Welcome to the HR of the future

Written by
Tim Payne

Published
27 Mar 2017

27 Mar 2017 • by Tim Payne

Imagine the scenario: a valued employee returns from maternity leave and needs to
update her records. Using voice recognition, she summons a virtual assistant at the HR service centre who welcomes her back and amends her payroll, medical and personal details. The transaction takes place in a matter of seconds, there’s less room for human error, and it frees HR staff to focus on more complex issues.

It may seem futuristic, but we’re already starting to see ways that cognitive automation technology can take on simple employee focused tasks such as this. Adoption of such technologies is going to have major implications for how HR operating models look in coming decades.

Virtual HR a reality

Businesses are using virtual HR assistants – often in the form of ‘bots’ such as Amazon’s Alexa or IPSoft’s Amelia – to augment their self-service offer to employees. Regarding employee benefits, for example, these assistants can respond to simple queries around pension contributions or tax codes, and learn from each transaction to become progressively more intuitive and efficient. 

This echoes what is happening in the consumer-facing world, where technologies such as IBM’s Watson, which uses natural language processing to understand complex questions, are beginning to play a role in customer service. Banks and insurance companies are trialling virtual assistants for first-line support in contact centres – and HR is a natural extension of this. 

Employees already access self-service platforms to perform a range of tasks, from booking holidays to filing appraisal forms. Pushed to the next level, intelligent algorithms could raise a request to hire someone, or communicate with candidates during the recruitment process. 
There are numerous benefits to a more automated model of HR, not least the associated cost savings in terms of delivering results with a reduced headcount. HR systems providers are now integrating ‘virtual assistant’ technology into products in order to augment self-service. 

These emerging tools boast open interfaces that allow processes to be integrated more seamlessly. The data they produce can be turned into evidence-based, useable insights that can add real value. 

Linking HR and the business

Moving to this model requires you to interact with the business deeper and further than ever. As roles change, businesses will need skilled HR professionals to become architects of this new hybrid workforce. As key business partners, they will have to plan how the digital workforce will be managed – and how career paths will change as advances in cognitive automation continue.

The evolution of the HR business partner will see the profession take on a more strategic role. L&D teams will need to reskill the workforce as demands on human labour change and new roles emerge. With actionable insights from analytics at their fingertips, recruitment professionals will have to be agile and responsive.

HR must become more proactive as the digital workforce grows. Planning is needed for areas where automation will work well. Consider how existing HR teams can work alongside new digital ‘colleagues’ to deliver on business goals. As simple tasks are automated, shared services centres will be called upon to offer higher value services. Made up of teams of experts from across the business, a new breed of workforce solutions centres could emerge.

Automation technology is not a replacement for current HR models. But in driving the evolution of services for employees, it opens up new ways for HR to enhance their experience.

Key considerations for HR

As well as considering the general impact of the growing digital workforce, as demands on human labour change, there are three specific areas for you to consider when it comes to cognitive automation: 

1 Robotic process automation: There are lots of opportunities to make straightforward efficiencies in HR processes. 

2 Voice recognition support: Actions such as phoning someone for advice – for example, via an HR shared service centre – can be automated, from a cognitive robotics perspective, via voice recognition. Currently, there are other areas within businesses where this will have a more significant cost impact, but it will hit HR soon. 

3 Disruption from artificial intelligence (AI): AI will have a truly disruptive effect when used for recruitment, selection, engagement and predicting people outcomes