Automation is one of the most divisive subjects in business right now. Will machines really replace people in many of the roles we occupy in the workplace today? If so, what will become of the redundant staff— garbage heap or bigger and better things? Within the context of workforce management, will HR technology lead to full workforce automation?
Already we’re seeing many company departments turning their attention to technology as a means to reduce workloads and streamline. Efficiency being the ultimate goal. But can we really envisage a time when things are 100% run by software when a team traditionally relies on human interaction, empathy and initiative in order to complete day-to-day tasks?
Human Resources is one area where these questions particularly resonate due to the responsibilities the job entails. Plenty of admin, of course, but ultimately a great HR professional needs to know not just the legalities, but also the ethical implications and personal situations of staff they are dealing with. Empathy is vital. All of which raises the ultimate question; will HR technology ever make HR departments obsolete?
“I believe that successful HR Departments are those that have used deep understanding of their staff to create efficient, technology-enabled processes that actually help their staff to do their jobs,” explains Ed Hinschen, CEO of Roubler. “Having great systems and processes in place is only one piece of the puzzle - understanding your staff and ensuring your HR department is focused on supporting them, regardless of whether the issue is administrative or not, is what counts.”
That certainly defines the situation, in 2019. However, according to the website Big Think, we live in an era when technology— or at least computer processing speed— is doubling roughly every 18 months. If that logic applies not just to fundamental hardware, but also software and computer learning, then surely there will come a time when HR technology will be capable of thinking and acting in the same way as humans themselves?
“I do see a time, very soon, where all administrative and transaction-based procedures are automated so that Human Resources can focus their efforts on more tangible outcomes for staff and business,” says Hinschen, before explaining that this would still likely involve some limitations.
“There will always be functions that require human interaction that can't be automated - mediation, conflict resolution, HR strategy, interviewing and recruitment, professional development planning and processing of sensitive data - so there's just no way you could, or would want to automate those. Human Resources is about 'humans' after all.”
If Hinschen’s perspective is correct, and the world is on the cusp of introducing full workforce automation within the most basic administrative aspects of workforce management, then can we be sure this won’t bring about a new set of problems arising from handing these tasks over to machines?
“With complete automation, you do risk alienating staff in a number of ways. Firstly, those not comfortable with using technology without support can disengage and become frustrated,” says Hinschen.
“Secondly, some HR technology isn't great (yet!) at dealing with exceptions to rules so some staff might feel like their circumstances aren't being taken into account. It comes down to communication: HR and staff need to be made aware from the start that it's not about putting a barrier between HR and staff, it's about making life at work easier, more efficient and more effective.”
Ultimately, then, we are standing on the edge of a tomorrow in which we will see increasing amounts of tasks taken off our to-do lists. Having said that, all that separates people from computers right now, whether we are talking about HR technology or any other area of automation, is likely to become more pronounced, rather than less, as artificial helping hands become more involved in the workplace.
Words by Richard Trenchard