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Why HR Needs to Stay Ahead of Automation

Will automation cause the workforce of the future to be dominated by malevolent, beady-eyed robots gleefully expelling humans from their offices and cubicles to lay claim to their jobs?

Probably not. But if it takes scary robots to alert HR professionals to the importance of tracking and responding to the rise of automation in the workplace—and the threat that automation could pose to the careers of many—the image will have served its purpose. Automation is everywhere, and its impact on human resources is expanding, but many say HR professionals are only dimly aware of the trend.
There’s no doubt that a more automated future is coming. Employers predict 17 percent of work will be automated by 2020, compared to about 5 percent in 2014, according to Willis Towers Watson, a global consulting company.

For HR, automation increasingly affects workforce strategy. It vastly expands the potential of, and expectations for, HR analytics. Technology is transforming traditional HR functions such as hiring, training and benefits administration. And the execution of all this change demands a strong HR role.

The understanding and use of the power of automation may prove to be the dividing line between those who advance in the field and those who are marginalized and, eventually, automated out of their HR jobs.

Some HR operations “have woken up and are leading a higher-purpose conversation on the trajectory of automation within their organizations,” says Robert Bolton, a London-based partner with KPMG, a global consultancy. “But far too frequently I’m seeing other business divisions raise the issue, and HR is nowhere to be seen.”

A chief information officer at a telecommunications company told Bolton that HR was not leading on anything with respect to automation and the workforce. The CIO proposed taking over the HR function, as he saw the integration of humans and machines in the workplace as the job of IT.
“I think HR needs to step up—and step up quickly—because other functions are laying claim to where the action is,” Bolton says.


Sourcing and hiring are becoming increasingly automated. This is altering the role of HR professionals, who will have more time to focus on higher-level functions. Many organizations will be chasing the same types of tech-savvy employees, and HR will need to lead the way in finding them, competing effectively for them and facilitating speedy offers, as delays often result in losing prospects to competitors.

Chatbots and intelligent analytics are already performing automated sourcing. The human sourcers who remain, some say, will use technology to analyze and widen the pool of potential candidates.

Keeping the workplace human

Increasingly, people will be working with machines that don’t need benefits, reassurance or human support—or weekends and holidays off. They will provide endless streams of data and conceal nothing.
This is prompting fears that automation could lead to a race to the bottom regarding work conditions. Criticisms of Amazon and other technology companies have included allegations of excessive measurement of, and expectations for, employees, particularly lower-level workers.

At Lincoln Financial Group, a Pennsylvania financial services company, automation has rippled through the company in recent years, driving significant changes in such job functions as underwriters, marketers, advisors and actuaries, says Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and chief people, place and brand officer.

Keeping humans at the top of the agenda is important in automation efforts, she says. “I believe putting people ahead of process and technology is ultimately how HR will enable an organizational transformation when it comes to automation,” Buckingham says. “Although, it’s still the case that many transformation initiatives are more focused on process and technology than on their talent strategies, it’s important to remember that people are at the heart of our organizations.”

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