3 key learnings from Microsoft’s journey to adopt AI in HR

As artificial intelligence permeates HR functions across industries and organizations, many HR leaders today are racing to create guideposts and goals around AI use. It’s an effort complicated by the quickly changing nature of the emerging tech and still-unforeseen business impacts and ethical questions about AI in HR.

- Advertisement -

That uncertainty is best managed by a measured, strategic approach to adopting AI in HR processes, one that is rooted in the function’s innate people-centric focus, says Chris Fernandez, corporate vice president of HR at Microsoft. Fernandez has spearheaded the tech giant’s AI in HR strategy for the last year and a half, a journey that he says has highlighted the critical role HR can play in crafting, iterating and executing AI strategies.

“The future of AI will wholly be hinged upon how human beings see and interact with the technology,” Fernandez says. “That’s true for how companies will be able to sell this to market, how organizations realize benefits from the technology, what they want in terms of usage and uptake—it all involves people. I can think of no other professional more central to the future of AI than HR.”

A collaborative approach to integrating AI in HR

Chris Fernandez, Microsoft, AI in HR
Chris Fernandez, Microsoft

Acknowledging the power of people in the success of AI in HR at Microsoft, Fernandez visited company sites around the world at the start of the organization’s AI adoption journey about 18 months ago, meeting with HR Service Center Teams. He worked with them to evaluate their day-to-day work and consider how AI could drive a more positive, productive experience.

“[AI adoption] can’t be done in a vacuum—like how you push out a classic HCM tool,” Fernandez says. “I wanted people to have a sensibility about their expertise in their domain, in the discipline of HR, and see how that’s material to how we would utilize AI-based tech and intelligent automation.”

Collaboration and empowerment, he says, can be important drivers of AI strategy. At Microsoft, Fernandez and his team recruited “citizen developers” across HR—allowing them to experiment with low-code application development through Microsoft’s Power Apps.

- Advertisement -

Power Apps sits under Microsoft’s Power Platform and enables HR to create customized apps that connect employee data across the HR suite, from SharePoint to Dynamics 365. The effort allowed HR professionals to see for themselves how AI can improve their work—and also to acknowledge that AI utilization isn’t just for technologists or those with extensive software development backgrounds but can be accessible by anyone, says Fernandez, whose own decades-long career in HR—not as a technologist—drove this point home.

HR professionals were also key to the creation of AI-powered bots to interact with employees on both routine and more complex topics, deployed through channels including Microsoft Teams.

Empowering HR professionals to drive AI strategy “creates the capacity for creativity to be born,” Fernandez says, allowing HR employees to envision AI’s potential impact in an “experiential way” rather than through a top-down narrative.

Because of their involvement in the company’s AI journey, HR team members became more comfortable with the technology, enabling broad deployment of tools like its Copilot across HR, Fernandez says. Microsoft rolled out the gen AI-powered tool in Dynamics 365 Customer Service and Microsoft 365 for its HR Service Centers and in Microsoft 365 for the entire HR organization, driving both productivity improvements and increases in job satisfaction, Fernandez says.

Rooting AI work in responsibility

Apart from the value of hands-on employee involvement in AI strategy and deployment, Fernandez also points to the necessity of a framework for ethical AI use.

Microsoft’s HR team has leaned into the company’s Responsible AI Standard—encompassing the principles of accountability, inclusiveness, reliability and safety, fairness, transparency, and privacy and security. A strategy for responsible AI use must underpin the entire AI journey, he says; at Microsoft, the practical plan of application of AI for HR is pinned onto the functional business architecture, which is pinned onto the Responsible AI Standard.

“It’s all rooted back to that,” he says.

Having the Standard to look to—especially in the early days of AI development at Microsoft—provided “clarity” about the company’s vision of AI in HR, particularly around the level of human agency and input that should be involved. That ultimately drove receptivity among employees, Fernandez says.

Without such a foundation, employees may question how decisions are being made, what’s driving investment strategies or AI’s impact on fairness and equity.

“Those considerations can be articulated up front—and not with platitudes but with a written framework people can reference,” Fernandez says.

It’s important that such a framework is designed with cross-functional collaboration, he adds, to be “truly holistic and complete.”

“You want a symphonic experience when understanding what ‘responsible’ means by functional area,” Fernandez says. “You need to have complete thoughts when it comes to most things in life so you can understand all of the implications—and responsible AI needs that complete thought, which you can’t have unless you have the totality of functions in the company having input.”

Strategic, human-centered design

Along with a plan for responsible use, it’s just as key to have a vision for the practical application of AI in HR and throughout the enterprise, Fernandez says.

That must involve defining specific, measurable outcomes—both qualitative and quantitative. For instance, strategize for intended impacts on cycle times or desired upticks in employee wellbeing.

Such outcomes must be planned for, with humans at the center, a reality that makes HR’s role in guiding AI strategy critical.

HR professionals’ capacity for human-centered thinking was highlighted during the pandemic, Fernandez notes, as employers increasingly looked to HR to manage the integration of employees’ home and work lives. Elevating the “human experience” will similarly be key to successfully integrating AI into organizations. From how work gets done to workflow design to new leadership capabilities needed—these are all components of the human experience that will be impacted by AI and that HR should be attuned to.

“HR has expertise in the human experience, so we need to take the lead,” he says. “If not us, then who will?”

Microsoft’s perception of HR’s role in tech-driven organizational transformations will be the topic of discussion at a mega session during this fall’s HR Technology Conference. Led by Andrew Winnemore, vice president of HR Services & Employee Digital Experiences at Microsoft, the session will consider how HR can reimagine technology’s ability to revolutionize the workplace.

At Microsoft, leadership is looking at a “broad set of applied scenarios” for AI in HR—from talent management to talent acquisition—with an improved employee experience as the ultimate goal.

“We’re focused on how we can have true, deep empathy for what the human experience will be,” Fernandez says. “Our goal is to have clarity and an intention behind how the human experience evolves with the era of AI.”

Fernandez predicts that this focus will substantially change what it means to be an HR leader.

“[As organizations integrate AI,] the human experience will evolve in meaningful ways, the likes of which we have not seen since the Industrial Revolution,” he says. “HR’s role is to enhance the human experience, and humans will be central to anything an organization wants to do with AI going forward—so, HR is going to have to transform for the future.”

Avatar photo
Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].