Special report: How AI is shaping the workplace.
By Marta Chmielowicz
It is the year 2035 and robots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are part of everyday life. Working as servants in every household and programmed to follow three laws of robotics, they nevertheless band together in a plot to take over the world.
While this is merely the plot of the 2004 science fiction movie “I, Robot”, it illustrates society’s fears around the role of AI. With the rise of inventions like self-driving cars and robot caregivers, the possibility that machines will become so intelligent that they will take over aspects of daily life is more tangible than ever. In fact, a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center reveals that 72 percent of Americans are worried about a future in which machines perform jobs currently done by humans.
But is this truly the future of AI? Can machines ever become so intelligent that they are more capable than humans? Are machines destined to take over the world of work? The answer may lie in the technological advancements of the past.
“People have worried about this for centuries,” says Randstad Sourceright‘s Global Head of Technology and Analytics Jason Roberts. “In the First Industrial Revolution, people were worried about steam machines replacing their work. I think that we have some of that same fear in our world today. But what’s happened in our history is that new jobs have showed up to replace the old jobs. So, the optimist in me says that will ultimately happen and we will enter a greater age of productivity for human beings. If you look at the First Industrial Revolution, that was the very first time that humankind could produce more than muscle by itself. Now we’re entering an age where we’ll be able to produce more than the human brain can produce by itself.”
“The acceleration of automation, technology, and digitalization will reshape the future and the nature of work. Having said that, society will inevitably adjust to the changes being driven by the future technologies,” says Kristy Godbold, global human resources officer and senior vice president of talent acquisition, HR analytics, and global finance at Marriott International, Inc.
AI is Here to Stay
There is no denying that intelligent machines are powerful analytical and predictive tools that create better outcomes for the forward-thinking companies bold enough to implement them. Consider this hypothetical situation from Dan Staley, partner and U.S. HR technology leader at PwC:
“It’s Sunday. Stephanie, one of your top performers working on a critical project who is on the lower end of the pay scale for her job code, just worked 40 hours of overtime this week. Actually, she has been working a lot of overtime these past few months. She also just connected on LinkedIn with a recruiter from your biggest competitor, and two of her co-workers and close friends have recently left the organization. Based on analytics, your HR system knows exactly what is about to go down.
“Knowing that you have spot award budget left in your rewards application, your digital assistant asks if you would like to send a note of appreciation -which has already been drafted -along with a $500 spot bonus. In addition, your digital assistant found time on both of your calendars on Monday and suggests a quick meeting so that you can touch base and talk about career development. Your application asks if you approve; you say yes. Stephanie is touched. Crisis averted.”
This example demonstrates the immense value that intelligent solutions could bring by illuminating connections in disparate data systems. While today’s AI-enabled tools aren’t yet equipped to achieve this level of performance, they are already being leveraged by organizations for a wide range of tasks, particularly in the talent acquisition process.
According to the results of the recent study Bits Don’t Byte: HR Finds Artificial Intelligence a Positive Evolution by HRO Today and Alexander Mann Solutions, the most common applications of AI in HR today include:
- candidate screening;
- responding to candidate queries;
- interview scheduling;
- media management and candidate targeting; and
- candidate assessment.
“AI and automation help automate administrative tasks and help us get smarter,” says Jerome Ternynck, founder and CEO of SmartRecruiters. “The vast majority of resources allocated to HR and recruiting in particular are consumed by fairly low-level administrative tasks, such that what really should be the priority -which is connecting with candidates and building connections as human beings -is not happening. So, the candidate experience is miserable and people make hiring decisions that make no sense and are full of bias, and all of that is because we actually spend all of our efforts just finding data, sorting data, managing data, organizing interviews, and doing tasks that could be done better by a machine. AI can help us make recruiting human again and remove the bias in the process.”
One area where AI is particularly effective, yet still relatively underutilized, is in the realm of total workforce solutions. According to Jerry Collier, director of innovation at Alexander Mann Solutions, companies are just beginning to leverage AI and robotic process automation as tools to guide all types of candidates into the career pathways that are best for them. “When we look at total workforce solutions, machine learning is being used to ask candidates what they are looking for, engage them up front, and then help candidates find the right role. Probably 97 percent of candidates who apply for a job get rejected, and that’s terribly wasteful. So, that up-front engagement and helping candidates navigate into the right lane first is what we’re focusing on right now,” he explains.
This strategy of considering every candidate for every position also extends to existing employees. “Many organizations are already using machine learning for internal mobility -presenting opportunities to colleagues at the right time. I think AI and machine learning represent a massive opportunity to enhance employee experience and retention,” Collier says.
AI’s Adoption: Today and Tomorrow
How will AI and machine learning influence the future workplace? HRO Today‘s survey results show that AI adoption is still relatively new among most companies, with 57.4 percent of AI users reporting that they have only used the technology for a year or less. However, it is growing quickly among organizations of all sizes. In fact, 53.7 percent of all respondents plan to implement intelligent technology in the near future.
