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David D'Souza


Head of London

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Is HR really ready for automation?


The HR tech marketing is increasingly shifting its focus from talk of big data and cloud-based solutions to bolder claims of automation of tasks and roles, primarily through the use of machine learning/AI. HR has a responsibility to understand the changing landscape of work and how it will impact organisations, but it also needs to turn its gaze inward.

Historically one of HR’s challenges has been playing the role of cobbler’s children, thinking about its own development only after supporting other areas of the organisation to reflect on theirs.

There is significant risk to the HR profession of being behind the curve in technology adoption – and specifically automation – because it may be the case over the coming years that core elements of the traditional HR role can be done more cost effectively by code.

HR has a poor track record when it comes to adopting technology – partly through organisations not being willing to invest, partly through the significant investment associate with the HR technology market over the years and partly through HR simply not being focused enough on this area of opportunity.

We deal with people – but people increasingly operate, deliver, communicate and collaborate through technology. If we want to support and enable people effectively we have to understand and harness technology. 

The challenge for HR is to be proactive in its efforts to understand the emerging opportunities of automation to provide an improved, responsive, cost effective and more strategic service to the organisation.

For years HR professionals have been vocally demanding an opportunity to be more strategic – if we can automate volume operational tasks then there is a clear benefit to redirecting time and effort into that space.

HR need to be making a case for technology investment and for more flexible thinking from IT about what that technology may look like.

We need to partner effectively with IT to identify opportunities to improve efficiency and insight to enable the rest of our work to be done more effectively.

Where are the opportunities?

I’ve taken the opportunity of combining existent and emergent technology to describe a workplace less dependent on HR people resource.

  • Payroll/Compensation and Benefits – Improving the employee self-service proposition exponentially through use of chatbots to improve the user experience and reduce the amount of keying (and associated errors). Regular interrogations of pay data to pick up trends, improve fairness of pay and monitor changes more effectively.
  • Recruitment – More effective proactive search capability combined with a reduction in bias in the recruitment process through improved gender neutral advertising. Automated sifting and more detailed automated candidate feedback based on interview/selection information. More effective team analysis leading to improved fit of candidates and a reduced time to effectiveness in role.
  • Induction – Improving the ‘onboarding process’ through the use of chatbots. Providing a more bespoke induction process that combines what the organisation wants the individual to know with what the individual actually wants/needs to know. Enabling key information that individuals need to orientate themselves to be available 24/7 without human intervention.
  • Analysis and insight – Automatically combining data sets from across the organisation, both ‘business’ data and people data and flagging up key areas for attention or of interest for investigation. Correlation may not be causation – but spotting patterns in data for investigation is far easier to automate than to do manually. Automated Board, Regulatory and Compliance reporting.
  • L&D – Automatically curating learning resources for individuals and monitoring their effectiveness for the individual and across the organisation. Enabling simple editing and production of in house media content showcasing learning and skills for colleagues. Automatically matching and introducing colleagues who would benefit from skill or perspective sharing.
  • Employment law – Automatically producing accurate notes of conversations/investigations and potentially comparing them for points of variance and suggesting areas of enquiry. Automatically updating policy documents with legal changes.

If you have read the list above and feels like there is nothing left, then it is worth reflecting on where HR can really add value now and in the future.

The above changes would not only allow HR to free up time but also solidify its role in ensuring a positive environment that supports performance and wellbeing, giving the people who benefit from that support better working lives.

So what next?

HR faces the same challenges as other business areas and this is where thinking and action can combine.

There are key choices to be made that will impact people in HR and the broader organisation.

Every organisation needs to think about how they will approach this opportunity and HR can take the opportunity to reflect on its own dilemmas and opportunities

  • There is a choice to be made as to whether the organisation takes the often appealing route of reducing costs or using funds freed up to invest in other opportunities. If HR is able to get slightly ahead of the curve by creating returns on investment to free up people to spend more time supporting and creating value for the organisation it is more likely to not be pushed as hard for costs. People tend to not like to lose services they are already benefitting from.
  • Being really open with your HR team and planning phased changes of work or technology pilots. Rather than planning centrally think how you can involve all of your stakeholders in looking at opportunities for using technology to allow better use of people’s skills.  As with most change in the workplace there is an opportunity to work with and through people rather than imposing change.
  • Thinking long and hard over the potential loss of humanity in interaction and the impact that might have on people’s relationship with the organisation. There is something uniquely human about the way we interact and trust that could easily be lost through automation – including the sense of care and trust that HR can often represent to people within an organisation.

Finally HR has the same ethical decision to make about its own resource as it will have make about other areas.

  • What is the true value of a human being and where do they fit in future of work?
  • Are we using technology in our area as a springboard to release potential or will it simply displace and replace?
  • Are we running organisations just for the sake of them or does a broader duty of care extend beyond our legal obligations?
  • If people are being removed from work how can they be accommodated or retrained to enable them to continue making a contribution through being retrained or alternative roles found?

It is likely that HR isn’t yet ready for automation.

It isn’t likely that widespread automation will sweep into HR within the year. Over time there will be a move in that direction and now is the time to examine the opportunity, risk and obligation that comes with any decision around people.

Now is the time to think – before we are required to act.

2 Responses

  1. To modify a quote by Ian
    To modify a quote by Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in the Jurassic Park film, “Your leaders are so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

    Obviously, there are several factors involved with what is coming at us and will be coming at us very rapidly. Changes used to take decades then around the 1980’s, with the advent of the desktop computer, changes occurred within years and we are now looking at changes occurring within months before 2020 with our next workforce (Generation Z) seeing changes coming at them weekly.

    What those factors are in those changes will vary by everyone’s experience — with some being common or popular across the overall industry.

