Robot Resources: What Automation Means for the Future of HR

By: Brian Westfall on April 3, 2017

“We need to start thinking very seriously: What will humans do when machines can do almost everything?”

– Moshe Vardi, professor of computer science at Rice University, February 2016

Do you worry a machine is coming for your livelihood? You’re certainly not alone.

Moshe Vardi is just one of many experts in the fields of science and industry who has issued a warning about machines in recent months. The rallying cry is loud and clear: automation capabilities are on the verge of displacing a massive amount of humans out of their jobs.

This disruption is already being felt in industries like fast food and manufacturing. But how will machine automation impact the most human department of all: HR?

Below, we’ll look at how automation is set to impact three critical HR functions for small businesses, and why a human touch will always be needed.

1. HR Service Delivery Is Getting A Siri-ous Overhaul

How automation will take over: Answering every employee question about vacation days or health insurance can be a serious productivity drain for small business HR departments.

Even a well-implemented HR knowledge base can only solve worker inquiries 40 to 70 percent of the time, according to research and advisory firm Gartner.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a Siri-like chatbot, loaded with knowledge of every HR facet of your organization, could answer all of these questions and even process employee requests for you?


Jane, a chatbot by Loka

New integrations with the popular collaboration platform Slack are starting to make this dream a reality.

With Jane (pictured above), employees can ask a chatbot common HR questions and get answers without human intervention.

Zenefit’s Slack integration goes further, allowing workers to request time off through the chatbot. The request is then automatically sent to that worker’s manager for approval and logged in the Zenefits attendance system with no manual entry required.

Why a human touch is still needed: Though these chatbots will get better at pulling answers and processing requests specific to each worker over time through integrations with HR software systems (e.g., how much was my annual bonus last year?), HR service delivery will still be impossible to fully automate.

While virtual assistants like Jane can detect areas of improvement using sentiment analysis, they can’t actually decide what those improvements would look like. People still need to analyze those areas and provide better responses for the system to pull from.

Chatbots also won’t be able to tackle new questions that lack specified answers, or create and update HR policies as needed.

2. The Robot Recruiter Will Reign (but Job Seekers Will Fight Back)

How automation will take over: Automated recruiting used to refer to résumé parsing software that scanned for specific keywords to sort the talented wheat from the unwanted chaff.

While great in theory, these systems hardly held up in practice. This tech didn’t surface the best candidates for a position as well as advertised, and led job seekers to keyword stuff their applications to get an unfair advantage.

Bleeding edge recruiting systems that combine web crawling, matching algorithms and machine learning may finally be able to fulfill this promise.



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Candidate ranking in Job Market Maker

As outlined in the report “Algorithms Will Transform Talent Acquisition” (content available to Gartner clients), platforms like Job Market Maker and Entelo can automatically pull applicant information from a variety of sources, including:

  • The relevant job description

  • Social media profiles

  • Blogs

  • Professional contributions to forums

  • Accolades

  • Personality and skills assessments

By cross-analyzing this information with internal company performance benchmarks and the attributes of your current top performers, these systems can rank applicants in a number of ways that recruiters care about.

Without lifting a finger, you can see which applicants are most likely to thrive in a certain role, or even which ones are most likely to accept a job offer.

In tandem with virtual assistants like Talla, that can recommend the best interview questions to ask for a specific role, these systems will become vital to growing small businesses needing to fill vacant positions quickly.

Why a human touch is still needed: Like the résumé parsing systems before them, it’s only a matter of time before candidates figure out how to game these more robust solutions too. Once these systems take off, there will be a rise of consumer-facing systems that advise job seekers on how to improve their online footprint.

According to Gartner’s Predicts 2017: HCM Technologies Focus on the Worker (Human and Digital), by 2020, more than 20 million job seekers will seek automated advice on how to improve their ranking in job matching algorithms.

While these recruiting systems will help create a shortlist of qualified candidates quickly, human discretion will be more vital than ever to make the ultimate hiring decision.

Try as they might, data and algorithms will never be able to capture intangibles like professionalism and demeanor as well as a one-on-one interview.

3. Employee Training, Now On Demand

How automation will take over: With the emergence of dedicated learning management systems (LMSs), SMBs are finally able to bring employee training and development into a more flexible, more manageable digital environment.

That’s the good news. The bad news is many issues frustratingly persist:

  • Delivering the most relevant training content to individual employees at the right moment so they can continue their development is a painstaking, manual endeavor.

  • Encouraging workers to use these platforms outside of mandatory training courses is a consistent challenge.

  • There is little follow-up to ensure workers are applying learned practices in their day-to-day jobs.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know where this is going. Two emerging technologies—context-aware learning and virtual career coaches—could soon address these issues through automation.



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Context-aware learning in Salesforce via SumTotal Learn

Rather than sticking all employees on a set learning path or setting them free in a field of infinite MOOCs, context-aware learning would be able to read where workers are struggling, or even what they’re working on outside of the LMS, to automatically recommend relevant courses.

In the example above, a Salesforce user would learn about a SumTotal course covering mobile sales while accessing that part of the Salesforce platform.

This area is a big priority for software vendors. Gartner says by 2018, **50 percent of learning providers will provide context-aware capabilities.**

Virtual career coaches promise to extend these capabilities even further. Combining virtual assistants with learning heuristics and support from internal performance data, virtual career coaches would act like AI-fueled mini managers.

According to Gartner’s Predicts 2016: HCM Applications Transform to Support the Emerging Digital Workplace (available to Gartner clients), virtual career coaches will be able to:

  • Deliver feedback on how well workers are doing while they are working, in real time.

  • Comment on progress in applying newly learned concepts to work tasks.

  • Recommend email wording when working with organizational leaders or decision makers.

  • Advise on next career steps or career changes based on preferences and competencies.

These coaches don’t technically exist yet, but they will soon. Gartner predicts the first one will emerge by 2018. When they arrive, small business managers struggling to set aside valuable one-on-one time with their subordinates will look to virtual career coaches to pick up the slack.

Why a human touch is still needed: If there’s one area where machines will struggle to outpace humans, it’s creativity. Though these systems will be able to deliver training to workers at the right place and time, they won’t be able to create engaging training courses out of thin air.

For the time being at least, content creation will be a strictly human-fueled endeavor.

Employee training is never aimless either. Humans will still be in charge of setting internal goals and career succession paths, and the resulting changes in training and development initiatives.

I, for One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

Automation is here, and it’s going to change everything: how governments regulate industries, where companies invest in R&D and even what people study in school.

This doesn’t mean that our robot-fueled future will resemble a “Matrix” dystopia. In the realm of HR at least, small businesses have a lot to look forward to.


I’d still like to download kung fu straight to my brain though

HR-dedicated chatbots will be able to answer employee questions and process service requests, advanced recruiting systems will use online data to surface the best candidate for a given position and advancements in employee training will enhance performance and development.

Best of all, these developments will largely augment what HR already does rather than replace it altogether. In areas like organizational alignment, content creation and decision making, the “human” in “human resources” isn’t going anywhere.