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The Automation of HR: Take Us to Your CHRO

Like past instances of human labor displacement that saw the automation of many factory jobs, white-collar executive positions are more likely to be automated in the near future. While it sounds scary, it presents a great leadership opportunity for HR.

Back in 2014 the Associated Press started using automation software to write quarterly corporate-earnings reports.

This software, known as Wordsmith, is able to produce 3,000 such stories every quarter, which, according to the AP, is a tenfold increase from what its writers and editors were able to produce in the same time period.

By employing automation software to churn out corporate earnings stories, AP journalists are able to dedicate more time on reporting and breaking news. Journalism may not be the only traditionally white-collar field to be affected by automation if software expert predictions are correct.

Automation software — as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning — is on the brink of becoming ubiquitous in offices around the world, taking the repetitive, transactional work out of many traditional white-collar jobs, including many manual functions of human resources roles.

In short, jobs once thought to be immune from automation are likely to be transformed by it within the next 10 years. As automation software begins to creep into more businesses, the role of HR is set for a major transformation. In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management labeled automated HR one of its “Nine HR Tech Trends for 2017.”

“I think there are two ways to think about the implications for HR: How does the department operate, and how does the HR function report to the rest of the enterprise?” said Michael Chui, partner at McKinsey Global Institute, a global management consulting firm.

According to Carolyn Broderick, senior HR information systems analyst at SHRM, HR departments have their work cut out for them when it comes to workforce automation.

Please also read: Coming to Grips With the Effects of an Automated Nation on Workplaces

“I believe HR has a role for planning in the future. Jobs will have to be redesigned. Certain jobs are going to be enriched if mundane tasks are going to be automated,” said Broderick. “HR has to consider how humans and machines will work together.”

The Wave of Automation

Automated labor often leads to dystopian thoughts of a future where humans in the workforce are rendered obsolete by robots. However, the automation of tasks is nothing new for the American workforce, even in traditionally white-collar sectors. Spell checkers, Excel formulas and out-of-office replies are simple examples of automation already in use that make office jobs easier.

Most occupations have the potential for some automation, and it’s estimated that about half of all the activities people are paid to do in the world’s workforce could potentially be automated by existing technologies, according to a recent report from McKinsey.

“What this says to us is that there is a wide-ranging scope of automation technology, which, over time, will affect every role,” Chui said. “Not just workers who earn lower wages, but MBAs, JDs or MDs. We find the potential for automated work in many occupations.”

The difference between automation already in use and the automation revolution many experts predict is that new advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning are able to automate tasks that were thought to be too difficult for a machine to do accurately.

In other words, it was more efficient, quicker — and ultimately cheaper — for a human being to do them.

“I can automate a lot of things like email, for example,” said Jason Hite, founder and chief people strategist at Daoine Centric, a Virginia-based HR consultancy. “It’s just a ping and an echo. But the difference between automation and artificial intelligence and machine learning is that an email is now read by an AI algorithm. The email you get back is now responding to you with an answer to the question you asked. You’re getting a tailored response.”

Speed and efficiency have always been among the main drivers behind automation in the workforce, as it allows for increased productivity. The same holds true for the current economic climate.

“Automation of activities can enable businesses to improve performance by reducing errors and improving quality and speed, and in some cases achieving outcomes that go beyond human capabilities. Automation also contributes to productivity, as it has done historically,” the McKinsey report states.

It’s possible that automation programs could displace highly skilled jobs in the distant future. But in the near future, the jobs most susceptible to automation are those in manufacturing, accommodation and food service, retail trade and some middle-skill jobs. These jobs share certain commonalities such as physical activities in highly structured and predictable environments, as well as the collection and processing of data.

“There are certain jobs involving data prep or data entry that will be affected. People spend an awful amount time scrubbing data,” Broderick said. “With automation taking over that process, folks can spend more time analyzing data and writing about it. There are already programs that can do that.”

When it comes to HR, Hite said there will be opportunities to automate many transactional tasks and noted that some forward-thinking companies have already started to do so. As an example, he pointed to companies using smart devices to help keep track of employees on leave.

“There are a number of companies that have already integrated with Amazon Echo. As a manager, you can ask it, ‘How many people are on leave today?’ ” said Hite, a 2016 Workforce Game Changer. “There’s no need to call HR about that anymore.”

Experts predict the adoption of automation technology will push HR in new directions, drastically transforming the department’s role within organizations, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence and machine learning.

It’s an Automated World and HR’s Just Livin’ in It

One of the benefits of automating transactional HR tasks is, like AP using Wordsmith to allow reporters to focus on breaking news, that HR departments can focus on activities that bring value to the organization. By adopting sophisticated automation technology with artificial intelligence, HR will have the opportunity to focus more energy on the employee experience.

For example, a benefits expert will no longer need to spend time answering emails with simple questions about the company’s benefits packages. That person can set up a chatbot, which is a computer program that conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods. The chatbot would respond with the correct information while the employee gets to focus on the analysis of how workers are using the organization’s benefits packages.

“The creative part of benefits will need to be handled by humans,” Broderick said. “ ‘What’s the message?’ ‘How do we tailor it and change it?’ and ‘How will people react?’ There should probably always be some kind of human touch point in HR communications. Every company is different, every culture is different. I don’t really see that being taken over by a computer.”

Similarly, automated recruiting programs would allow companies to improve the human element of their talent acquisition processes.

Currently, 82 percent of job seekers are frustrated with an overly automated recruiting experience, according to a Randstad U.S. report released in August. While automation has seemingly created a problem for organizations, it has also created an opportunity for HR to develop a solution that makes the recruiting process more enjoyable for job seekers. In fact, 82 percent of job seekers said the ideal interaction with a company is one where innovative technologies are used behind the scenes and come second to personal, human interaction.

“Even if parts of recruiting can be automated, there are certain things that can’t be replaced. The grunt work can be automated. Entering data about candidates, if that’s automated, recruiters can be more strategic on selecting the best candidates,” Broderick said.

What’s more, automated recruiting technology may help organizations stay compliant with hiring laws since, theoretically, bias and emotional decisions could be removed from the recruiting process. However, Broderick said that would only be true as long as the process, which was first developed by a human, is free from bias to begin with.

Hite agrees with Broderick on this point.

“If the data is bad, the output will be bad. That’s why we need to start thinking about where this is going,” he said. “I think this is really going to be a big moment for HR. It’s going to test who’s leaning forward.”

Change Management

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for HR related to automation technology is managing the change that will take place within organizations. On one hand, processes in place will need to be evaluated and possibly revamped in order for the benefits of automation technology to be fully realized. Furthermore, HR will need people to create communication strategies related to automation changes. And strategies to train — or even re-train — employees to use these new tools will need to be developed.

“Change management is going to be huge,” Hite said. “It’s going to force HR to look at the end user. I really think the break point will be when HR starts to understand how these advances will improve the lives of their stakeholders. If it only complicates the end user’s life even a little bit, that’ll be an issue.”

Higher productivity is a clear benefit of a more automated workforce. However, as organizations stand to gain from this impending technological shift, HR will also need to plan for the negative impact that a portion of the workforce will ultimately endure.

Max Mihelich is writer in Chicago. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.