Employees will book time off using Alexa-style devices

Voice recognition and artificial intelligence will take the drudgery out of HR, but CIOs need to help their HR team develop a long-term strategy

Within the next three years, workers will be using Alexa-style devices to book time off, update their addresses, and file their expenses.

Voice recognition, powered by intelligent software bots, will take off as companies look to make their IT systems easier for employees to use, according to a specialist on the future of work.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will make rapid inroads into what many regard as one of the least exciting areas of information technology – HR software.

“So much of HR work is transactional, repeatable, auditable and documentable – that is what bots are great at,” said Jason Averbook, CEO of Leapgen, and a specialist on workplace technology.

Although it is still early days, every organisation is paying close attention to AI and bots to make company HR systems more accessible and easier to use for employees.

“People are using artificial intelligence and bots all over the place today, whether it’s Google maps or Waze, to make sure they don’t run into traffic, or buying something from Amazon,” said Averbook. “Whatever it is, it’s happening on the outside, and we need to bring it into the inside [of organisations].”

Bots will save employees time by carrying out basic HR transactions for them using voice commands without having to open a complex software package, said Averbook, speaking ahead of an industry conference.

“So much of HR work is transactional, repeatable, auditable and documentable – that is what bots are great at”

Jason Averbook, Leapgen

To make the most of these upcoming technologies, HR departments will have to become more adept at working with CIOs to plan their technology strategies, he said.

According to Averbook, who will speak at HR Tech World Conference in Amsterdam, too many organisations are letting technology suppliers decide their IT strategies for them.

“I cringe to say, it but I think we have re-entered an era that I call SOS – the shiny object syndrome – where I show up to a trade show and see something that looks great, and want that. Then, all of a sudden, someone shows me a bot, and I really need that bot,” he said.

Distinctions become irrelevant

In the past, HR technology has always been designed for the HR team. That has led to companies deploying specialist software covering core HR, learning management, payroll and performance management.

Now companies are deploying HR software and processes that are designed for the workforce, and many of these distinctions are becoming irrelevant.

“You realise a lot of these things that I have been dealing with are important to HR, but they are not important when I think about employees and the managers working with us,” said Averbook.

When the word digital, or technology, comes up, most HR executives tend to bat the problem to the IT department to solve. But the role of the CIO should not be to decide the technology strategy for the HR department, but to help it prioritise what it needs, said Averbook.

“My advice to CIOs is to stop implementing stuff for HR people who don’t have a strategy, because at the end of the day, what is going to happen is that people will come back and complain that the technology doesn’t work,” he said. “It is not the technology, it is the business function that is not working.”

Chief HR officers need to decide what their business priorities are, and, with the help of IT, invest in the technology to achieve that, said Averbook.

What to be great at

And that means deciding what they want to be great at, and when it is OK to be OK, he said.

For example, a company might set a goal to become the best company in the world at recruiting, and the HR department will need to prioritise developing recruitment processes and recruitment technology that will beat the competition.

But spending time and energy on basic administrative tasks makes little strategic sense, said Averbook. “There is no company in the world that wants to be the best at processing employees’ payroll. It’s like saying they want to be the best company in the world at keeping the bathrooms clean.”

Often, HR managers assume that CIOs are being dictatorial when they specify that HR should choose, for example, technology from SAP or Oracle. But that is not the case, said Averbook.

“What the CIOs are trying to do is say: if you go with this platform, our ability to support you is going to be A; if you go to this platform, our ability to support you will be B,” he said.

Anti-fragile technology

The goal of both HR and IT should be to develop technology that can handle changes in business and technology that are increasingly hitting companies.

Organisations should not have to re-implement technology every time there is a merger, a divesture or a new acquisition or a new technology – a concept Averbook calls “anti-fragile”.

“When AI continues to boom and where natural language processing continues to boom, and I expect my mobile device to tell me how to update my address, I need to have a foundation in place to support that,” he said.

“If I have 18 systems, all with different support, all with different contracts and my data spread all over the place, that is fragile.”

Read more about HR technology

  • One of Israel’s largest manufacturing companies has invested more than $10m in cloud HR. The technology is helping Teva Pharmaceuticals turn its fortunes around.
  • Baking and flour milling group Hovis has reported an increase in the number and quality of people applying for jobs after deploying company-wide HR and recruitment software.
  • Businesses are using Fitbits, artificial intelligence and chatbots to improve working life as competition increases to recruit talented millennials.

Although HR as a cloud service is now considered the norm, many companies are still struggling with the idea of replacing their on-premise HR technology with a standardised cloud service.

Averbook reckons that 50% of organisations have done little more than “lift and shift” their existing HR systems into the cloud. They have not thought about how to redesign their HR processes to make them more effective, or how to make their technology easy for workers to use.

He believes about 20% of companies are at a stage where they can take advantage of developments in AI and bots that can make the HR department better, smarter and more efficient.

However, there are some tasks that will still need human intervention, and a sympathetic response from a real person.

If a person tells a bot that they are depressed, or feel overworked, or have been sexually harassed, the bot needs to know how to deal with that. “There are a bunch of things where ‘whoa’ alarm bells go off, and the bot needs to redirect this person to a human because this is a problem,” said Averbook.

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