AI in HR: Artificial intelligence and the work revolution

Written by
Dirk Buyens, Kurt April & Emma Parry

24 Apr 2018

24 Apr 2018 • by Dirk Buyens, Kurt April & Emma Parry

What implications might AI and automation have on HR and
leadership? We asked experts for their opinions.

Dirk Buyens, professor of human resources, Vlerick Business School

Almost any aspect of decision making could be improved with artificial intellligence (AI) and that includes recruitment processes. Many recruiters rely on ‘gut feeling’: the hiring manager looks at a CV, listens to the candidate in an interview and makes a judgement call regarding whether he or she is the best person for the job.

AI could take the inherent uncertainty out of this process by identifying patterns in big data that the human brain simply cannot compute. It can do this extremely quickly, and for many more potential candidates than the manager could achieve.

Data from social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn can be used and, with sufficient trust, companies could make job offers without ever having met a candidate in person. This is already happening in some companies, but there is a lot more development to come in this field.

In many cases with AI, the technology is there, what needs work is people’s attitudes towards, and understanding of, the technology. There is a natural resistance to new things, and AI is no different.

In the world of HR, front-office work is the area that could benefit most significantly from AI. Imagine a bot that could swiftly and accurately inform employees of their employment rights, pay data, or pension details. At the moment, people perform these tasks and there are inconsistencies in the information employees receive. AI would eliminate these so that workers would get the correct answer every time. Clearly, these kinds of efficiencies would allow companies to employ fewer human beings, and would save money.

When implementing AI, the key element is not how much or how little of it you bring in, but ensuring that what you have works correctly. Robot surgeons can perform surgery quicker and more safely than their human equivalents and can work 24/7 without tiring. But the consequences of something going wrong are huge.

For workforces and the wider public to buy into AI on a large scale, they must learn to trust bots and believe they are going to get things right. For this reason, human intellect needs to keep up with the technology and understand how it works. The most common approach to implementation is to begin by having robots working in parallel with humans, so that if there is a problem, the person can act as a fallback. Over time, however, trust will be established and the fallback humans will no longer be necessary.

Kurt April, Sainsbury fellow and professor of leadership, diversity and inclusion at University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business

As a new wave of AI technology impacts the workplace, the world of gaming has also penetrated this space. Many companies are gamifying the user experience within their online offerings, whether in terms of encouraging sales, demonstrating experiences, story-boarding client solutions collaboratively, providing modular learning for employees, or even incentivising goals or KPIs for their staff.

Skills and qualities that can be developed through gaming include becoming more adept at dealing with failure (learning to try again and again); team working and collaboration (often within diverse teams, across cultures), and operating within enriched, compelling and multi-sensory solution environments.

In addition, people are becoming more comfortable with chatbots in their daily lives, to the extent that they are beginning to demand them in the workplace. This is reminiscent of what happened in the workplace after many of us became comfortable with using the Microsoft suite of products at university or in our early training. Chatbots are going to impact the workplace significantly – we are already seeing productivity chatbots and the digitising of HR processes, and employees are now able to access HR solutions from anywhere in the world.

On the employers’ side, companies are using technology to enhance their processes, such as writing bias-free job descriptions. This increases their appeal to younger generations, making them employers of choice. Clearly, staff will require re-training in order to embrace new ways of working and new roles (for example, conversational design roles and digital transformation team roles to name a couple that already exist), as companies plot their technology roadmaps. Notions of data security, cyber breaches, ethics, control levels/management and distributive leadership become critical in these new environments. 

Emma Parry, head of the changing world of work group, Cranfield School of Management

We are seeing rapid growth in the use of AI and robotics to automate simple, repetitive tasks such as factory work and back office duties, and to make complex decisions quickly and accurately via predictive algorithms.

This presents challenges for employers. First, organisations need to create a strategy for how they can benefit from AI to build efficiencies and improve decision making. This will require investment in technology, but also re-thinking around organisational structures and processes.

Second, there will be a greater need for those who are highly qualified, creative and can work in complex strategic environments.

While I do not subscribe to the fears about AI replacing humans completely (not yet anyway), some jobs will become obsolete. There will be a need for people with a whole new skill set in coordinating machines and managing the interface between humans and technology. Employers need to be thinking now about whether they have the workforce they need for the future and how they might develop this, as well as about re-deploying and motivating those whose work is increasingly automated.

Third, the increased use of technology more broadly in organisations means staff will become increasingly dispersed, and building relationships more challenging. Some employers are realising the need to create a social hub where employees can meet less formally to develop a more cohesive organisation.

Finally, the trend towards workers undertaking work via an AI platform in the gig economy means that employers need to think both about how they might benefit from the flexibility this approach might offer, while ensuring that employees are not put at risk from a lack of support and employment security. It is clear that AI is not a trend for the future but is something that employers need to be considering now.