HR and AI - the changing nature of human resources, according to Josh Bersin

Sarah Aryanpur Profile picture for user saryanpur June 26, 2023
AI needs to be top of the HR agenda, says Bersin.

Josh Bersin

HR leaders must embrace AI if they are to deal with the changing labor demands of the enterprise, and different attitudes to work and the workplace. So says Josh Bersin, founder and CEO of the eponymous consulting firm, who argues:

Last time we looked, virtually every company was somewhat struggling to hire, retain, rescale, upskill and empower their people.

Certainly, HR professionals have had a lot to deal with in the last couple of years. The pandemic brought about some huge shifts in priorities and has changed many traditional working patterns and workplace connections. This together with a falling working population, and very low unemployment rates has led to some very big challenges for HR leaders.

That said, for his part, Bersin cites long term symptoms based on how the workplace culture has evolved, rather than episodic changes, like COVID. He also thinks we are entering a time where most workers are becoming increasingly burnt out through higher and higher productivity demands, because of changing working practices.

According to Bersin, these long term changes are the result of moving from an agrarian economy where productivity was virtually flat, to the industrial age, where the productivity doubled over a period of about 150 years, to the information age, where productivity doubled in only 30 years:

A lot of fundamental HR practices emerged from the Industrial Age, and were designed around hierarchical organizations of management in manufacturing companies, railroads, car companies, oil companies, and when labor talent was abundant. The organization models that a lot of HR practices were built around where we could move people in and out of the jobs as needed, because there were a lot of people available.

He believes we are now in the ‘Age of Intelligence':

Consolidated information from many sources is available at virtually lightspeed. And what's happened of course is productivity per person is going up and up and up.”

With a shrinking workforce he thinks that the expected productivity gains from AI in the HR function will affect every company in every job, and allow fundamental HR practices to catch up.

AI, meet HR

At a recent conference, the Josh Bersin Company launched an OpenAI-enabled application HR Copilot, a tool that uses data based on the company’s 23 years of research. As you would expect, the product allows 'people professionals' to ask just about anything to do with HR - talent and leadership, thru salary or pay, to engagement or diversity, and get access to information from hundreds and hundreds of companies surveyed and worked with over the years in one place.

The company pitches this an early use of cutting edge AI in HR, claiming that the product lets users ask any question and get a simple or extensive answer, with links to the source research, so the user can quickly search for maturity models, frameworks, case studies, and examples. Bersin says:

The value of AI in the HR technology space is turning out to be massive. Not just recruiting tools, and tools to generate content for training, and generative AI tools for training people, but also tools for talent mobility that can be used for identifying skills.

New HR practices demand ‘organizational ingenuity’, he adds: 

It is the term that I'm using to harness what I consider the Superman model of individual performance, where we're all able to access information in ways that we never thought were possible. Anybody that has used ChatGPT has probably experienced this where all of a sudden you were able to find something when you didn't even know where to look for it before.

Bersin believes that everybody has to learn about AI:

All of the traditional practices of HR that were designed around the industrial age, the recruiting department, the head of diversity, they all have to come together. My thesis is that AI is here to give us the productivity we need in any economy that will have a scarcity of labor going forward.

But he warns that AI shouldn’t be seen as a cost cutting tool:

There could be some HR intimidation from organizations that do not understand what AI is. It isn’t really clear yet but AI should be a tool to make things easier. Of course a CFO will want to cut costs, but that won’t work. It's not a spreadsheet, and isn’t that type of technology yet. It needs training, monitoring and checking.

New types of work

HR AI tools will facilitate new types of work models inside companies, and will have massive value for areas like recruitment and training, according to Bersin. But he also believes that they will be used in analysis for the bigger issues of hiring when there is a smaller talent pool:

There are amazing tools for making companies more successful and companies perform better. But there are also tools for dealing with bigger issues, like how do we get more work done and continue to grow organizations when we may not have as many people to hire?

One of the ideas that I've thrown out and a lot of people have been talking about here is that it may turn out that bigger and bigger and bigger is not better and better and better. If AI ends up taking care of most of the administrative work, this will allow workers to focus on their more human attributes.

Bersin also argues that AI will work best with an emphasis on critical thinking:

In one of the conference sessions it became clear that critical thinking is the skill that is needed. Because if you're doing something that's informational with AI, and it's giving you text or conversational data or con numbers, and you just believe them, you could be making the wrong decision. So I think critical thinking, learning how to validate what is correct or almost correct, is a big skill.

He adds:

We're basically in the people business, so anything the AI does, is going to be helpful, but the ultimate value that HR people provide has to do with coaching, development, alignment, feedback, things that are human skills, that the machine doesn't do that world, in an emotional way. So soft skills are going to be a huge issue.

My take

The challenges facing enterprise HR leaders means they need all the help they can get. Employees may worry about their jobs, but if AI is used well, it could mean they end up with more interesting jobs, and less of the mundane day to day stuff.

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