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Is HR obsolete?

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It’s been more than two years since Japan’s SoftBank announced it would staff one of its mobile phone stores entirely by Pepper, a humanoid robot taking over pretty much all customer care functions. If humans are no longer needed to manage something like this, what role will human resources have in this new future and will it even be necessary?

This is just one of the deeply philosophical questions HR people every where should be figuring out as technologies such as AI, machine learning and robotics disrupt industries the world over.

And if you think it is only bank tellers and cashiers who should be worried about being replaced you’re wrong.

Take the newly launched chatbot by Spot – its function, according to its website: “Spot combines memory science and artificial intelligence to tackle harassment and discrimination at work.”

Doesn’t that sound like something in your job description as HR? And while algorithms match you with talent quicker and more accurately than ever before, how soon will it be before they are taking over almost every other function?

There are several apps which, for example, use voice and facial recognition technology to judge a user’s mood. An idea that could easily be applied to conducting interviews. Anxiety about jobs and the future of work is forcing industries worldwide to ask salient questions about their people and their preparedness for industry 4.0. We ask top HR leaders in Hong Kong if tech is a friend or foe and its realistic implications for the HR industry in the near future.

Michelle Long, head of talent acquisition and development, Richemont

“Technology can help HR replace some of the more tedious repetitive tasks so we as HR can focus on the tasks that add real value such as people and culture to drive performance and creativity,” Long says.

“As far as Hong Kong goes, technology could help people be more productive so as to eliminate long hours and create a better work-life balance. Some of the potential drawbacks of this, however, is a lack of human touch and feel. We could become too reliant on this technology and in the wrong hands it could be misused.”

Dwight Szeto, director of digital learning, Li & Fung

“Artificial intelligence has already impacted our lives for decades, but today its presence is bigger than ever before. Of course, most daily jobs that are associated with repetitive tasks will be useful to outsource to digital assistants or automated software, freeing up more time for deep thinking and creativity,” Szeto says. “However, when it comes to the cognitive technologies that leverage AI currently available in the market, their main impact so far has been to augment existing job functions, not to eliminate workers. I think there are several ways AI could enhance HR in the future.”

  • Personalisation of learning

“Every employee learns differently. The use of AI could allow the customisation of an employee’s learning experience so as to be more efficient. You can imagine machine-learning algorithms for resources recommendations, while the ability to gauge progress will soon be available for employee development.”

  • Talent engagement

“Not all teams are set up with enough recruiters or the right tools to engage with their talent as often as they would like. AI could be used to automate communications and track a candidate’s response status throughout the entire process. If done right, it could be an improvement in the candidate experience.”

  • Human capital prediction

“The ability to assess and predict future turnover, employee engagement, training needs and other workforce trends is a time-consuming, but critical component of HR. AI and deep learning can use data to predict these more accurately and quicker than ever before. The information provided could be invaluable to HR professionals to help advise the organisation on change.”

  • Operation efficiency

“The HR operation involves a lot of paperwork, scheduling, time sheets, accounting and expense calculations. Simple scheduling wastes everyone’s time and it’s not a task that anyone enjoys. With the help of an AI personal assistant that aims to take away tedious administration work, HR professionals can then focus on more human touches such as relationship-building, business strategy alignment and building a culture of innovation.”

Yeonjoo Lee, director for employer branding, Schneider Electric

“I am confident new technologies such as AI and machine learning will complement human capabilities, rather than replace them. Our employees, business partners and candidates have already been enjoying the benefits in their personal lives as travellers, consumers, patients, personal investors, etc,” she says.

“They expect similar automated digital experiences in the context of business and HR services as well. The right question is not, ‘how threatening it will be to HR professionals’, but ‘how effectively will we create collaborative intelligence with AI’?

“I think there are three important elements to remember. Prior to adopting new technology, HR professionals will need to pre-screen and apply a filter to see if it will enhance employees’ experiences or over-complicate them. AI should be trained by HR professionals so they understand the context and continuously learn about subtle and complex human behaviours. In certain areas, human interactions will be much more valued because emotional connection and empathy cannot be replicated by AI.

“Ultimately, this new technology evolution will be beneficial to Hong Kong workplaces as long as we effectively leverage the human-AI collaboration. We have great infrastructure in Hong Kong such as the dominance of AI-relevant industries (banking, finance, retail), abundant data, a sophisticated corporate culture, leading academia and STEM talents. When we connect the dots, educate current and future HR professionals and accelerate regulatory support, I think we have great opportunities.”

Aadesh Goyal, chief human resources officer, Tata Communications

“Humans are endowed with advanced cognitive thinking and judgment capabilities. While these capabilities make humans more advanced than other living beings, these can also bring biases into play. Most of the time, the biases are unconscious, which could potentially lead to some type of prejudice or discrimination even though it is not intended that way,” he says.

“A smartly designed exercise or a simple experiment can help people to see their unconscious biases and be generally surprised with the findings. Once you become aware of these biases, with some effort and support, it is possible to overcome these, especially when people work together.

“Recently, we’ve seen technology help organisations to deal with this situation more effectively, and with relative ease. For example, organisations globally have been striving towards maintaining a healthy diversity ratio in their companies. However, hiring managers could have their own biases that they bring to the process.

“In order to reduce the impact of biases such as these, technology today makes it possible to mask all gender or other personal details from CVs and just show the details that matter. So, when a hiring manager is shortlisting candidates for interviews, the bias against, for example, gender, gets nullified.

“At Tata Communications, we have been using AI and machine learning for about a year for hiring. For certain roles that require a systematic search or the right skill match, we use a technology which understands the skill like a human, it understands the CV like a human does and it crawls the internet. So we are able to go where the recruiter is not able to reach and get the most qualified and appropriate person for the recruitment manager.

“This technology looks for a match and skill which is required so we’re not using it for selection and decision making, we are using it as a search engine to get quality talent in an efficient manner.”

Whether it’s job-matching algorithms, chatbots to deal with candidate queries or automated administrative tasks, it’s clear the coming fourth industrial revolution will have far-reaching consequences for jobs, employees, workspaces and HR.

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before,” writes Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman, of the World Economic Forum.

“We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.”

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