Most senior human resources practitioners understand that artificial intelligence has the power to transform the HR function, but there remains an air of uncertainty about what this will mean in practice. As an HRD, and a CEO for that matter, how do you cut a path through the hyperbole to gain a sense of what AI can do to enhance decision-making and improve performance? 

The fact is, that in its truest form, AI remains a frontier technology. For the meantime, it is nowhere near as common as robotics and automation, but it does appear that this is going to change over the next couple of years, and when it does, AI’s impact on how businesses operate is going to be game-changing. 

“HRDs need to be thinking, right now, about how AI will fit into the company as a whole, and into the HR function in particular. In the future, there will be real opportunities to harness the technology to improve the experiences of their employees,” said Josh Tearney, Account Manager in Advisory Practice at Criticaleye. “AI might not be quite ready for the mainstream yet, but its development is moving at pace.”

At a recent Criticaleye Discussion Group, Members exchanged their views on the current and future impact of AI on the HR function and examined some of the issues that the technology has yet to overcome. 

Alan Bannatyne, CFO of Robert Walters, commented: “The current artificial intelligence debate tends to concentrate on the ability to make recommendations based on data analysis. This, ultimately, is a series of equations written by humans. My understanding of AI is that it should be a step beyond that.

“There is another level of debate around what happens when the equations start to write their own equations. This is, for many, the true nature of AI, and it is often overlooked when the topic is discussed.”

Lee Nicholls, Senior Advisor and Non-executive Director at MThree Consulting, and former Bank of America, EMEA Technology CTO, said: “Google’s Deep Mind AI played the world champion at the board game ‘Go’. During the competition, the computer played a move, the now famous 'Move 37', that all the human experts predicted would lose it the game, but it did the exact opposite – it went on to win.”
According to Lee, the computer had got to a learning point where it had disrupted previous patterns and found something that everybody else had failed to see. He continued: “True AI is when a computer comes up with new patterns, new insights and new intelligence that it is then able to put into action. We are at the beginning of the exponential growth in AI, and it will be truly disruptive to industry.”

People and Performance 

The impact of AI on the HR function, as well as the workforce itself, remains a hotly-debated topic. Sundaya Sahans, Associate Partner, Talent & Engagement at IBM, said: “AI can be used to improve transparency within a business, meaning that HR programmes, for example, are completely open and visible to all. 

“It allows the HRD to move away from guesswork and offer objective advice on, for instance, what skills are needed to operate effectively in the market. This prompts meaningful discussions as you have hard facts in front of you.”

Tracey Hahn, former HRD of Old Mutual Wealth, added: “When it comes to encouraging AI learning in an organisation, you have to make sure that culture change is underpinning it. It is important to have the HR hardwiring in place, such as the promotions and reward process. This all needs to point in the same direction and support the learning strategy consistently.” 

AI can also be used to provide a better of understanding of your customer. Anne Philpott, HR Director for M&G Prudential, explained that this should be used to help shape products and services.  

“Having some insights into customer behaviour, and what they require from us, will influence how we develop products and how our fund managers invest,” she said. “This sometimes requires businesses to overcome a sense of ‘they know best,’ because a lot of companies will deliver what they think the customer needs. Richer insights will lead to a better customer offering.”

An Ethical Approach 

Putting to one side the more Hollywood-esque speculations about AI gone rogue, there are genuine concerns about the governance and controls that are put around this technology, as well as the potential to cause mass unemployment, especially for those in highly-repetitive, process-heavy labour. 

Sundaya commented: “This notion that AI will take jobs is not correct. It is about helping people to make smarter decisions. It is guiding people away from guesswork and towards fact-based decision making – this strengthens the HRD’s position within a company.”

She argued that, for all it’s potential to improve business performance, “there has to be a code of ethics when using AI, to ensure that integrity, data and security are safeguarded. There must be a policy that makes it plain that AI requires its own code of conduct”.

Attendees at the Discussion Group agreed with the need for strong oversight due to the dangers. As Alan concluded: “In the recruitment sector today, computer software has the ability to scan job adverts and identify words within those adverts that could have an inherent gender bias. 

“However, there is a real risk that true AI, that is learning from human behavioural patterns, will end up with its own innate biases.”

By Robert Leeming, Editor, Criticaleye

Criticaleye will hold a Global Conference Call on Transforming into a Customer-Centric Business next month. To find out more click here.