AI is changing the HR profession. But it’s not replacing HR professionals

No one questions whether or not artificial intelligence will have a significant impact on the total rewards profession. But rather than fearing the changes, figuring out how to take advantage of them should be the mantra in the human resources industry.

Sure, we will see a big impact on roles within compensation and benefits as much of the processing of data, entry-level compensation analyst work, updating benefit forms, enrollments, onboarding and 401(k) systems can all be automated or done by the providers.

But this doesn’t mean, though, that we should expect to see HR positions vanish. Instead, AI will give way to higher impact roles that provide more value such as data analytics and, yes, real-life conversations where we help employees make better life decisions. That’s one of the things that AI can’t duplicate: being human.

Compensation and benefits, in particular, are highly personalized and important to every worker regardless of their role, tenure or situation. Therefore, too much automation adopted too quickly will feel very impersonal.

For example, life change situations such as a new baby or marriage require an update of benefits, which is still a highly manual process. In the not too distant future, however, that update of information will be online or via a video call with an anonymous provider. Sure, it’s not the same as stopping by your friendly benefit manager’s office and sharing the great news, but the reality is that for a total rewards person to update forms for all their employees’ life changes simply does not add not adding enough value.

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An attendee photographs an autonomous parcel delivery robot, developed by Starship Technologies Ltd. at the AI Congress in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. After decades of premature promises, artificial intelligence (AI) is finding its way into businesses from hedge funds to law firms tobeer makers, as the line between ordinary software and AI software has blurred and cloud computingmakes AI available to small companies as well as large. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Total rewards and human resources will see routine functions and parts of their roles automated, including applications and hiring (think about all the paper that goes along with recruiting and hiring it takes to get hired!). Resumes, job descriptions, benefit forms, tax forms, employment verification, drug testing — all of this will eventually be 100% automated. HR chatbots are coming, and every single organization today would be wise to begin thinking and acting on the 4th industrial revolution.

The big question: How do you stay relevant? You do it by thinking about skills AI can’t replicate but are vital to a business’ success. These are identified as interpersonal skills, digital know-how, creativity, management/leadership, entrepreneurship and complex problem solving.

AI is a wonderful addition, but at the same time, it doesn’t have the same reasoning ability of humans. Case in point: an online t-shirt company decided to use algorithms to produce thousands of unique T-shirts. You could get a T-shirt that said: “Keep calm and beat the Denver Broncos in the color of an opposing team.” Algorithms enabled bots to search the news for what was happening in all geographical areas and then publish shirts with very specific audiences in mind.

However, these bots can’t discern good news from bad news. So when shirts started appearing with the following: “Keep calm and sexually harass someone,” because it was the main story populating the news, humans had to step in before the company would suffer irreparable damage.

In the coming year, data analytics — specifically people analytics — will be applied with a direct focus on the individual, rather than through HR or leaders, in a more bottom up approach versus top down. People analytics will free up leaders to enable a more productive workplace, encouraging people to increase their productivity and improve their performance on their own.

People analytics systems will provide leaders with early warnings regarding workforce engagement issues, roadblocks to productivity, retention issues, and even burnout or safety signals. Leaders will get insights and suggested actions proactively rather than needing to dig for them, and in the coming year, prescriptive insights will become an expectation — real time, work-embedded insights accompanied by suggested actions to nudge the expected behavior shift. Data analytics will help us be more effective human beings.

Willis Towers Watson research finds that for each job that is eliminated due to technology, it expands downstream somewhere else. For example, a retail clerk could move into security or become a buyer. Truck drivers displaced by driver-less trucks can morph into sales teams. While no one knows how many jobs will be lost due to automation, we know it will impact every industry in one way or another.

Keep in mind that when fewer workers were needed to perform the same amount of work, unskilled entry-level positions began to decrease. On the positive side, rapidly changing technology always creates a demand for knowledgeable operators and technicians, so increased office automation tends to lead to a need for skilled workers being deployed in other ways.

Soft skills, interpersonal skills, complex problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, people management, coordinating and collaborating with others and emotional intelligence will be a huge part of reskilling. Judgment and decision-making, service orientation, negotiating and cognitive flexibility will all be essential skills needed to thrive in 2020 and beyond.

In the end, all total rewards processes are human change processes. Our profession is well equipped to help manage all this change while also still building and delivering awesome reward programs that align employee behaviors with that of their organizations. These changes will help total rewards leaders stay ahead of competitors with breakthrough approaches to total rewards design and delivery by allowing them to think strategically and incorporate all total rewards components into their offerings. Using data and people analytics will help them better understand the expectations of their diverse and multigenerational workforce and by making savvy use of the latest technology, to engage their employees wherever they are, globally.

Speed will continue to tick up and skills will be obsolete much faster than at any time in history. Passion will become more critical in workplaces as skills like innovation and ideas become harder to find. The most remarkable part is that what took some generations months to do will now only take seconds — which leaves time for a whole host of new ways to think, act and work.

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