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High-Tech, High-Touch HR and the Humanness of AI

Artificial intelligence and other technologies can help HR leaders create more human-centered processes.
By: | March 6, 2019 • 10 min read

Every single candidate who visits the Starbucks website looking for a job gets a conversation in return. Instead of just searching a database of openings and submitting a resume, job seekers can interact with a chatbot that generates an interactive dialogue, seeking information about worker interests, schedule preferences and other job-related requirements.

I have to admit, when I heard about these kinds of bots being used in the recruiting process, I wondered just how appealing this would be for candidates. Would it be novel? Would it be annoying? To my surprise, I learned from one chatbot provider that 75 percent of candidates actually say “thank you” at the end of the application process, even though they know full well that they interacted with a bot, not a real person.

That speaks to a fundamental difference in what artificial intelligence and intelligent automation bring to the workplace. While they can automate a wide variety of processes and practices, especially within the HR realm, that’s not their only source of value. Instead of looking to these technologies to reduce the human component, we should look to them to bring it to the forefront through personalization.

Algorithms Support High-Touch HR

Think about it this way: Southwest Airlines, widely heralded for both its customer-oriented and employee-centric cultural norms, says that employees come first and customer satisfaction comes second. The company knows that taking a high-touch approach to taking care of its people—treating them like human beings and connecting them to a bigger mission—is a powerful motivator.

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Research from Willis Towers Watson shows that one of the key qualities of high-performing organizations is trust, and my experiences as an HR executive certainly support that. In my time working in the trenches, I realized that some of the high-touch practices that created trust and value in the business were recruiting and leadership coaching. Each of those separate activities paid dividends over time in trust, engagement and performance; however, the downside is that both required significant time, resources and tailoring to specific audiences. The exciting capability of AI solutions—which is sure to get a lot of play at the HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in October—is that they can help to scale these high-touch HR practices, delivering the same benefits to the employer without requiring all of the time and effort on the part of the HR team. For example:

Recruiting: AI, algorithms, chatbots and other tools help to mimic that high-touch approach by offering a personalized candidate experience. In a perfect world, all candidates would talk to a recruiter, feel like they had their say and be evaluated on their merits. As it is, the ratio of applications to job openings simply means that it isn’t feasible to manually screen candidates. However, as in the Starbucks story, chatbots can create a meaningful level of engagement with every single applicant.

Leadership coaching: At the 2018 HR Technology Conference, I had the opportunity to coach a start-up company in one of the event competitions. The company’s software consumes employee-feedback surveys and performance-review data to offer a sort of personalized coach for managers. Having trouble giving feedback to your staff? The tool might recommend a short Harvard Business Review article on the value of feedback and appreciation. Not very good at casting a vision for your team? The system can suggest a short TED video from motivational speaker Simon Sinek on how to start with the “why.”

In essence, tools like these help to scale up the capabilities of the HR team, enabling them to support more people, more often and on a more personal level.

A Broad Definition of AI

In my new book, Artificial Intelligence for HR: Use AI to Build a Successful Workforce, I point out that there is no commonly agreed-upon definition of AI, as referenced by Stanford University’s One-Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, a study of AI applications across our business and personal lives. As Stanford researchers said, “The lack of a precise, universally accepted definition of AI probably has helped the field to grow, blossom and advance at an ever-accelerating pace.”

The definition of AI I prefer is simply “teaching machines to think more like humans.” This is somewhat vague, but as Stanford researchers point out, there is value in that broader perspective.

To be more pointed, there are three clear areas I look for when I am examining whether something is an AI application:

Automation: Does it automate something, eliminating human labor?

Augmentation: Does it augment human capabilities, enabling better decisions through a blend of technology and humanity?

Personalization: Does it bring some degree of personalization or tailoring for the user/audience?

While personalization may not be a litmus test for scientists, it’s a critical point for HR leaders. For years, we’ve had tools to automate our work—just look around to see who is doing payroll manually, and you get the picture. However, doing that with a layer of intelligence is beyond simple automation. Creating a peak moment for employees or candidates by personalizing the experience to their needs, interests and abilities cannot be understated. While it may not be “exciting” to think about layering in intelligence to payroll, other areas are ripe for disruption, such as career planning and training. Gallup data show that development is a top priority for attracting and retaining the right employees, and AI can turn these areas into strengths for employers.

Bringing Humanity Back into the Workplace

Spend any time reading the news these days, and you’d think that the entire workforce will be out of a job in just a few short years due to robots and other automation. The truth is that automation does change jobs. Throughout history, new advances in mechanical innovation or technological automation have led to changes in the fundamental structure of work. The resulting jobs in nearly every case are more human in nature, not less.

