One way to think about the future of HR is in terms of the changes and advancements that are currently taking place. For example, data and analytics are growing in importance, as is improving the employee experience. Another way to think about where HR is going is to consider what all these advancements will ultimately lead to - HR departments that are more human.
What is interesting about HR departments becoming more human is the how, as in how do these trends allow HR teams to focus more on people and less on processes and paperwork? Technology is the answer, and two technologies that will play a key role are artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA).
AI, RPA, and HR
Here is a quick primer of AI and RPA, should you be unclear on the terms. Artificial intelligence is the simulation of human intelligence by machines. These systems are constantly evolving, learning from successes and mistakes, and continuously getting better. Robotic process automation, on the other hand, is the use of robots (commonly referred to as “bots”) to automate business processes. While AI systems can learn, RPA systems will execute the same task the same way indefinitely, without variation. AI and RPA systems can be combined, however, to create a truly end-to-end automated process.
The combination redefines how man and machine work together to reduce “busy work,” create scalability in HR processes, and improve the integrity of HR data. These technologies automate basic, repetitive tasks, tackling them faster, and potentially with greater accuracy than if a human performed them. This sophisticated automation can be applied to almost every aspect of HR, from sourcing and interviewing to onboarding new employees and bonus calculation.
Because of the far-reaching implications of these technologies, some may worry that the application of these systems will remove the human element of HR. Deeper evaluation reveals that the opposite is true.
Not All Work Done by Humans is Human Work
It’s easy to assume that any work currently performed by humans is, by definition, “human work.” But this thinking does not take into account the fact that humans aren’t built to perform these tasks, and while we can perform them, they can take a physical and mental toll.
We know, for example, that humans aren’t designed to sit at desks for eight hours without a break, though some do. Sitting and staring stare at a screen for prolonged periods of time takes a toll on our bodies, which is why health initiatives to encourage employees to get up and move every hour and the adoption of standing desks have become commonplace in today’s workplace.
Similarly, human beings aren’t necessarily designed to perform many of the mundane, repetitive tasks required of HR professionals. Data entry is a good example. Human error is regularly cited as the leading cause for mistakes in data, which makes sense given how difficult it is to maintain focus while performing the same task for prolonged periods of time. In one study, data entry was cited by employees as being their most disliked task. Why? Because data entry is a task that optimizes a computer’s strength and talents, not a human’s.
While human beings can perform tasks like data entry, it is not an activity we are necessarily “built” for, nor does it make humans happy or accomplished. Eliminating these tasks from an HR professionals list of tasks, therefore, doesn’t take anything away from them as people.
Making HR More Fulfilling
Perhaps the biggest benefit of HR automation is the ability to offload many of the small, repetitive tasks that those in the HR space perform on a daily basis. By reducing the necessary but intellectually unengaging tasks that need to be performed on a regular basis, HR professionals can take on tasks that are more interesting and fulfilling, such as strategy or face-to-face time with others in the organization.
In his book “Deep Work,” Cal Newport discusses how humans that are constantly distracted by unproductive tasks are less happy, while those that are allowed the time and energy to focus on initiatives that they find more interesting/engaging tend to be happier.
When HR professionals enjoy their work and more engaged, it helps set the tone throughout the organization, improving overall employee engagement, and enriching an organization’s culture.
Giving HR Specialists More Time to be Human
HR is changing from a more transactional to transformational department, with a greater emphasis on strategy and cross-departmental knowledge. At the same time, HR professionals have a growing list of responsibilities and areas of focus, with limited time budgets. Some of these areas of focus include:
- Improving the employee experience
- Creating a more inclusive environment
- Keeping up to date with shifting compliance requirements
- Partnering with others throughout the organizations, especially IT
- Understanding the organization from an operational standpoint
- Knowing organization goals
To be successful, HR professionals will need to work closely with others throughout the organization, have more one-on-one conversations, and partner with other teams on different initiatives. Automation gives HR professionals the time needed to pursue these initiatives by eliminating many of the redundant tasks that would otherwise occupy their time. With automation in place, HR professionals have more time for people.
Automation and the Future of HR
AI and RPA are fundamental pieces to an HR transformation. Without these technologies, HR professionals will struggle to have the time and data needed to partner with and advise others throughout the organization. Incorporating automation early in the transformation process, therefore, allows HR teams to start their new, more human role sooner and allows the organization to begin seeing value from their transformation efforts more quickly.
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