I believe it is important to discuss this issue with people, be it HR leaders or those who are being impacted by the constant change.
According to PWC’s report ‘Workforce of the Future’ – research which began in 2007 and published in 2017 – AI is not the future; it is already happening, and is reflected in around roughly a third of the present workforce, who are anxious about their jobs becoming automated.
HR cannot just exist as a separate function as we move forward. HR leaders are already providing outsourced services and automation for people processes. Large organisations are already searching globally in the talent recruitment process, using AI to identify the specialists they require, and digital platforms match workers with employers and skills with demand.
However, there are problems when it comes to definition, especially concerning AI. The CIPD (2017) argue that a distinction needs to be made between what they differentiate as strong and weak AI.
Strong AI conveys the idea of a system that has a higher intelligence than a human, and at present that remains in the realms of science fiction.
However, weak AI, already exists in that it can complete specific tasks that require single human capabilities, such as visual perception or probabilistic reasoning.
Perhaps the most obvious indication of AI is being seen in the development and use of ‘chatbots’, most commonly used in the area of online customer service. Within HR they can be used in the area of employee self service. AI enabled automation has the potential to mechanise a huge number of tasks and even perhaps, entire roles.
AI is a term that has a wide brief, from advanced data analytics at its most basic, simply put, the ability to answer a question by looking up an answer in a data set, through to an emerging category of machine learning premised on the ability of an algorithm to identify a pattern in data sets and to use them to intuitively predict what will happen next. There are already commercial applications on the market that sift CVs and use algorithms to supplement or subvert human decision-making. HR departments have already spotted the benefits of AI for some activities, such as hiring and employee engagement, performance feedback – all tasks that a ‘chatbot’ can perform. In essence, ‘bots’ take care of repetitive tasks and help organisations save on labour costs.
There are also concerns about the propagation of bias in such processes, but the entire basis of machine learning is that errors are rectified over time.
The main question for HR professionals is: will such technology enhance or displace them? Will it mean more empowered and meaningful work for employees? Or will HR follow the customer service route, where the number of roles are already shrinking with studies claiming that 80% of customer queries can be dealt with by a ‘chatbot’?
There are obvious concerns about the wider impacts of AI, robotics, automation on employees and the future of work, and how it is changing and will continue to change as these technologies become more widely available and more widely applied. These are concerns that have to be debated much more widely in society in general and within the present working environment, between employers, trade unions, and the workforce.
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The role of HR, I would argue, is to begin that conversation and also to become more knowledgeable themselves about how such technology can improve the working environment for all of us.
About the author
Alexandra Gray is Senior Lecturer, Human Resources and Strategy at Edology.