For as long as people have done work, there have been components of those jobs that have been more process-oriented and robotic in nature. Take checkout cashiers at grocery stores; the essential component of the job is little more than moving groceries down a lane, scanning them and pushing them to a bagging area. This is a “human” job, but it’s not very human in its components. That’s why so many organizations are automating this function when they can. Amazon-powered Whole Foods allows shoppers to grab their groceries and leave, charging them automatically for their purchases. Walmart is pushing more self-checkouts and shifting those workers to other tasks where possible, such as personal shoppers for the retail giant’s fastest-growing line of business.

What’s interesting in Walmart’s case is that the company is actually doing compassion training for its staff who transition from cashiers to personal shoppers. Situational training helps workers to see how they would react with compassion and empathy if presented with a young mother with screaming toddlers, a couple who doesn’t speak English or other scenarios.

As noted above, this job is becoming more service-oriented and more human at the same time. Research actually points to a specific set of soft skills that will matter in this impending era of automation and AI. Through an in-depth meta-analysis of multiple studies in academia and industry literature, my team developed a soft-skills model that encapsulates the key components that will rise in importance as we see more automation. Hint: This is vital to bringing the “human” back to “human resources.”

The Five Skills of the Future

Let’s take the bait and assume that the many predictions about future automation are true. Hundreds of millions of jobs will change, according to McKinsey & Co. Where does that leave us? In order to prepare, we must prioritize the development of a key set of skills, both in ourselves and in our workforce.

Creativity: Humans have an innate talent for creativity. We think “outside the box,” create new things and come up with new ideas. In 2017, a human beat recruiting technology in a candidate-sourcing competition thanks to his creativity. It turns out he used a wide variety of inventive methods to help reach his predictions, but the computer simply stopped after it had taken a single pass at the data.

Curiosity: In the early days of humanity, curiosity helped us explore our surroundings, find food and survive. Today, the stakes aren’t quite as high, but we’re still naturally curious about our environment and how to thrive in it. That curiosity drives our professional development, as approximately 90 percent of learning happens from experiential and social interactions on the job. Additionally, the core components of creativity and curiosity work together to drive success in R&D and other areas of the business.

Compassion: In researching for my book, this skill almost became “empathy,” but a research study actually changed my mind. The study looked at how nurses responded to job stress after receiving either empathy training or compassion training. Surprisingly, the empathetic nurses took on more stress because they identified with patients, whereas the compassionate nurses were kind and considerate but internalized less stress from the job. Compassion is a critical component in creating a more human workplace, and its importance is paramount. We must find ways to weave kindness, compassion and support into how we deliver HR services to the business, or we’re no better than a machine.

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Collaboration: Connecting and interacting with others is a powerful mechanism. It’s not just about creating social connections, but it’s about creating better ideas and outcomes by sharing ideas. This is the core argument for diversity and inclusion today: More diverse viewpoints lead to better business outcomes. Collaboration is a powerful human skill that enables us to become more than the sum of our parts.

Critical thinking: A survey several years ago asked university chief academic officers to rate what proportion of their new graduates were ready for the workforce. The CAOs said that nine out of 10 graduates were ready to hit the ground running. However, when researchers asked the same question of employers, they found that just 10 percent thought that graduates came to them ready to do the job.

This gap is the difference between knowledge and critical thinking. Computers have access to knowledge but can’t think critically, so the better we are at this practice, the more value we will have.

Take a second and reread the list of skills above and ask yourself if a computer can do those things easily. The truth is that it can’t. While an algorithm can learn advanced statistics and calculations easily, it can’t feel compassion, generate curiosity or think critically about a situation. That’s the key point where employers should look to balance decision-making between AI-powered systems and the humans who perform the work.

The Critical Question

Employers are jumping on the bandwagon, exploring the wide variety of vendors in the HCM-technology space that offer or claim to offer artificially intelligent systems and products. The question to ask as an employer is whether you are implementing these tools solely to automate away the “human” part of the jobs, or whether you’re doing so to create better, more personalized experiences.

In a 2018 piece in The Guardian, job seekers called AI everything from “impenetrable” to “frustrating,” a clear indictment of the new technology that HR leaders are raving about. If the goal is to strip away the humanity and create mechanical processes for hiring, training and engagement, then it’s going to feel that way for candidates and employees.

However, if the goal is to create a more human, personalized experience, then you will probably see some of the same results as Unilever. The company has used AI to automate the entire front end of its hiring funnel for entry-level candidates, and it not only increased diversity and sped up time to hire—it did so while increasing candidate and hiring-manager satisfaction as well.

Either result, the positive or the negative, is a possibility. Why and how you are adopting AI solutions will determine whether they end up delivering the results you hope for. AI is here, and it’s here to stay, so make your decision about how your organization can leverage all it has to offer—not just the automation components—to create a better experience for all your stakeholders.

The HR Technology Conference will be held Oct. 1 through Oct. 4 at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Ben Eubanks is an HR industry analyst and influencer. He is the Principal Analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory where he oversees the development of research, assets and insights to support HR, learning and talent executives. He is also the founder of HR community upstartHR, the co-founder of the HRevolution movement and host of the We're Human podcast. You can reach him at [email protected]

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