    My own experience with 20+ years of HRIS implementations as a client executive sponsor (as an IC) tells me this…
    > business processes are the last thing considered with new technology but the first thing to gum it up, nothing has changed with this yet…
    > education is usually lacking on how to use new technology, especially in correcting errors as well as verifying work performed
    > C-Levels are more interested in numbers than reality, more interested in planting seeds anywhere than where they would do better — though there seems to be an awareness lately that this needs to change…
    > There is very little done to be sure the new technology is a good fit – the selection and implementation processes are more like trying to stuff an oversized dog through a small hole and everyone has to make it work, even if they have to reconfigure the dog into positions totally unnatural (do know, no dogs were harmed during my projects!) – and then everyone wonders why the technology tail keeps wagging the HR dog?
    > And lately, there is a warped and quite inverted sense of ways and means – not in the political sense, in the Aldous Huxley sense.

    Early in my career, I learned that when I ignored certain principles then I have set the entire project of for pain – a LOT of pain. And this would last way into the production phase. It would also affect relationships within the team, the vendor, the client, as well as any relationships I had with both the vendor and client.

    I’ll get to those principles in a moment.

    When these principles were accepted and applied, the implementation was a lot less painful (still some pain nevertheless) as well as the production phase — and the relationships with the vendor were a heck of a lot better. Don’t know about you but I like happy people, don’t you?

    This could take up a book but here is most of everything in points, the principles in condensed form…

    > Where you focus is where you end up — keep focusing on what you want without focusing on what you have and you will find what you have is not what you want (you may want to read that again). LinkedIn and Quora are FULL of people asking of the experiences others have had with specific HR / HRIS systems as well as what others recommend for a new HR / HRIS system. On the surface, it is an innocent question — in reality and down the road, it is where, metaphorically speaking, the ax comes off the handle. Everyone’s needs are different — and every company has different needs. No two companies, even within the same industry and selling the same products, are going to have the same needs as everyone has different business processes, policies, and mindsets on how things should get down. For that matter, the C-suite will have a different vision that will eventually affect the business processes. I have yet to come across anyone on the 3 continents I worked on that found the same system with the same processes in 2 different companies. Yet, many will a focus on what they want (a new system that feels like it will fit) instead of focusing on what they have (business processes that will need to be reviewed, changed, and modified before looking at a new system). Without looking at what they have FIRST then looked at what will fit best afterward, there is a guarantee for sliding timelines, cost overruns, tested (and testy) relationships that could have been easily avoided by the right mindset.

    > People have a personality type that just won’t change just because new technology has arrived – never ty to jam the personality type into the technology. That is the surest plan for failure. People are the ends of everything in a business and for more than a decade people have been and are still being treated as the means. Which also means technology is being viewed as the ends to everything when it is really the means. Technology is a tool to be used which says it is a means. Treating technology as the ends only places more importance, efforts, and time on something that changes value every 18 months or less. Which means the vision and focus on technology has to be reassessed so the people will fit into the new technology — you don’t fit people INTO technology, you fit people WITH the technology. When leadership gets it that technology is not something that happens TO you, and start understanding that technology is something that happens FOR you, then all the problems being faced will disappear, or at the very least become minimized.

    There’s something else as well with this – if we would not hire an artist to setup and manage our technology, then why are we looking at professionals who are focused on people to enforce policy to setup and manage our technology? The BIGGEST problem all companies face right now is they do not know if they can truly trust their data — and the same is wanting to move professions who are focused on people to enforce policy to oversee what is the most sophisticated system in any company? Seriously? Just because it is a computer doesn’t mean it knows what you intended. And this includes AI! Example: a data scientist at M.I.T was able to have an IBM Watson carry out instructions setup in in AI. He then changed ONE character in that instruction and the computer shut itself down, didn’t know what to do. If that character was not known to be in the instructions, finding that error would take more than someone who works with people enforcing company policies now, wouldn’t it?

    What I am getting at is this: We seriously and urgently need to step back and reassess first what we have then look at what we want before dumping a sophisticated system into the laps of people who, through their own DNA if anything, are not techies, geeks, whatever… they are people-people. Let the people the geeky DNA do their thing as they do it best — put your people where their strengths lay, not their weaknesses.

    > We cannot solve the problems we have created for ourselves using the same thinking we used to create them (Albert Einstein). And this goes way beyond simple adjustments in thinking and approach. We have to literally ditch everything we have learned about problem-solving and learn where we should be focused, learn how to ask the right questions, learn how to collaborate in an effective manner, learn how to truly innovate (which means not reinventing), and learn HOW to think instead of searching and/or being told WHAT to think.

    David is right — now it the time to think, before we are required to act. Otherwise, Aldous Huxley will be right about something else besides ways and means: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backward.”

    1. Hi Garrett – many thanks for
      Hi Garrett – many thanks for your comment. Some excellent points in there and your experience comes through. RE: your point on business process coming last, I totally agree – we’ve got a webinar coming up on consumerisation of the employee experience and one point we’re tackling is an organisational tendency to focus on the front end to achieve a consumerised experience without focusing on whether the process is fit-for-purpose or needs re-engineering. Link here:

      RE: your point on asking on LinkedIn and Quora, agreed too – in fact, here’s a quote from a recent article we posted: “Yes, you’ll receive a random collection of genuine experiences, but also a good deal of unwanted sales contact and, more dangerously, non-contextual views that are ill-explained to you. Your own system selection is contextual to your organisation. That is why I’m loathe to make suggestions that refer to specific product choices. Your yellow brick road is someone else’s garden path.” Link here:

      Also, I wonder if you’d be interested in writing a piece on HRZone based on your experience? I could pick out a few threads from your comment that would make a really good article. My email is editor at hrzone dot com if you’re interested, and thanks again for commenting. Jamie

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David D'Souza

Head of London

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