Writing recently in the UK professional HR journal 'People Management' Georgi Gyton and Robert Jeffery tell their readers that 'Chatbots can already perform basic HR roles, and what's coming next is a game-changer'.
Chatbots are text-based applications that carry out a 'natural language' conversation by accessing a database of predetermined phrases. Lloyds and RBS already offer chatbots as the first point of customer contact. American Express has integrated one into Facebook Messenger for accessing accounts on the move. A start-up is reported to be building a chatbot to replace the NHS's non-emergency 111 number.
HR-focused chatbots are becoming available in the UK. Software provider MHR claims the bot they have developed can save the equivalent of one HR professional per 1,500 employees. CoachBot, an application built by UK start-up Saberr and tested by organisations including Unilever, the NHS and NFU Mutual, supports teambuilding.
According to Gyton and Jeffrey, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is what is coming next. They quote Robert Bolton, partner in KPMG's Global HR Centre of Excellence as saying 'AI and HR are having a “moment” right now. It's as if a lot of HR leaders got an (Amazon) Echo for Christmas. Last year, they weren't really engaging with the topic, while finance and customer-facing parts of the organisation were. Now, HR has woken up.'
The Chief Executive of the CIPD, Peter Cheese, seems to agree, arguing that automation enabled by AI has the potential to reshape HR. Cheese says it is both a threat because it has the potential to mechanise huge numbers of tasks and entire roles, and an opportunity to take ownership of a smarter way of working.
AI may be complicated technically but cloud-based digital services via Amazon and Google have put AI technology in reach of even the smallest organisations. Full AI, defined as software that answers its own questions before a human has asked them, remains only a theoretical possibility for the foreseeable future, but AI can already assist with advanced HR data analytics using algorithms to spot patterns in data sets and predict what will happen next.
Firms are developing AI systems that will, for example, act as coaching assistants for new managers, conduct annual pay reviews, or assist 'intelligent recruitment'. According to Gyton and Jeffrey there are already commercial applications on the market that sift CVs and use algorithms to supplement - or even over-rule - human decision making and they claim that 'if you've applied for a job in the past year, there's a fair chance AI has handled your CV'.
The 'billion-dollar question' is whether AI will ultimately enhance or displace HR professionals. Will it mean more empowered and meaningful work for employees? Or will HR be like customer services and call centres, where it has been estimated that 80 per cent of customer queries can be handled by a chatbot?
Returning to AI and data analytics, KMPG's Bolton says 'I'm passionate about the strategic value of people management, but I'm also highly critical of what's been done in the name of HR that has no evidence whatsoever. This technology can be a lot more evidence-based … and it can finally allow HR to perhaps fulfil that strategic role it has always sought. The question is who owns the data. If HR retains ownership of people data, it continues to have a role. If it loses that, all bets are off.' He counsels HR professionals to 'think about your skills and competences and what you can bring to a digital world.'
Bolton's comments echo those of Ulrich and Dulebohn (2015) which I quote in my textbook 'Human Resource Management for MBA and Business Masters':
With Human Resource Analytics, line managers and HR professionals can better justify, prioritise, and improve HR investments … improved HR metrics help HR to move towards professional respectability and decision-making rigour.
My text also considers the impact of technology on new forms of employment such as the gig economy, ICT-based (Information and Communication Technology) mobile work, crowd employment and collaborative employment.
My book begins and ends with two quotations from Linda Holbeche, former CIPD Director of Research and Policy:
'...building organisational capability is HR's heartland', but 'HR managers can help make capitalism human'.
It's easy to see that AI can help with the first – the question is can it do so with the second?