Robots, humans and a new role for HR

Robots, humans and a new role for HR

The last two weeks on the road have made me think hard about the future.

I started two weeks ago, at Gartner’s IT Expo in Orlando. Then this week I crossed the country to Las Vegas for HR Tech. That’s a fair few air miles, plenty of shoe leather, a lot of talking and plenty of listening.

You could be excused for thinking two conference back-to-back would be boring. They weren’t. They were a revelation.

A consistent C-level message
At Gartner’s IT Expo I was pinned to my seat by what I heard from industry leaders like IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and Jeff Immelt, GE’s CEO. Again and again, speakers returned to the dominant theme of the event – artificial intelligence and machine learning are far closer, and more powerful, than we might think.

And the way they will change how we live and work is pretty astonishing.

Take Amelia, the digital assistant that IPsoft again demoed at Gartner’s IP Expo. Amelia is capable of understanding basic human language and applying “her” knowledge to solve queries across a range of business processes. We’ve reached a point where the algorithms that power interfaces like Amelia are capable of fulfilling real tasks in the work place.

Robot workers
These digital assistants have immediate possible applications for HR.
In the HR Service Delivery function we have a knowledge base for employees to query. Usually, this does a pretty sophisticated job of presenting results relevant to the employee. Knowing the employee’s location, job role and other details, it can present a personalized view of his or her benefits plan and so on.

Where queries cannot be answered, the platform creates a ticket and submits it to the right HR person.

So far so good, but what if you could dial the number of tickets generated right back, and with that, the number of time someone in HR is required to search out information?

Systems like Amelia move the need to involve a human one step further back. They also allow the employee to receive a more rapid response. And like all pieces of software, “Amelia” never takes a day off, never gets sick and never takes a smoke break.

From what I saw at both conferences, this prospect is so compelling that it is inevitable. Expect a smart digital assistant to be working in an office near you by the end of next year.

The implication: HR should start thinking now about how it can provide a more sophisticated service, providing analysis and insight, not just information. The days when HR could pride itself on handling transactions or even on answering basic questions accurately are fast fading.

Robot bosses
But the implications of artificial intelligence are wider.

Among Gartner’s key predications was that by 2018, more than 3 million US workers will be supervised by a “robo-boss”. Yes, you read that right.

A great part of many managers’ roles is checking that employees clock in on time, keep themselves compliant for their role, work to their shift pattern and so on. If IBM’s Watson can win at Jeopardy, and its Deep Blue computer can beat a world champion at chess, collecting and managing this sort of data is child’s play. What’s new is that the technology is cheaper – and the algorithms smarter – than ever. Add wifi and wearables and it becomes inescapable.

The message to managers is clear: if your only role was keeping people in line, you need to find a new role. And if all you did was collect data and funnel it up the hierarchy, the same applies.

There’s room for a new manager in town – one who inspires and leads people rather than simply ensuring they conform, and one that understands and interprets data rather than merely passing it on.

The end of the HR police?
Mixing Gartner’s message of the rise of the robots with the heady Vegas HR technology hype, I had to ask the question – what happens to HR in all this?

What is our role if HR is no long required to handle queries or to be the notorious ‘HR police’ clamping down on policy violations that an algorithm has already picked up?

HR should be liberated. We should seize this opportunity to provide the organization with the quality of service it requires, along with expert analysis, data and – crucially – insight and prescriptive recommendations. This is the moment that HR can truly take a strategic role.

But this technology offers something else, too.

It will also enable HR to help individuals get the most from their workplace, using the power of algorithms and data to provide employees with a truly personalized experience at work.