Automation: Is it taking the human out of HR?

“Unfortunately robots capable of manufacturing robots do not exist. That would be the philosopher’s stone, the squaring of the circle.” Ernst Jünger, The Glass Bees (1957)

‘The Glass Bees’ is a brilliant story about a man, Captain Richard, struggling with feelings of alienation and fears of dehumanisation in a technologically advanced society. Not the first of its kind, it presents fears around the role of humanity in a world where technology seems to advance faster than we can consciously comprehend. But it was certainly ahead of its time and remains a poignant narrative and a relevant question for today’s workplace.

In 2013, the famous Future of Employment Report (Frey and Osborne) was published, predicting that around 47% of US employment would be at risk from automation. While globally we have seen a decline in manufacturing and computerisation saw the replacement of traditional jobs such as cashiers and bookkeepers – but how certain are we that robots will take over our jobs?!

We need to take a step back from the media (and its headlines) and the hypothetical discourse. We must take the time to appreciate the historical journey to today, what are the evolving challenges of the workplace, and what role technology should play in modern organisational structures.

From ‘Personnel’ to ‘Human Resources’

1981: The moment Harvard Business School first launched their MBA course, paving the way for a new blueprint of Personnel Management. The role and remit of HR departments have completely transformed. Breaking away from the prejudices of bureaucratic processes, modern HR has set a new precedent becoming a strategic linchpin in the organisation, the employee advocate and responsible for developing the long-term value of employees for an organisation (the human in HR).

HR departments have since had to quickly adapt and take on a far broader set of responsibilities. Everything from organisation design, L&D, engagement, talent and change management in addition to the traditional responsibilities of compliance and payroll administration. In parallel, digital advancements are speeding ahead, creating perceptions that technological changes are exponentially overtaking levels of productivity.

Businesses are tasked with the complex task of retaining staff, maintaining competitive advantage and continuously trying to innovate at a rate outpacing productivity levels. Should businesses invest in new systems and technologies? What are competitors doing? How can they maintain competitive advantage whilst retaining talent and keeping costs down?

“41 percent of C-suite executives surveyed believe that difficulty attracting and retaining talent is the greatest risk they will face in the next 12 months” Accenture

Today’s challenges

In Gallup’s 2016 How Millennials Want to Work and Live report, millennials (the largest portion of today’s workforce) are more than three times likely to switch jobs than their generational counterparts.

Whilst “millennials are as satisfied or more satisfied with nearly all aspects of their job”, the fact that they are still more likely to leave an organisation is highly influenced by the fact that what they demand is more than just job satisfaction. They want job engagement. They are no longer just company resources, they have become internal customers themselves, with a new array of demands and values.

Simply put, a millennial will not come to work because of basic physiological needs. They have higher aspirations and want higher levels of engagement. They want career development, to feel passion for what they do, to have creative outlets within their job and to reach their ‘full potential’.

So does automation take the HUMAN out of HR?

When it comes to ‘automation’ within HR, narratives generally focus on productivity, efficiency, cost savings and scalability. In fact, these are the same terms across most IT narratives. Far removed from the human and in stark contradiction to creating ‘the employee experience’. Businesses should be identifying the sweet spot where digital meets human values and create new strategies that enable engagement and productivity. If anything, this role requires a far higher intelligent behavioral cognition. The premise of what sets human apart from non-sentient beings.

From that perspective, automation and digital tools can be seen as facilitating more humanistic practices compared to traditional HR. Development of RPA software (robotic process automation), seamless UX intranet systems, as well as intelligent onboarding and training tools, should be seen as enhancers to the human experience. Leveraging these technologies not only removes the menial repetitive tasks but also allows HR teams to execute smart strategies and focus on driving forward employee experiences.

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