In addition, the adoption of AI-enabled technology across the entire HR landscape is also expected to grow. “We have to remember that AI is a technology, not a solution -so it’s going to be applied to nearly every HR product and platform in the marketplace. If you understand that AI is a technology that can recognize human faces, talk in human languages, and intelligently look at historic data to understand and predict, then you realize it will probably impact every single HR domain over time,” says Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Josh Bersin.
And the technology will only continue getting smarter and more valuable. “AI will be able to use data within the four walls of your organization and the culmination of market data outside of the organization to suggest an endless amount of actions to make organizations stronger and people more fulfilled,” explains PwC’s Staley. “While some of this exists today, applications will become better predictors and better at recommending appropriate actions.”
Better how? Staley says future tools will raise the bar and improve HR processes by:
- suggesting who to hire;
- providing a competitive pay rate;
- determining a role as contractor or full-time; and
- predicting and preventing employee attrition.
While AI certainly delivers significant value and efficiency, Collier believes that the choice to adopt AI-enabled technology may become a key point of differentiation among businesses. “People still like to deal with people. People still trust people. A lot of people still value that personal contact. Could that in time be automated? I’m sure it could be, but would we be ready to adopt it? And actually, would businesses risk alienating their customers if they go too far down the journey? Automation will advance whether we adopt it or not, but some enterprises may stop adopting it at certain points as a point of differentiation to show that trusted relationships are still important,” he says.
The Changing Role of HR
AI and machine learning are making huge strides in the HR industry, with HRO Today‘s recent study reporting that in 59.6 percent of cases, the HR department drove the impetus to adopt AI in the business. With increasing acceptance and implementation of this technology, the role of HR is bound to change. HR professionals should anticipate transformation in the following key areas:
- Rise of analysis. According to Bersin, “A big change which will impact HR is the role of the service center and business partner. All the HR people who ‘serve employees’ by answering questions, looking up data, providing reports, and giving people advice are going to have to learn how to use intelligent tools so they can add value around them. More and more of the routine data gathering and reporting work done by HR will go away, and more and more of HR’s job will be to interpret and curate the data coming out of systems -to become ‘augmented’ HR professionals. I do not believe HR as a profession is under any risk of going away, but we all have to get smarter and better at using these systems, interpreting them well, and training them to be even smarter.”
- Emergence of highly-specialized recruiters. “AI is definitely going to remove a lot of the tasks that recruiters do,” Ternynck says. “The question is, are these tasks that recruiters should be doing in the first place? And is AI going to make recruiters better? I think it will.”
Randstad Sourceright’s Roberts agrees: “I think that the low-level sourcing that’s not very challenging and doesn’t require a lot of extra skill will be taken over by machines. We’ll be left with highly specialized recruiters: people who are great at interacting with other people, and creatives who can brand, advertise, and write good job descriptions.”
- Focus on creative and people-centric processes. As recruiters become more specialized, Smart Recruiters’ Ternynck believes that the profession will evolve toward two fairly distinct profiles: marketers and “closers.” “At the top end of the funnel you have marketers, and these are people whose job is going to be attracting candidates to the table -attracting them in vast quantities through marketing techniques; nurturing them; building communities; building events; looking after the brand; and building programming so that you have a consistent pool of people who are actively engaged with the brand and ready to be tapped into. And then the second profile are closers. The closers work with hiring managers and they effectively help managers understand what they need, define job requirements, and close the right candidate,” he says.
The process of seeking out candidates will also still require a human touch. According to Roberts, “The recruiting of low-value, high-volume hourly jobs is going to be ultimately fully automated, and some parts of the matching and screening piece are going to be possible to do via automation. However, hunting for candidates -finding unique ways to identify candidates -will still require innovative ways to advertise and search that may not be obvious. I think the hunting will remain a thing that’s going to be done by people, especially creative hunting. Once the person is in the top of the funnel, the machine will take over, schedule an interview, and then the hiring manager will pick up at that point.”
- Expanded scope of responsibilities. From chief marketing officer to chief innovation officer, chief supply chain officer, and chief compliance officer, Staley believes that HR professionals will need to embrace their expanding role in the organization in order to take advantage of AI and machine learning’s full potential. “Automation will help provide time, but these strategic roles should be played regardless. HR will become interpreters of data, creators of policy and programs, protectors of the culture,” he explains.
While the continued adoption of intelligent and automated technology will have a profound impact on the HR function and the role of the talent acquisition, HR executives need not worry that their jobs will become obsolete. “I believe that the human need for empathy, listening, coaching, and development will never fully be automated. It will get better and more useful over time for sure, but we will always have emotions in the workplace and people will want to talk with a manager, coach, or HR person for advice,” says Deloitte’s Bersin.
Editor’s Note: View the entire Bits Don’t Byte: HR Finds Artificial Intelligence a Postitive Evolution by HRO Today and Alexander Mann Solutions here.