Can 2 Letters Take Down HR as We Know It?

By Sarah Fister Gale

Mar. 7, 2017

Tedious administrative tasks have long been the bane of the HR professional’s job.

Updating paperwork, sending out benefits reminders and plowing through hundreds of resumes can eat up hours every day, preventing HR leaders from focusing on more strategic tasks related to workforce planning and development. But the days of drudgery may soon be over, at least according to some vendors. Over the past year, HR software providers have trumpeted the fact that their technologies automate all of the manual and repetitive tasks that few want to do.

artificial intelligence
Don’t fear, HR. Industry tech experts say your job is safe.

It’s an appealing offer, said Mark Somol, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based Zeal Technology Inc., which offers software to measure employee engagement and morale. “At the heart of the automation trend are leaders who recognize that they need to understand their people better,” he said.

It’s an important message when it comes to HR automation. Unlike the manufacturing industry or the promise of self-driving taxis, automation isn’t intended to replace HR staff, it’s meant to enhance what they do. By eliminating tedious tasks, HR employees can finally focus on what Somol calls “personalized talent management.”

“We are all better off if HR and talent management leaders spend more time with people, taking care of their individual challenges,” he said.

The need for more time has often been a challenge for HR, so why are vendors suddenly eager to automate?

“Because they can,” said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst for Constellation Research in Toronto. Access to massive amounts of data and computing power coupled with advances in the machine learning technology means vendors can finally use artificial intelligence, or AI, to automate many of the manual tasks that waste so much time.

In some cases they can do them better, faster and with fewer errors than any human ever could. In recruiting, for example, trying to find candidates on social media using keyword searches is tedious and inconsistent. But a system that uses machine-learning algorithms can be programmed to search millions of profiles and to learn which kind of candidates, sources and backgrounds deliver the best candidates.

“It’s more accurate and easier for the computer to do it for you than to do it yourself,” he said.

These tools can also be used to analyze internal forums to identify in-house experts or identify complaints that might suggest an employee is a flight risk. “If you can remediate the problem before an employee quits, that’s a great value,” he said.

The promise of automation is intriguing, though Lepofsky warns HR leaders to not get drawn in by the hype.

“A lot of the talk about AI in HR is overblown,” he said, adding that many tools are more like chatbots than AI. “They can simulate human conversations, but they can’t learn or communicate in any meaningful way.”

So while a chatbot can convincingly respond to an email query about the benefits programs, an AI system could recognize that an employee is struggling to complete their benefits enrollment and recommend training or a support tool based on what previous employees have used.

Vendors like Oracle, SuccessFactors, and Infor already offer automation capabilities that use machine learning to do compliance checks and make suggestions, and more are likely to come, said Ray Wang, principal analyst for Constellation Research. Though it will likely be another year or two before AI technology is trusted enough to be allowed to take action without any human review.

As with virtually every previous HR technology trend, Wang predicts that the small start-ups will likely bring the most innovative AI tools to market first, then shortly after, the big firms will start acquiring them to add that functionality to their suite. “Small companies have the agility to test their theories, but the big companies have the data to scale them,” he said.

Regardless of who is first to market, this trend will ultimately be benefit for HR.

“The days of counting contingency workers and entering data will soon be over,” Wang said. “As vendors automate more tasks, HR leaders will become more strategic, focusing their time on taking care of the workforce and planning for the future.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in the Chicago area. Comment below or email

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with