Author Profile Picture

Andrew Spence

Glass Bead Consulting

HR Transformation Director

Read more about Andrew Spence

What are the opportunities for automation in HR?


Anyone remember printing CVs and putting them into a dusty manila file for interview? Nowadays people apply for jobs on their smartphones whilst getting the bus to work.

This automation journey in HR has varied between organisations as we moved to the cloud and adopted mobile services. Key HR activities, such as hiring, on-boarding and employee changes can now be done much faster and accurately.

With new technology we have crystallised our existing HR processes, some of which were built for an earlier industrial era.

Are we automating the right things?

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”  Peter Drucker

One question we need to ask when re-thinking organisations and building new business models, is are we automating the right things?

Organisations are evolving to new models of people management focussed on employee empowerment, better decision-making using broader sources of evidence, use of behavioural science and the adoption of workplace technology.

My humble view is that HR is at a turning point, we are on the brink of a new paradigm in people management.

This presents a great opportunity to think differently about the way we work, embrace new technology and also think about our future careers.

Where are the opportunities for automation in HR?

The move to the Cloud, or Software as a Service (SaaS), has been a step-change for HR, not because the functionality is much better, but because it has forced the standardisation of HR processes.

You can’t mould a cloud-based system around the nuances of your company when there is only one version of the software.

Organisations who have moved to the cloud have seen around a 20% reduction in HR transactional work, according to analysts Bersin.

This is of course after the dust has settled, the implementation is complete, the new ways of working are bedded-in with managers, and the HR team has been re-organised.

Another positive from a HR transformation perspective, is that HR has had to go to the Board with a new business case for technology investment and answered questions like how will HR support the business in the future.

Automation: being smart in different ways?

“There are many ways of being smart that aren’t smart like us.”

In HR, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology is used to automate activities that are rule-based, repetitive and standardised. 

It lends itself to where there is core data administration using an HR system, for example in payroll, on-boarding and exits.

I see RPA as part of the ongoing automation of HR transactional activities, and the current usage will change or reduce with the adoption of better cloud based systems, simply because there will be less transactional work to do.

So I am not sure those cute robots will be doing all our work yet!

In general, Artificial Intelligence, (AI) includes natural language processing, pattern recognition and machine learning.

Some of the media coverage on AI is subjected to hyperbole and scare-mongering for example about jobs. The biggest issue is of course with the name and a bad case of anthropomorphism, applying human qualities, aka Intelligence, to mere machines.

Chatty HR bots

You have probably used chat bots on shopping or holiday web-sites. In HR, chat bots are being used to point candidates and employees in the right direction for simple information requests such as applying for leave.

Chat bots give us another tool for resolving queries alongside help-desks and HR intranets.

Sky Betting & Gaming recently introduced a virtual recruitment chatbot, with the face of presenter Jeff Stelling. ‘Ask Jeff’, available via Facebook, can pose and respond to questions on subjects such as company culture, or an applicant’s status and benefits.

Machine learning in HR is basically running advanced statistics over different data sets to identify patterns, some with predictive ability. This technique is being used to understand what really causes productivity, or employee well-being or sickness absence. To solve these problems often requires looking at a broader data set then we currently record on our HRIS systems.

Alexa, which of my sales teams has the lowest engagement this week?

The development of natural language processing, and in particular speech recognition, means the application of Siri/Alexa/Cortana from the home into workplace technology will be a big trend.

“Alexa, which of my sales teams has the lowest engagement this week?”  Here Alexa is asked a HR question by interfacing with a HR System (SAP’s SuccessFactor) at SuccessConnect17

The biggest impact of technology in people management could be the adoption of networked talent platforms, possibly using blockchain technology. The attributes of blockchain including executing smart contracts and exchanging digital assets without friction could enable individuals to choose work and projects, and employers to recruit more efficiently. For more on this see my article “How Will Blockchain Impact HR?”.

A new paradigm for people management

Looking into my crystal ball, in 10 years’ time, I expect most people management activities to be carried out by employees, enabled by workplace technology. Employees will use tools that combine data and robust predictive models to make better decisions.

We will use distributed talent platforms, and AI coaching tools based on actual behaviour patterns.  ‘Work’ itself will be redefined and carried out by a broader set of people, contractors, augmented humans, robots and automated systems.

Traditional hiring activities will be massively reduced. Workplace matching tools will make employee supply and demand more seamless. In this context of technological and organisational change, people management and HR functions will be radically different.

What will be the impact on HR and careers in HR?

When I work with leaders to design better HR operating models, the design questions are around what will the business need in the future and what is the best way for them to be delivered? The focus is then on role of the HR team and the skills and capabilities needed.

The role of a central HR team to enable this new paradigm will require a different emphasis. We will need some of the specialists we have currently, and also people strategists, workforce technology experts, organisational experts, behavioural scientists, performance coaches and perhaps procurement expertise. There will be a need for more evidence-based decision making, hypotheses testing, some statistical knowledge and critical thinking.

What can HR professionals do now?

Thankfully it doesn’t look like the HR robots are chomping at the bit to take your job, but it is a good time to reflect on your career.

Here are some tips for HR professionals:

  1. Embrace the new technology. Try it out and experiment in the workplace.
  2. Keep up to date with the latest trends.
  3. Work out what really drives you at work and do something you really love.
  4. Ask, what skills will be useful in the future, and what is your appetite to develop these skills?

In conclusion, the biggest impact of automation on HR, will not be the technology we use to ‘do HR’, but the way technology is transforming our organisations and people management.

HR should seize the opportunity to learn new skills, rethink people management, lead the changes, and design the future.

Author Profile Picture
Andrew Spence

HR Transformation Director

Read more from Andrew Spence

Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.