How HR teams can drive the AI revolution

The HR function could play a vital role in driving the operational and cultural shift towards AI adoption. But it first needs to embrace the technology itself.
15 November 2018

HR is looking at digitization as a priority. Source: Shutterstock

The HR industry doesn’t need much convincing when it comes to the extent at which technology can overhaul almost every aspect of their work.

From hiring, training, feedback, and payroll, among the many other strings on their bow, 87 percent of HR professionals believe that digital technologies will “fundamentally change” their work according to consulting firm Bain. Well over half, meanwhile, plan to up IT budgets by between 1 and 10 percent within the next two years.

But attitudes aren’t action and old habits die hard. The same survey found that up to 31 percent of HR departments are still reliant on manual techniques, including spreadsheet data entry and, it pains us to say, paper-based payroll processes.

That’s not to say certain sectors haven’t been impacted by AI and machine learning— administrative and transactional tasks, such as data processing and payroll, are becoming increasingly automated— but the industry, on a whole, is yet to realize the technology’s full benefits.

To the author behind a new paper, The impact of artificial intelligence on the HR function by the Institute of Employment Studies, Peter Reilly, progress is somewhat “sobering”, particularly given the argument that the HR department’s embracing of AI could be fundamental to the wider organization’s operational and cultural acceptance.

Away from the machination of menial tasks, the use of AI offers HR “the chance to shape the organizations of the future”, contributing to the development of learning cultures, knowledge exchange and the breaking down of silos.

“The argument could be made – as it was with the HR transformation of the early part of this century, combining standardization, automation, and consolidation – that time and resources will be saved by eliminating the ‘grunge’ work, thereby releasing HR to concentrate on high value-added work,” says Reilly.

“This may not have happened to the extent expected because not only has the IT revolution been piecemeal, as noted above, but there has also been managerial resistance to HR ‘devolving’ people management tasks to them and a lack of skills within the HR function to take up the strategic baton.”

HR’s position at the heart of organizations puts it in a prime position to drive businesses towards the “AI revolution”, ensuring the workforce is ‘change-ready’ and prepared to embrace new technology.

According to Reilly, doing this means reimagining organizational structures and the role of managers so that knowledge is effectively dispersed around the business: “The ‘learning organization’ may be a nearly 40-year-old term, but it could do with being reinvented as the requirement to create a community of open minds becomes a necessity.”

“A culture of inquiry and innovation will be developed. In this context, and in a changed environment of customer demand and service delivery, who is to be hired, and how they will be developed, will have to be adjusted.”

Acting as a central point to foster the transforming of attitudes and knowledge around the benefits of AI, HR’s top-down view of organizations will also be fundamental in decisions around where the technology can be implemented, and where it could potentially replace employees.

“The function can compare the cost of a human with the price of, say, a robot with all the ancillary training of both employees still employed, and of the robot – not to mention the costs of displacing human effort,” says Reilly.

Meanwhile, the department could explore and provide insight into the functioning of relationships between humans and AI, particularly in how the use of machines can supplement human work, rather than usurp it.

Identifying the balance of these relationships will be crucial for handling approaches for reskilling, as well as for maintaining staff morale among the organization in light of the increasing role of machines.

Before the HR department can play this instrumental role in pushing businesses and, in a wider sense, industries forward with AI adoption, they must first be ready to embrace the technology themselves, and the challenges of implementation, with open arms. Only then, will they be able to serve as a vital component and catalyst in driving the AI revolution.