What is the future for HR in an age of automation, and how do we derive great value from it?

Workforce intelligence has been increasingly gaining relevance in today’s day and age – gathering information that is relevant to HR, aligning this data with decision-making and being a strategic partner in driving business is imperative

When I read through the posts in my LinkedIn timeline or Twitter feeds, there is one ubiquitous theme – that is automation or AI and how it could be all encompassing in its embrace! As practicing managers, we often struggle to collate basic data regarding our employees and their performance, analyze it objectively and gain valuable insights from it. Using automation in a purposeful way is a step forward in the pursuit of reimagining the future of work.

Workforce intelligence has been increasingly gaining relevance in today’s day and age – gathering information that is relevant to HR, aligning this data with decision-making and being a strategic partner in driving business is imperative. However, leveraging human capital and the enormous data they come with, along with ensuring that this data is seamlessly collected, constantly studied and approached advantageously is a constant endeavor. While this can be challenging, we have found the key to unlock the massive potential of data-driven HR – Yes, through the confluence of analytics, automation, AI and other technologies like VR, virtualization, cloud.  These disruptive technologies coupled with being mobile – the scope for momentous change in HR is huge!

In parallel, there are several questions that we need to answer as we look at harnessing automation in HR, as it deals with people and their emotions, and we have to be very thoughtful about it. What is going to bring us the biggest benefits? And how do we sensitively handle the human element so that we amplify the human potential and not disenfranchise people? What I will attempt to do in this post is to outline the issues and suggest a way to look at how we could prioritize automation in HR.

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Let’s start with understanding the need of the business and the various stakeholders, the foremost among them being employees – people like you and me. So what do the employees want – frankly, we want systems to be simple, intuitive, and reduce the time taken to do mundane work to basically zero. We also want fairness, to be aware of what is happening around us, and our privacy is important too.

At the managerial level, we want to know how our teams are progressing, and wherever appropriate we want to be able to control the levers to manage the team efficiently by spend minimal time on systems and processes.  Then we have the HR function – their typical outlook has been to get the employees and managers to follow myriad processes and systems that they think are important (and thankfully, this is changing). From a top management perspective – compliance and governance is key while ensuring that we track the pay and bonuses of our people and its association to drive performance.

Most often, the first phase of automation is led by the HR function. Therefore, the focus is on ensuring that processes are mapped to systems and routine tasks are automated. All this does is to get the manual processes on a system – but with most processes being clunky, it tends to demand a lot more time from people than they can afford.

That’s where the adoption and implementation of new technologies come in – analytics and AI and so on. But the challenge for us is to determine how to make the best use of it, specific to the company. The reality on the ground is that HR systems are the most unloved (except by the HR folks), and we have to build something on top of that. That’s where I consider the new technologies as a great boon to see how we can kick-start real and purposeful automation in HR. AI can bring in a huge amount of personalization or customization, which will enable us to take faster and more accurate decisions. Moreover, these decisions can be empowered to levels much lower than where they are being taken now, thus promising a huge change in the quality of jobs and decisions people take.

The first step is for us to ask this question: What data or information will help us take better people-decisions? That should be the only guiding beacon for us to prioritize the application of automation in HR. To take an example, we were struggling with a question: How do we empower managers to take greater ownership for their own development? This made us question the key roles they play and then we worked on getting each manager real time data to show how were doing against each of those roles – thus prompting calculated actions from them.

From my experience and from talking to several fellow-HR practitioners, the challenge in automation in HR is to make it purposeful, and also loved by people.  Once the first test of whether it is enhancing decision making is cleared, I would suggest that we run these 3 filters to ensure that the journey is worthwhile:

1. Does it enhance the autonomy for the people? Every employee today is looking for more autonomy in his/her sphere of work. Any automation that puts a clamp on this quest for autonomy is not going to go down very well. We have to think of automation in a way that will enhance the human potential, give them more autonomy to look at data and take decisions. The key is not in automating decisions that people take – but to make the decision making process easier and purposeful with the right data and comparators.

2. Does it enhance collaboration? This is absolutely essential. The more automation makes us work in silos, ouch! That would be the death knell of organizations! The complex world of the future needs diverse thinking and expertise from different fields – each of them collaborating seamlessly. Therefore, the hallmark of any automation in HR should be enhanced collaboration. That can be done by sharing information, making things transparent, aiding co-working – getting this formula right will be the secret sauce of successful organizations in the future. The way we architect our automation will hold the key to how we drive more collaboration in our organization – thus leading to better decisions.

3. Does it gain from crowd-sourcing or from the ‘network effect’ in the organisation? The power of automation in HR is when it is smartly built into systems in such a way that each employee gains from the inputs of others around her. That will create a virtuous cycle of interactions and feedback, which will enhance any automation we plan. Critically, it will get people to use the information, learn from it and also contribute to it.

In my mind, there are two big areas in HR that are naturally ripe for AI and automation: recruitment and performance management. Take for instance performance management, by simply providing various information of manager’s day-to-day transactions, automation is intelligently able to tell managers where they stand on key performance/leadership criteria and decide what further enablement is necessary. The best part is that the need to enter any data in in the system has been eliminated. This is in contrary to earlier times when managers used to give feedback and the system would suggest training that a manager needs to undergo. But if we do this thoughtfully, giving the information is a manner that a manager is able to use his autonomy and take decisions, share and learn from others, we will be able to make this a more valuable system.

From the very rudimentary system that was aimed to get people to follow processes, we have a great opportunity to leverage the new technologies and transform HR. But to be successful, it requires real empathetic thinking, especially to see if it meets the filters that I set out above! Above all, it has to be purposeful and it should enable people to do more.

– By Krishnamurthy Shankar, Executive Vice President, Group Head, Human Resource Development, Infosys

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