aid the screening and selection processes by relying more on analytical processing of huge amounts of data including candidate’s resumes, social media accounts, reference letters and other sources instead of only face-value reviews and individual observations and; Suggesting relevant interview questions based on the applicant’s work history and the requirements of the job they are applying for allowing for faster and accurate filtering. Additionally, as AI technology is immune to bias and stereotypes, it can support the selection process through objective decision making regardless of an applicant’s race, gender or ethnicity and identify candidates who may have been screened out due to our human tendency to favour candidates with similar traits or competencies.
At the other end of the spectrum, AI can also can help identify disengaged employees to predict when employees might be thinking of leaving, by analysing data to determine a baseline of normal activity patterns in the organisation and flagging outliers.
Learning and Succession and Development processes can also benefit from AI by using machine learning algorithms to analyse learning and performance history, user profiles, and activity data to generate personalised Learning and Career Path recommendations to help employees stay competitive by connecting them with personalised learning, beyond traditional course catalogues to fit their learning goals and situation, building a culture of learning and keeping employees engaged with a relevant and personalised career path.
Clearly the applications of AI technologies in HR, have the potential to create enhanced and more personalised experiences for employees, ultimately resulting in better outcomes for organisations. But is it really that simple? What are Companies doing today and what about the impact on HR Professionals?
Recent Studies including IBM’s 2017 survey of 6,000 executives found that 66 percent of CEOs believe cognitive computing can drive significant value in HR. Half of HR executives agreed that cognitive computing has the power to transform key dimensions of HR and 54 percent of HR executives believe that cognitive computing will affect key roles in the HR organisation. Accenture’s 2018 study reported that 64 percent of executives plan to use AI to automate tasks to a considerable extent in the next three years and 97 percent intend to use AI to enhance worker capabilities. In the HBR study, process automation was the most common type of AI project, followed by cognitive insight and cognitive engagement, but companies used cognitive engagement technologies (bots) more to interact with employees than with customers.
As for the ‘rise of the machines’, the consensus is that the future isn’t about HR staff being replaced by robots, but AI freeing up workers to focus on higher-level, broader, strategic HR work as a true partner to the business rather than spending time crunching data as a task processor. The results of the HBR study support this; With the replacement of administrative employees neither the primary objective nor a common outcome, with only a few process automation projects leading to reductions in head count, and in most cases, the tasks in question had already been shifted to outsourced workers. In fact, it is suggested that AI and Human-Machine Collaboration is key to succeeding in this brave new world. Specifically, Accenture suggest that business leaders consider the next steps here to create a future workforce in which humans and intelligent machines work together to improve productivity, innovation and growth.
As a side note, you may be comforted to know that according to experts, fears that AI will develop awareness and overthrow humanity are grounded in misconceptions of what AI is. Because, AI operates under very specific limitations defined by the algorithms that dictate its behavior, while AI might be capable of impressive feats within carefully delineated boundaries such as playing a master-level chess game, that’s where its abilities end. ‘AI reaching consciousness’, there has been absolutely no progress in research in that area, so (in the famous words of the Terminator) “he won’t be back!”….really.
About the Author
Naomi Benjamin, Achieving business outcomes in the Cloud @SAP SuccessFactors.