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HR Robots: Transformers in Disguise ?

At HR Tech Europe last year I was fortunate to meet a very nice robot, called Oscar, who works for Oracle.

In ‘speaking’ to the Robot, I noticed it’s intelligence was limited by the human who was hiding behind the conference stand using a microphone.  It dawned on me that it passed the Turing Test, but in reverse.  As you know, the Turing Test, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human.  So, the reverse Turing Test, is a test of a human’s ability to tell if a robot is really human?

According to McKinsey, the automation of Knowledge Work will have an economic impact of between $5 to $7 trillion dollars by 2020.  (see  “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy”  which is an excellent 176 page PDF report)

In their book, ‘The Second Machine Age  – Work, Progress and Prosperity in a time of Brilliant Technologies’ McAfee & Brynjolfsson, explain that the ‘first machine age’ gave rise to the modern discipline of management; companies hired armies of managers to co-ordinate the workers who operated the machines, and to organise supply chains and distribution systems.  The ‘second machine age’ will reconfigure the discipline: much of the work of bosses, from analysing complex data to recruiting staff and setting bonuses, will be automated.  The impact on society of this and the age of “peak-jobs” is one for the economists, futurists and gulp……..politicians.  (see for example  “Intelligent” robots threaten millions of jobs warns Ed Balls )

However smart machines impact us right now.

Google’s “human-performance analytics group” uses algorithms to decide which interview techniques are best at choosing good employees, and to optimise pay.

Robots in literature and movies have been used to project our greatest fears. Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1921) – is credited with coining the term “robot”, which in its original Czech, “robota” means forced labour, and is derived from “rab”, meaning “slave.”

In the context of the automation of work, the visceral fear is not having a job or livelihood, but what we are talking about here is not so much CP30, but rather the general adoption of “smart-machines” replacing traditional white-collar work.

So what is the impact of Robots on HR ?

Firstly, the ongoing transformation of the workforce enabled by technology means our HR strategies are looking increasingly out of date.  We can guess that there may be less workers, probably different contracts of employment and definitely different skills required.  So our annual performance reviews and engagement surveys in a workforce full of freelancers, working 24 X 7 across the globe is looking very last century.

Secondly, even more HR transactional work itself has the potential to be automated.

When we talk about Robots in HR, what we really mean is Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

What is RPA ?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a “robot” to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.

What does RPA really look like?

RPA in practice covers process automation, IT support and management and automated assistants.

An ideal set of circumstances in which to apply RPA are rules-based, repeated and standardised work activities.

So in HR, RPA lends itself well to core HR data administration using a central ERP system, payroll, on-boarding and off-boarding.

I have written about the impact of cloud technology on HR and the need for HR to standardise its processes to utilise new SaaS Technology,  “Will HR in the Cloud kill HR Outsourcing?” and Phil Fersht followed up with his slam dunk article, “HR in the Cloud: It won’t kill HRO, but it may kill what’s left of dysfunctional HR”.

There is a trend of reducing HR work, particularly transactional work, and I see RPA as a continuation of this trend.

When we review a HR function, we look at all HR work activity with different lenses.  So for HR work that is not subsumed by HR in the Cloud, we now look to see whether we can eliminate, automate or outsource – and now RPA can play a key role here in automation.

What are the benefits for HR ?

Howard H Nelson, Founder and Managing Director of Honhr Ltd, writing on the Genfour Blog,  suggests the following :-

“RPA will initially make significant in-roads into the transactional HR activities and eventually become the feeder of business intelligence into the higher-end activities and will impact all processes.  Robotic costs are already massively beneficial when compared to equivalent full-time employees (£2,000-3,000 of robot power can displace £20,000-30,000 of employee costs) the maths of the new proposition have already made a paradigm shift.  “

The term ‘Robot’ is probably not helpful, and may fall by the wayside after a few years.  However RPA will fill a gap in current HR Models until we all move to the promised land of HR in the Cloud with easy to use HR Technology.

The implication for HR and future Operating Models is that we often look at areas of HR which are core and strategic; those that need to be kept in house and those areas which could be outsourced.  Now we have a new string to our bow – which activities can we give to robots?

Maybe robots will turn out to be better guides than your humble consultant, but surely that’s taking it too far !

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