The Robots Are Here - How Will HR Respond To AI?

A recent report from Deloitte and Oxford Economics revealed that 35% of UK jobs are at risk of being lost to automation. Where is that automation most evident and how will HR respond to the changes it will inevitably put on to its already full plate in the next few years?

The following statistics illustrate the unprecedented ‘spread’ and effects of automation on the global employment market:-

Artificial Intelligence – the next industrial revolution?

Data is found everywhere and in nearly everything, from recruiting analytics to our smartphones. The extent of data available combined with the speed at which today’s machines interpret the information it produces means we can achieve more with it. Today, we also refer to it as artificial intelligence (AI).

Concerns are rife over the rapid automation of so many elements traditionally carried out by humans. Robots have long been a common feature in factories and warehouses, considered to be low-cost, efficient devices, and their growing presence will continue to impact jobs. The automation of manufacturing and advances in AI has been described as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ .

On a similar theme, in Beyond Automation, Thomas H Davenport and Julia Kirby highlight three clear stages of automation in the last three centuries:-

  • 19th Century – machines remove dirty work.
  • 20th Century – machines remove dull work.
  • 21st Century – machines remove decisions (so-called knowledge work).

Low skilled, low paid workers are predicted to be five times at risk of losing their jobs to automation due to this new revolution but other jobs are at risk too. Automation, it is suggested, won’t simply see the replacement of low skilled jobs but the ‘hollowing out of middle-income, medium skilled jobs’ affecting not just construction but accounts, transport, retail and sales sectors.

Others still are concerned about the social and psychological effects from AI and automation, which it is feared may range from recession to unemployment among the young as AI replaces ‘knowledge work’.

The most extreme concerns arise over AI replacing jobs and surpassing the need for human skill altogether. Such concerns are prompted by the rise of cognitive technologies, ie, the ability of machines to simulate human thought processes and perform tasks that humans alone once carried out. Cognitive technology was ranked as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to business leaders in Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey of 2015.

While businesses are yet to absorb or understand the impact of cognitive technology, there are positives to AI for businesses and HR.

AI – the benefits

Creativity

As the report ‘Beyond Automation’ highlights, a large number of jobs are considered to be repetitive, routine and often predictable on some level – which may be a contributing cause towards the lack of engagement and stagnant productivity affecting UK businesses. By automating those elements of the process, the workforce, it is claimed, will be freed to become more creative.

Better quality of jobs

Deloitte emphasises that the UK is benefitting from the automation of work, as it results in better quality jobs, for example :-

  • 3.5 million low risk jobs have been created since 2001, compared to 800,000 high risk jobs lost.
  • Each new low-risk job pays a salary £10,000 higher than the high risk job it replaced. This reportedly adds £140 billion to the UK economy.

It goes on to predict that parts of jobs will be automated by cognitive technology but reassures pessimists by adding that, historically, predictions regarding the effectiveness and performance of AI have not always been accurate.  Furthermore, asking humans to monitor automated processes may lead to errors, a consequence of distractions and disengaged employees in ‘dull’ jobs.

Cost saving

Automation has transformed the traditional role of HR and opened up the ability of companies who embrace it fully to streamline and perfect their hiring processes and workflows. The time consuming tasks of sifting through CVs and tracking candidates’ applications has been replaced in large parts by recruitment software, although as we have noted many times, HR itself remains resistant to data and technology. For HR, which has at times been criticised for its lack of creativity and imagination, this should be perceived as a positive move.

Back to humans – the emergence of soft skills

AI cannot replace soft skills and necessary personal interaction such as intuition, emotional intelligence or empathy. Automation is excellent for e-commerce sites but customer service skills in retail and call centres and, dare we say it, HR are essential for businesses to succeed.

The three sectors identified by Deloitte with the largest growth in jobs were identified as:-

  • Care home workers and home carers.
  • Teaching assistants.
  • Business and financial project managers.

This brings us to the problems of soft skills and how HR can respond to AI and automation of jobs. Soft skills will be a key factor in securing jobs. Over the next five years soft skills will be worth a reported £109 billion to the UK economy.  Harnessing those skills will be a challenge for HR. Young people are steeped in a culture of online connections via social media, equipping them with natural technical skills but lacking the necessary skills so vital to the success of today’s economy.

The soft skills identified by UK employers as most in-demand are:-

  • Communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Teamwork.
  • Time and self-management.
  • Decision-making and initiative-taking.
  • Taking responsibility.

Collaboration with Universities

As both white collar and collar jobs are slowly replaced by automation, HR and businesses must connect with educational institutions to ensure that soft skills are ‘taught’.  

The Higher Education Academy’s UK Engagement Survey found that undergraduates reported little improvement in soft skills during their time at University, leaving many of them ill equipped for work. Businesses must collaborate with educational institutions, focus on soft skills in the hiring process, assign mentors, teach millennials to differentiate between personal and professional boundaries and reskill the entire workforce. This is not to overlook the wealth of soft skills available in older generations in the workforce. Expectations must be set and managed from the outset.

Conclusion : Embracing AI in HR

AI is a new and growing phenomenon in HR, with its foundations in recruitment software, the inclusion of algorithms and in predictive analytics. It is already replacing mundane activities in the hiring process, requiring minimal human involvement. At a basic level, this includes screening CVs, automated text messages, self-scheduling of interviews and reference checks. In a recent study, machines were proven to be better at hiring than HR as they remove unconscious bias and will reduce the risk of a bad hire.

How far HR will embrace complex AI tools in the workplace or hiring process remains to be seen. The robots are already here.  In 2016, HR must begin to consider how it will incorporate AI into the workplace.

Sourcing Tech Talent in 2016

To successfully deal with AI and the many challenges ahead in 2016, UK businesses need to attract, hire and retain the best available tech talent. Our new report Recruiting Tech Talent : A UK Sector Analysis For 2016 covers the trends affecting the market, the job search habits of the UK's tech talent and reasons why tech professionals intend to change jobs in 2016.

Download your copy here.

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