Welcome to the Future of Work: HR Technology Trends

It’s official: The Fourth Industrial Revolution is officially underway. Like all previous industrial revolutions, the rapid pace of innovation brings seemingly limitless potential alongside change, uncertainty, and fear.

Like all industries, HR is certain to be impacted. According to a recent survey, 82% of HR leaders believe their roles will be completely different in a decade’s time, which is in line with the World Economic Forum’s prediction that more than half of all roles will need to be completely reskilled by 2022.

Big things are happening, and artificial intelligence (AI), neural language processing (NLP), robotic process automation (RPA) and automation in general are all playing a starring role in HR and the future of work. Each of these tools holds the promise of alleviating time-consuming processes and empowering HR professionals to focus on true value-building initiatives.

Let’s take a closer look at how HR is being transformed by technology.

What is AI?

Unless you’ve been on a multi-year sabbatical to a remote desert island, you’ve been hearing a lot about AI. For years. But what exactly is AI and how are companies applying AI innovation to improve their organizations? With so many different definitions and potential use cases, it can be difficult to get a clear understanding of what AI actually means.

Back in the 1950s, mathematician Alan Turing published a paper called, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” and asked a simple question that set the stage for the future of AI: Can machines think? The paper essentially described artificial intelligence as any task requiring intelligence that is performed by a program or machine. (You may have heard of the “Turing test”, which was introduced in that paper, positing that the true test of a machine’s intelligence is whether or not a human can tell the difference between the machine and another person.)

Diving deeper, AI systems typically use some of the following behaviors that were traditionally associated with human intelligence: planning, reasoning, knowledge representation, learning, problem solving, perception, and manipulation. Nascent technologies are also experimenting with behaviors even more intimately related to humans, such as social intelligence and creativity.

Today’s AI systems are intricate and powerful, capable of performing extremely complex computing tasks much faster and more efficiently than a human could. Fueled by the dizzying enormity and availability of Big Data and analytics, AI is advancing exponentially, and today’s tools can be used for automation, formal reasoning, decision support systems and smart search systems which complement and augment human abilities. In fact, AI tools have advanced to such an extent that AI ethics (transparency, potential for bias, accountability) has become a top concern.

How can AI be used in HR?

When it comes to using AI’s applications in the HR space, automating repetitive, low-value tasks has already been a game-changer, empowering HR professionals to focus on more strategic and relationship-building tasks. Today’s leading HCM solutions can also leverage Big Data to forecast everything from performance success to flight risk, actively predicting future trends like employee engagement and the potential for things like flight risk.

Prescriptive analytics are the next step beyond predictive analytics, building on previous innovations to actually suggest personalized action at key decision points. Using the example of a high-risk employee, a manager could be encouraged to take that team member to lunch and initiate a conversation about long-term career goals. This additional level of support helps leaders support and coach their people. It’s symbiotic, people-first technology and AI.

AI in HR examples

Until recently, HR technology’s promise centered around automating repetitive tasks, improving efficiency and cost-savings in the process. More recently, however, smart technologies – including AI and machine learning – are paving the way for pattern recognition and anomaly detection, unstructured data analysis, and predictive analytics. These advances are empowering HR teams to address acute business challenges, drive substantial performance enhancements, and improve broader business outcomes and profitability.

Within HR, AI often assists with data-driven decision making, reducing bottlenecks and human biases to improve both HR agility and effectiveness. Intelligent automation is also common, enabling machines to understand, learn, and act (either autonomously or with assistance from people). Intelligent automation differs from traditional automation in that these machines actually understand various processes and their variations, and they can be deployed across a wide variety of manual processes to increase proficiency and productivity.

AI can improve HCM functionality by enhancing performance management, workforce planning, and people analytics. In recruiting, AI can be applied to reduce human bias and improve candidate sourcing, screening, and lead nurturing. With L&D initiatives, AI led the way for personalized, on-demand content reminiscent of YouTube and Netflix, including personalized learning pathways and learning analytics. AI can also improve both the implementation and management of employee benefits administration, communication, and compliance.

Finally, AI in HR has far-reaching implications in terms of employee experience technology and HR service delivery.

Employee experience technology

Employee experience is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. Organizations are starting to catch on that their people are their most important customers, and they should be treating them as such. Employees want to do purposeful work and drive meaning and value. Unfortunately, access to efficient technology can be a barrier.

In the same vein, all HR leaders want to provide their people with amazing work experiences, but lengthy manual processes can get in the way of well-intentioned initiatives such as employee surveys and service administration. That’s where employee experience technology comes in. Employee experience technology helps ensure that employees enjoy positive interactions and experiences when dealing with HR, and that HR teams experience more streamlined and efficient processes. And, happily, employee experience technology can be applied to the entire employee journey—from recruitment to retirement and everything in-between.

And, while any technology an employee uses technically falls under the “employee experience” category, there are several burgeoning technologies that exist primarily to improve the employee experience. Let’s focus on the two most effective and mature: advanced sentiment analysis-powered employee surveys, and HR Service Delivery.

What is sentiment analysis?

Sentiment analysis is the systematized process of analyzing text and categorizing it to understand user intent, such as subject matter, themes, and a variety of positive or negative emotions.

Until very recently, technology was unable to truly analyze free-written text; it spoke in 0’s and 1’s. That’s why traditional online surveys were always multiple-choice, with pre-selected answers, or ratings on a 1—5 or 1—10 scale. If there was an optional message area at the end to record your own words, that meant that a person had manually process that section. This obviously adds quite a bit of time and effort to what is ideally a quick and simple process.

