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How AI can empower, not replace

Emma Morris, SAP SuccessFactors Manager at delaware and Brian Riddell - Director, People & Organisation at delaware

The ever-changing demands and expectations of employees coupled with the introduction of advanced new technologies have shaped an entirely different business environment from that of ten years ago. Stories about people losing their jobs to robots have become legion.  Last year, it was reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), that some 1.5 million people in England are at risk of losing their jobs to automation.

The counter-argument runs that automation, specifically robotics (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) will have a significant impact on jobs, but evidence doesn’t always support the idea that this will necessarily be a wholescale reduction in the number of jobs. Rather, it’s the type of role that may be on offer.

We are already seeing greater expectation on skills associated with Industry 4.0, even where the use of these technologies is not yet clear or established – LinkedIn has over 28,000 jobs on offer in the EU with an AI requirement and 8,000 of these are in the UK.

Automation will undoubtably displace many jobs over the next ten to fifteen years, but many others will be created and even more will change. Jobs of the future will use different skills and may have higher educational requirements. Rather than seeing AI and advanced automation as a threat to human workers, businesses and their employees should instead be embracing AI as catalyst for change and a challenge to existing approaches. Smarter organisations and their workforces are embracing its power not fearing its existence.

For many (particularly millennials and Generation Z) advanced technology is already widely seen as an enabler. It has become part of our everyday consumer life, and can cause frustration when the work environment cannot offer access to the same enablers they have at home. For Frequently Asked Questions, some workers may prefer to engage with a chatbot rather than have to email or speak with an HR advisor. It can be a great way to get information in a fast, easy but also personalised manner. And it also helps reduce demand on the internal team who can use the time and resource saved focusing more on the health and wellbeing of the overall workforce.  We are seeing this specifically in the new world of Human Experience Management (HXM), which is redefining Human Capital Management (HCM) by placing employee experience at the centre of the new digital business.

For HR professionals, few joined HR in order to answer simple questions about policies and procedures. They are there to make a difference. Through the adoption of automation, business will have the potential to replace mundane tasks within roles with more added value activities such as planning, problem solving and creative thinking.  AI and machine learning carries huge potential to transform not only the HR department but more importantly the role of the HR professional.

What if AI could simplify all this (particularly in the screening stage for recruitment)? Think about the effort and time that is required to sift through applications and determine which candidates possess the mandatory skills and experience needed for a position. This can be done by programming a number of keywords or phrases for an AI algorithm to look for, thereafter picking out the candidates who best fit the company’s needs.

Another example is using AI via chatbots to respond to questions about annual leave balances (simple stuff) or maternity leave policy with a nuance of part time worker status, seniority and length of service to provide a bespoke answer to the customer – something which would take manual calculation and sifting through reams of paper for a human.

Of course, this leads back to our earlier point: some employees may regard automation as a challenge and a risk to the very existence of their role, and these are the jobs that will inevitably be at risk. It’s important therefore that employers recognise this.

Advanced analytics to the fore

It is also true that the latest advanced AI technology is not just freeing up employees to do more of this planning and problem-solving by automating routine tasks, it is actively helping them to achieve it by predicting likely future scenarios through tools like machine learning and the latest prescriptive analytics. Technology is not just being used today to deliver automation and allow businesses to work faster and more efficiently. Organisations are investing heavily in the latest analytics solutions not just to solve a specific problem but to pinpoint problems that they might not even know they have yet.

Businesses often don’t know exactly what they are going to use the analytics tools for. In some cases, they have no idea how they want to measure success in their business but they know that the latest HR and associated systems technology will give them a platform that will allow them to build a different way of measuring success in their business. Instead of looking at how they fix a problem, they are looking more at using the platform to work out what their future problems might be.

Technology is also allowing the new breed of employees to become more like consultants, helping the organisations for which they are working achieve some of the goals outlined above. Part of that is being enabled by businesses’ growing awareness of the true value of their employees to them. They are moving away from the concept of human capital management to a new focus on human experience management. AI has definitely assisted in this process but not replaced the person to person engagement element and word of mouth is still incredibly vital in this context.

A two-way process

Across not only HR but also the wider business, technology and people are increasingly working in tandem to deliver the optimum results. Technology is advancing all the time but it is never the only answer. People want to deal with people. Humans have empathy, warmth and engagement skills that AI still struggles with. For the foreseeable future, they remain vital to the successes of organisations and the wider economic ecosystems in which they operate.

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