How ready is HR for AI? Here's the bad news...

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne February 25, 2018
Jason Averbook argues that HR needs to put proper foundations in place first before jumping to AI.

Jason Averbook
Jason Averbook

While AI is grabbing the headlines and beginning to change the workplace, Jason Averbook, co-founder and chief executive of consulting firm Leapgen, sounds a note of caution:

I wish I could say AI  and bots will 'band-aid' the sins of the past, but that’s not going to happen. It’s not that easy.

There’s a hell of a lot of solid foundation work that needs to be done first, before AI can make a difference, he argues. Without those solid foundations, AI is going to disappoint.

That's because AI, says Averbook – a long-time thought leader on HR and the future of work who will be a main stage speaker on HR futures at next month's UNLEASH London – is just one aspect of the much larger digital transformation story. And digital transformation is more than a technology refresh; it’s a total reload. He expands:

We’ve gone from the mainframe to DOS to Windows to client-server to web. For the most part, in five generations of technology, I’ve been really doing the same things, only on a new piece of technology. This isn’t that. This is not doing the same thing on a new piece of technology. This is actually changing the way work is done and doing things completely differently.

This transformation (in hearts and minds as well as technology) in the way we work is a requirement, not an option, says Averbook. HR has no choice but to step up to the mark with digitization and AI:

We already know what the end of the story looks like. The consumer world has already played that out for us. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, it’s a question of how do we get there and when can we get there? We’ve gone from people thinking HR technology was only for HR people to people truly believing that the concept of workforce experience has arrived.

By workforce experience, Averbook is referring to the idea that the experience of employees at work, from the moment they join to the moment they leave the company, is important in the same way that the customer experience is important. Employees are not interested in a new module, or care about department silos, they simply want to have the right tools to do what they need to do and that process needs to be as seamless and easy to do as they are in the consumer world.

Four requirements

There are four things required for this transformational shift to be successful, says Averbrook:

  • Focus on creating an amazing, solid data set as well as data governance. These firm foundations are crucial if companies want to take advantage of digital transformation and AI.
  • Focus on user experience. This is much more than simply having a good user interface; it’s about reimagining how you deliver services to employees.
  • Shifting the focus from automation to digitization is vital. To be able to leverage AI and bots and create new value, HR needs to move away from simply automating transactional work to changing the way HR works.
  • HR needs new skills to take advantage of the digital workplace, and AI.

As for just how pumped is HR for the challenge,  Averbook has some serious doubts:

We’re not ready. We haven’t focused on the shift from HR technology to experience. As analysts, we’ve been talking about it for three to five years, but most HR people use three- to five-year window when they do upgrades and we’re talking about three to five years where technology comes and is then extinct. So we have to step on the gas and pick up the pace.

The danger is that HR will be caught napping when the exec team comes knocking and wants to know what HR’s plans are for this new way of working:

I think that’s the biggest threat – we’re building a technical debt that will be hard time digging out of.

It’s vital that HR looks at the bigger picture and not consider this another technology project, says Averbook:

We find most HR organizations have a product plan on how they are going to upgrade to the next version. Very few have the holistic plan that includes: how are we going to re-skill the functions? How are we going to change how we deliver services? And how are we going to leverage technology to fuel the changes with AI and bots?

The starting point for HR is actually knowing the end point. What does the organization want to look like? The complexity comes in because what will work and be the best fit for one particular organization may not work in another company. If HR is viewed by the board as a transactional center, whose job is to keep the lights on and minimize risk, then the shift from HR technology to workforce technology is probably too much of a jump straight away.

Only when that commitment, vision and strategy are in place are companies ready to begin the journey, says Averbook:

I think of it like a puzzle or an air traffic controller that has planes taking off and planes landing, but has to make sure that all these moving parts work together. So it’s about creating that program plan – not a project plan – this is a program with lots of different projects.

The idea is to put the same effort into employee experience as has been put in (or hopefully put in) to customer experience:

Now is the time to say we’ve put all this time and effort into digital transformation and focus on the customer experience, but how do I now put all that time effort and energy into the workforce experience? I spend a lot of my time convincing executives why this is important and one of the first things is that you can’t think of it as spending more on HR technology.

HR professionals in this new world need to be moving away from answering questions from the business to problem solving. AI will be able to answer the basic questions from workers, but HR will need to deal with complex scenarios or where empathy is important.

They also need to move from what Averbook calls process design to “conversation design”. Instead of thinking about the HR processes, the idea is for HR to think about the conversations bots will have with people.

If the focus is on experience, then HR needs to find a way to measure that experience, which is why, rather than people analytics, Averbook talks of the analytics being tied to experience. For example, looking at the experience of the workers and where that breaks down, understanding why people abandon processes and finding out how they feel and then quickly taking that information and using it to continuously improve their processes.

By getting such, what Averbook calls, “lower case analytics” in place first, then this can feed into the ‘capital’ analytics of knowing about your people:

That’s why analytics with a capital A hasn’t worked until now. The data has been incomplete and people haven’t trusted the data.

Using AI and bots can help gather the data needed. Analytics has often failed to live up to expectations because HR isn’t using strategically yet. Marketing is already doing sentiment analysis, while HR is pleased that that they can measure whether someone logs in at home or at work.  This is all part and parcel of HR speeding up not just its adoption of technology, but also it’s understanding of changes in the way we work.

My take

Digital transformation is a given. It’s not a question of whether, but when. Jason Averbook is clear that, for the most part, HR still needs to up its game and speed up its adoption of technology. But more importantly, he argues that they need to think more strategically about the impact of AI and digitization.

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