Tech tools have always been great at analyzing structured data, like highly organized data sets that easily fit into predetermined parameters. Examples of structured data include relational databases, spreadsheets, and clearly definable and organizable trends such as attrition or cost-to-hire.

But unstructured data—like emails, document copy, or free-text survey responses—don’t follow predefined data models and therefore don’t fit in relational databases. In other words, tech had always been unable to analyze it, which is especially significant considering the fact that 80% of all enterprise data is unstructured.

Enter sentiment analysis. Sentiment analysis is possible due to the joint application of machine learning and natural language processing (NLP), which helps computers both understand and speak the language humans use to communicate. Rather than simply translating our language, the machines learn to speak it—it’s the difference between a French 101 student and a native Parisian.

NLP is the driving force behind applications like Google Translate, Grammarly, and personal assistants like Siri and Alexa. And, when applied to survey-based sentiment analysis, NLP can help organizations not only understand what employees are saying—but also how they actually feel.

Using NLP to understand employee sentiment

In an environment where quits outpace layoffs 2:1 and worldwide talent shortages are standard, finding and retaining top talent has proved to be one of the most significant challenges facing organizations in recent years. Meanwhile, studies have confirmed that the best way for leaders to improve retention is by listening to and addressing employee concerns. Simple, right?! Well, in practice listening closely to the voice of the employee (VoE) had been difficult to scale.

Annual performance reviews are a standard benchmark for employee check-ins, but once-a-year discussions aren’t usually sufficient to gain a solid understanding of employee sentiment—especially when the conversation is tied to salary negotiations.

Employee feedback is best obtained on a somewhat-regular cadence through low-pressure satisfaction surveys. And, in order to provide truly valuable feedback, these employee satisfaction surveys should have a mix of qualitative and quantitative prompts. Fortunately, sentiment analysis tools make this possible without adding any extraneous manual interventions.

By applying NLP and machine learning algorithms to open-ended text surveys, HR leaders receive instant feedback on how employees are thinking and feeling. This enables managers to keep a strong pulse on their team’s health and arrange meaningful one-on-one conversations with specific employees based on their feedback. It also allows HR to look for heat maps, outliers, and patterns throughout the organization.

Using NLP to understand employee sentiment increases employee satisfaction, improves human connections, and improves organizational health without adding significant strain to HR teams. It’s a win-win-win.

What is RPA?

Robotic Process Automation, or RPA for short, is another trending technology abbreviation you’ve likely come across. Essentially, RPA is the technology that allows computer software (or a “robot/bot”) to execute digital processes. RPA tools essentially mimic human actions, capturing data and communicating with and/or directing other systems and applications to perform repetitive tasks. RPA bots can log into applications, fill out forms, move files and folders, and much, much more.

Incorporating RPA technology into tech platforms immediately increases the efficiency and interconnectedness of various APIs and user interfaces.

How to use RPA for HR

When you think about the extent of administrative tasks HR is responsible for, it’s clear how effective RPA can be in HR. RPA means HR can significantly reduce the time and manual effort required to complete time-consuming HR processes, such as onboarding or relocation. In many cases, the entire process can be completed without any human intervention whatsoever.

In addition to eliminating boring and repetitive tasks for your teams, RPA significantly improves efficiency and also reduces the chances of data being entered incorrectly or forgotten altogether. RPA also allows HR processes to be orchestrated across multiple systems, which is incredibly powerful for organizations working with complex HR technology stacks.

Arguably, one of the key reasons HR has established itself as a key strategic partner has been due to the shift from administrative paperwork to delivering crucial insight and bottom-line business results. The biggest benefit of applying RPA to HR is that it frees up HR to focus on truly high-value tasks; the relationship-building and strategic analysis and planning that can fall by the wayside when bogged down with endless requests and tasks.

RPA in HR use cases

In addition to using RPA to communicate within multiple systems and orchestrate a wide variety of HR processes, RPA allows you to deliver HR services to employees rapidly and efficiently. Let’s say an employee requests a Verification of Employment Letter: rather than someone on your HR team having to transfer all of their employee data from the HRIS to a document template, the RPA can automatically generate the document for you.

A more complicated use case would be to the traditionally labor-intensive onboarding process. With RPA, onboarding is neither complicated nor labor-intensive. Imagine this: You’re a hiring manager who finally found the perfect fit. So, you change their status from Candidate to Hired in the ATS, which then triggers the onboarding process for a new hire. The candidate’s resume and cover letter are automatically sent to the new employee file. The offer letter and onboarding documents are created automatically and sent to the appropriate channels for approval. Along the way, bots complete tasks when necessary, such as approving a laptop for the new employee and sending out new hire information. Once this is complete, the new hire’s information is automatically updated in the HRIS. Every step is simple, automated, or both.

HR Service Delivery

Much like the examples above, it’s clear that HR provides an extensive range of services to key stakeholders throughout the organization, whether that’s the employees they serve or the executives they report to. Each of these services—such as submitting tuition reimbursement or sharing company policies—fall under the larger umbrella of what’s now known as “HR Service Delivery.” The term might be new, but the function and process it describes is not.

HR Service Delivery technology, driven by RPA advances outlined above, allows managers and employees to easily access the HR information they need and helps processes occur behind-the-scenes for a seamless, intuitive HR experience. Well-executed HR Service Delivery tools improve the employee experience and therefore impact nearly everything within your organization, ranging from improved productivity and employee engagement to increased sales and customer satisfaction.

The Future of Work is already here, and HR’s playing a starring role. The right tech tools make all the difference.

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