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Chatbots, Fitbits and AI: IT suppliers identify the top trends in HR technology

Businesses are using Fitbits, artificial intelligence and chatbots to improve working life as competition increases to recruit talented ‘millennials’

Employers are turning to chatbots, Fitbits and artificial intelligence (AI) to create a better working environment as they grapple with the trend for young people to change jobs more frequently than in the past.

People born between the 1980s and the early 2000s – known as “millennials” – can go through tens of jobs in just a few years, said Gretchen Alarcon, group vice-president of product strategy at Oracle.

An employee or a freelancer who has had a good experience working for a company is more likely to come back to work for the company again at a later date, said Alarcon in an interview with Computer Weekly.

Companies are introducing software applications that help employees to promote their personal brand, including wellness, volunteering, work-life balance and health.

“We are hearing a lot of discussion in different parts of the organisation about how to help employees be more productive,” says Alarcon. “Does that mean taking breaks more regularly, working remotely or flexibly?”

Some employers are giving employees Fitbits and other exercise tracking devices. Others are looking at how they can use technology to encourage employees to quit smoking.

In the future, companies will be able to use HR technology to help employees hook up with other workers who share their fitness goals, be it training for a 5km run or going for a walk at lunchtime.

“The system will be able to say ‘you have a goal of 10,000 metres this week, this is what your calendar looks like, this is your schedule, this would be a good time to fit in some exercise’,” she says.

Chatbots are coming

Chatbots will enable employees to make simple HR interactions from their mobile phones. The technology promises to make working life easier, while reducing the workload on HR service centres.

“As an employee, I want to get a simple answer just by texting,” says Alarcon. “I want to be able to send a text and see how much vacation I have.”

The first chatbot applications could appear in HR systems within 21 months, says Thomas Otter, group vice-president for product management at SAP SuccessFactors.

“Chatbots are coming. The pieces are there and some of it is there this year,” said Otter, whose company is working with Slack, an online collaboration service, and Microsoft on the technology.

“As an employee, I want to get a simple answer just by texting”

Gretchen Alarcon, Oracle

Although many companies are still struggling to implement bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, in future an increasing number will use mobile phones to manage HR processes and to interact with employees.

“I have not opened my laptop in three days and I manage a big department,” says Otter. “I have approved leave requests and did it all on the phone. We are in the next wave of mobile and we are seeing mobile become more friendly.”

And in the future, HR systems will give employees the option of receiving notifications and alerts to remind them of important tasks.

“If you fill in a time-sheet every week, wouldn’t it be nice for the system to send you an alert at 4.30pm to remind you to fill in your time-sheet before you leave?” he says.

Alarcon says employers will also use mobile technology to give employees instant feedback on their performance, rather than relying on the now-discredited annual performance review.

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Coaches and mentors will be able to choose whether to make the feedback public or private, or to copy in a manager.

“As I walk out of a meeting, I can send a text to my report, saying good meeting, and can also choose to have that logged in the HR system,” she says.

Where companies continue to have annual performance reviews, there has been a trend to move from individual to team reviews.

Team reviews allow managers to level their assessments, so that employees are not disadvantaged by managers who habitually give low or high grades.

“They can see if a person fits into the organisation or check their progress,” says Alarcon. “In the last review, we said this person is high potential, they should have a mentor. What did we do? That is important for retention.”

People analytics

Some companies have been using predictive analytics technology – known as people analytics – to predict which employees might be in danger of leaving, but work is under way to use external data to make the forecasts more accurate.

Richard Doherty, senior director of product marketing at HR cloud supplier Workday, says merging HR data with data from other sources will produce more accurate results.

“Some funny things came out of our analysis,” he says. “For example, if someone was booking a holiday at the last minute on a Wednesday, that was a high predictor of them leaving.”

In the future, if a company’s competitor opens an office nearby, it will be possible to predict which valued employees might be tempted by head-hunters, and take steps to encourage them to stay, says Doherty.

HR technology will also be able to predict with great accuracy how long it will take to fill vacancies, and to recommend alternative hiring strategies.

“If I am an HR person and planning my headcount, where do I need to recruit?” says Alarcon. “If I am willing to hire in Edinburgh, could I hire faster, could I hire at a cheaper cost?”

Adam Hale, former chief executive of mid-sized HR technology supplier Fairsail, is now executive vice-president of Sage People following Sage’s acquisition of Fairsail in March 2017.

He says high-value, high-growth “gazelle companies” are making the best use of data and analytics to manage their employees, while slow-growth companies are further behind.

“Integrating people and business data is still a challenge and HR still needs to attract the analytic skills to properly harness the potential”

David Wilson, Fosway Group

Most companies claim in their annual reports that people are their most valuable asset, says Hale, but when you look beneath the surface, their actions don’t always match their words.

Companies talk about their need to use data to understand their customers, but many are doing very little to understand their workforce, he points out.

One challenge, says David Wilson, CEO of European HR analyst Fosway Group, is that people analytics technology is developing more quickly than HR departments are able to adapt.

“Integrating people and business data is still a challenge and HR still needs to attract the analytic skills to properly harness the potential,” he says. “But it is coming, as is the embedded AI or machine learning to really drive insights that will lead to faster decisions and better outcomes.”

Artificial intelligence

AI systems will increasingly feature in HR technology. They will help managers prepare for meetings with their employees in less time, says Alarcon.

Managers will be presented with summaries of their employees’ employment history, details of their work over the past two weeks, and a summary of what people in similar roles are thinking about and doing in their careers.

The HR system will be able to provide managers with a list of the top five things they should ask employees, says Alarcon. “Is their child going to high school yet? Are they travelling too much because their expenses have gone up a lot? What is their next move because they have just finished a project?”

The technology will also help employers identify the best people to work together in teams, to make the team stronger. Or they might recommend putting someone on a particular low-risk project because they need a development opportunity.

Other systems will be able to identify skills that people have that might not show up on their CV.

By analysing blogs and social media, for example, HR systems will be able to identify subject experts in the organisation, or people who excel at building contacts and networking.

They will be able to see what skills employees are looking to develop – whether, for example, someone is looking to manage a team, and then recommend a mentor in the company that can help them achieve that.

Fosway Group’s Wilson says AI and machine learning technology could bring an end to many traditional HR processes.

“Why map out what you think the logical options are for job roles in the abstract when you can analyse what all the people who have done that job before go on to to do in the future?” he says.

“This could be truly transformative, but as well as being liberating for HR, it also threatens some of the sacred cows, such as competencies, career paths and succession plans.”

From HR to people science

AI will inevitably lead to job losses across all sectors, and much of the work of middle managers will be automated. Technology will create new jobs, but it is a matter for debate whether these will be enough to fill the vacuum.

In the short term, this will create opportunities for HR specialists, who can start planning strategies for the impact of AI on their hiring and training strategies, says Andy Campbell, HCM strategy director at Oracle.

The potential downside of AI, is that many existing jobs in HR will be automated, says Hale. The HR specialists who survive will be those that understand data analytics – or people science, as Hale prefers to call it.

“We think this is part of a broader shift in the nature of HR. Just as personnel shifted to HR in the 1990s, we see HR changing to people science,” he says. “HR operations will be automated away.”

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