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Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, & Robotic Process Automation – how does it apply to HR?

We are constantly being told that the fourth industrial revolution is upon us, and organisations globally are starting to think about the impact this will have on our professional and personal lives.  As with all revolutions, long-term progress will be met with short-term challenges. We are told that between 15 – 30 per cent of UK jobs are at high risk of automation by 2030 and that changes will start to become more apparent within the next 5 years.

In order to get a feel for how HR is responding to this potential employment game changer, Veran ran a survey asking about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Robotic Process Automation and how it is viewed and used by organisations.

What is Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, & Robotic Process Automation?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Is a fairly broad term which can be summarised as machines mimicking human functions such as “learning” and “problem solving”. Best known uses of AI are the Digital Assistants that are part of our everyday lives such as now Amazon Alexa, Siri and Google assistant, but there are now also examples appearing within our HR applications.  These are often presented via mobile apps and/or chat bots and can prompt activity such as entering time and expenses, respond to policy questions and guided learning experiences.

Machine Learning (ML) – is the branch of computer science which enables software to learn from data without specific instructions.  The software can identify emerging patterns and make improvements via logical and reliable conclusions. ML is being used in financial services, government, healthcare, marketing & sales, oil & gas, transportation etc. HR has not been the quickest to utilise and apply machine learning and this can be partly attributed to the traditional lack of focus on data within the HR profession. This though is changing now and there is  a growing interest in how  ML can be utilised including applications to improve recruiting methods, increase employee engagement and streamline workflows.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – Is an application of technology which enables the automation of business processes. It is most useful where people are performing high-volume, highly transactional process functions and lends itself well to many traditional multi-step repeatable HR Shared Services type tasks such as payroll or onboarding. Essentially a “bot” takes the place of a human user and can log in and transact a number of tasks across multiple systems (e.g. HR, payroll, finance, security, learning etc.).   RPA is seen as providing much more robust security, controls, data integrity and scalability than human agents as well as being significantly cheaper.

The Results

We devised the survey to gain a better understanding of HR’s understanding around AI, ML and RPA in HR and how these opportunities are being used within HR.

Best known application

We found Artificial Intelligence to be the most well-known (almost 100%) out of the three. Interestingly, RPA was least-known with just under 50% despite there being clear applications for HR today.

Size of Organisation

The organisations who response to the survey were categorised into 4 categories based on employee headcount: 1-999; 1,000 – 4,99; 5,000 – 9,999 and 10,000+.  The results were mixed and there is no direct relationship between size of organisation and propensity to have started to use AI, ML or PRA, as shows below:

Most Positive Impact

We asked respondents to describe which areas of HR are most positively impacted by AI, ML and RPA.  Recruitment was the outright winner and there are good examples of companies starting to improve their recruitment processes using a combination of these new applications.  These range from using process automation for recruitment and onboarding, through to using ML to support with the selection and short-listing of candidates.  The candidate experience is deemed to be more intuitive and less prejudiced when ML is deployed. The table below shows the functions most likely to benefit from the use of AI, ML and RPA in HR according to our survey responses

Not considering new technology

For those organisations who have not started to consider AI, ML or RPA, it was interesting that it seems as though lack of knowledge is a much more significant reason for inactivity in this space than any concern about the complexity of the technology.  The implication is therefore that as awareness increases, so will the activity in this space.

Growing interest in this area

We are starting to see more and more marketing and research about the use of this technology in HR, for instance the CIPD has posted fact sheets, podcasts, articles, reports and put on events to further the discussion of AI and RPI especially.  Take up though, is still slow according to our survey, with less than 20% attending any kind of conference or training courses. Interestingly, as yet the CIPD professional training courses do not have any modules related to this subject, but as an organisation, they are spreading awareness amongst their members.

What does this mean for HR?

It’s an exciting time to be in HR, and we have a major opportunity to embrace these technologies, as we had with the first HR databases, then Employee and Manager Self-Service, and more recently the advent of Cloud technology.  The conversation now is about how we manage the impact of these new technologies and what that could be, rather than just accepting the scare stories about the robots taking our jobs.  With change there is always opportunity and HR again has a chance to really shape the future of work.


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