The future has crept up on us so gradually, you may not even have noticed. While once purely the purview of science-fiction, Artificial Intelligence is increasingly, tangibly, very real, and very much the present.
While claims of sentient AI are, for now, probably just a hoax, the technology is growing at such an incredible pace and becoming so commonplace that most of us take it for granted. Algorithms have become so central to our daily lives, whether they are recommending us new podcasts or deciding the outcomes of elections, their ubiquity makes them almost invisible.
And yet, there is a growing debate about the role of AI and its uses in everything from recruitment to healthcare. The burgeoning hype for these technologies reminds me of the work of writer and theorist Evgeny Morozov. In his 2011 book ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, Morozov warned of what he called ‘cyber utopianism’ – the naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of technology combined with a refusal to consider the possible negative aspects. While many believe that the use of AI will improve our lives and solve countless problems, we must also be realistic about the fact that in many cases, this won’t be necessarily be true.
For Morozov, whatever the radical potential that new technologies have to change the world, they will always be held back by the people and systems who control them.
While Morozov was primarily writing about the internet and other communication technologies, its not difficult to apply his concerns around big data and the idealistic application of technologies to Artificial Intelligence. As we have already seen, there is growing evidence that suggests that the use of algorithms in areas such as policing has actually compounded – rather that resolved – existing problems. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns around AI’s capacity to entrench existing biases.
With all neural networks and machine learning algorithms, it’s important to remember that they can only ever be as good as the data that is fed into them. Biased data will yield biased outcomes. AI solutions may never be a panacea for the problems they set out to solve because of this very fact.
And so, we come to the question of HR - what role can AI play for HR teams and just how will that technology benefit them? HR departments are already keenly aware of the problems with bad data and biased decision-making and so it is an interesting field to truly examine the limits of what is possible with Artificial Intelligence. None of this is to say that AI cannot benefit HR teams and HR processes, but merely that its worth applying a critical lens to analyse what is possible and the potential pitfalls inherent to using this technology for human resources and people management.
Will AI reinvent HR? Well, that sounds like cyber utopianism. But its potential to automate tasks and improve employee experience, employee training, and even retention make it compelling enough for HR teams to consider.
But first, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about when we say ‘AI’.
What is AI?
Artificial Intelligence (or AI) describes a growing category of technologies that utilise neural networks or ‘deep learning’ to simulate intelligent behaviour. There is a wide selection of different techniques and use cases when it comes to AI that includes algorithms, chatbots, voicebots, semantic analysis and machine learning.
Machine learning (or ML) describes a specific type of AI – a type of technology that can complete tasks that would typically require humans. Machine learning is sometimes even capable of learning from the results of those tasks and applying those lessons to future tasks.
Machine learning is the type of AI that can be applied most to human resource departments and HR processes to assist with – or automate – certain elements such as onboarding or employee training.
Machine learning is primarily where we get into the issue of data – to learn, the AI would require a lot of reliable data to improve and gain experience. The machine would use that data to find trends and patterns and make decisions accordingly. This means with the right data and the right input from humans, machine learning can support businesses in their decision making.
Immediately we return to the issue raised above – bad or biased data will lead to bad or biased outcomes. For example, an organisation that frequently overlooks women in favour of promoting or hiring men might find themselves with an AI that has equally learned to favour male applicants.
The trends and patterns that it uses to make decisions will be the trends and patterns created by imperfect humans and their unconscious biases.
HR departments hoping to build and support the workplaces of the future must then be aware of these trends and biases in their employee data and how this might impact the application of Artificial Intelligence.
Again, this doesn’t mean that AI-enabled decisions will be bad, but that we need to be sceptical about whether they will be ‘better’ than human decisions – they may be faster, and enable greater automation, but they won’t completely solve the problems of human error.
Now that we are sufficiently primed towards scepticism, let’s look at some ways in which these technologies can be useful to HR departments.
How AI can support HR
For HR teams, there is the potential for AI to help save time and boost productivity whilst also providing an enhanced employee experience.
Artificial Intelligence can relieve HR professionals of some of the more repetitive and time-consuming tasks, allowing them to focus their time elsewhere. This could mean using chatbots to automatically respond to employee questions in real time such as ‘how many days off am I entitled to’ or ‘can I use my own device for work’ or helping to point employees to certain legal or policy documentation.
For employees, this means they get instant answers to their queries and help where they need it, removing potential bottlenecks that have traditionally stymied the flow of information and hampered employee engagement and experience.
Speeding Up Recruitment & Onboarding
Concerns around biased employee data aside, recruitment is another area that could potentially benefit from Artificial Intelligence: it can be used to simplify the search for candidates, screen applicants, and identify those that best meet the criteria for a given role.
AI could be used to generate job listings and post them to relevant jobsites and social networks.
Algorithms that semantically analyse the content of job descriptions can then target the CVs of applicants that most closely match to the expectations of hiring managers and recruiters.
Chatbots could then be used to screen candidates, using pre-recorded questions to collect information about the skills and experience of selected applicants.
Once an applicant has been offered the role, chatbots could then automate much of the communication required to successfully onboard candidates such as providing key information around what they need to bring and can expect on their first days in their new role.
AI can be used to help evolve training techniques and change the way that people learn and gain new skills. Learning analytics can provide data to track the time it takes for individuals to learn something new and provide tailored suggestions to individual employees based on what and how they have been learning, what skills they already possess, and what might be necessary knowledge for them to acquire based on their career goals.
Algorithms can match content and recommend learning materials to individuals based on their relevancy to their specific needs.
This means that AI-driven training modules could match perfectly to the skills and speed of any given individual, crafting a learning journey in real time that fits the abilities of the specific person in training.
The Role of AI in HR
All these potential uses point to the continued digital transformation of HR processes and departments, and an understanding of the vital role that HR departments must play in onboarding, developing, and retaining employees. It speaks to the very real need that HR have for tools and technology that can help improve employee experience and engagement.
But expecting AI alone to solve these problems is pure utopianism. The role of AI in HR will be to improve upon the existing technologies and HR systems already in place. HR teams will need to already have clarity over their data, and already be incorporating data-driven decision making to improve recruitment, onboarding, and employee development.
AI may be a valuable future step for many HR departments, but to make that step, they will already need HR systems in place that can improve their data and efficiency.
Without that, the radical potential of these technologies will not be realised.