Technology will play a key role during open enrollment this year, as benefits-selection platforms and virtual benefits fairs take center stage. But interactive software and "bots"—short for Internet robots—are just starting to transform HR generally, and the management of compensation and benefits specifically, two experts on HR tech recently told SHRM Online.
Tim Kulp is vice president of innovation and strategy at Mind Over Machines, an Owings Mills, Md.-based business-software firm, and a member of the Forbes Technology Council, a community of chief information officers, chief technology officers, and technology executives. Jean Hill is managing director with global management consultancy Alvarez & Marsal and the firm's national solution leader for digital and technology services, based in New York City. Below, they share insights on how tech is transforming the world of HR.
Will technology replace HR professionals?
Tim Kulp: HR is supposed to advocate for people, yet somehow it has managed to get so buried in paperwork that it only emerges into companywide consciousness during that most dreaded time of the year: open enrollment.
It seems counterintuitive, but computers can make your workplace more human, and it starts with automating certain HR processes. Using automation for benefits and compensation allows systems that were previously assisted by humans to become self-service, and it allows for a transparent process where employees can have immediate access to all their information. Ultimately, this allows HR staff to do what they do best: be an advisor. No longer bogged down by paperwork, simple questions and data entry, HR staff can get to know their employees, build better relationships throughout the company and focus on strategic innovation within HR.
Jean Hill: In the HR space, you have AI [artificial intelligence]-driven programs that scan resumes, schedule interviews and do other tasks that took human effort. Now you can have the humans focusing on interviewing and focusing on culture-fit issues, while bots do Google and LinkedIn searches on candidates. The challenges are around how humans and automation coexist in the workforce.
With bots, as with hiring additional workforce, you need to figure out what type of skills you need, how you bring them on, how you train them, how you give them more work to do, and then how, after time, you retire them, following the same kind of lifecycle as you would with humans. Think of it as a digital workforce and not as automation applications circa 10 years ago.
'The challenges are around how humans and automation coexist in the workforce.' — Jean Hill
How are chatbots and AI changing HR's role?
Kulp: Using chatbots, organizations can create a knowledge repository. HR can get bogged down assisting staff with critical, yet simple questions. By creating a chatbot, staff can get these answers with no human involvement. It can answer questions like, "When is open enrollment?" or "What qualifies as a life event?"
You can also combine chatbots with another form of automation: robotic process automation (RPA). I've seen instances where you can engage with a chatbot, and that engagement triggers an RPA process to occur on a remote machine. For example, you can just tell the chatbot, "Change my address to …," "Change my benefactor to …" or "Change my 401(k) contribution to …" and the chatbot can trigger an RPA process that logs in to the platform and makes the changes for you. It's like having your own digital assistant.
Hill: AI-driven software can help companies comply with all of the federal and state legal aspects of comp and benefits. Data analytics can show what roles could be given to Form W-2 staff or to Form 1099 contractors working in the gig economy and which ones could be outsourced.
How else is technology changing comp and benefits management?
Hill: When it comes to managing the processes around performance reviews and bonuses, HR no longer needs to do many of those tasks. The availability of information around compensation benchmarks, for example, is so much greater now. Data analytics provides executives and managers with information, and they can access these systems themselves.
Technology also makes it easier to rank people by performance—let's say on a scale of 1 to 5—and to model the total dollars you want to give out in raises and to tweak how they should be awarded, whereas years ago you had to use multiple spreadsheets to solve data problems. It could really be a nightmare to get things to a level that's now easily achieved through data modeling, using modules that are already in many HR systems.
The tools available for analysts to model data are infinitely more sophisticated and easier to use than those available even just five years ago. You can now use Tableau, for example, to create graphic representations of the data in ways that you couldn't do before.
The "secret sauce" is having HR help us, as executives, to see blind spots, and to understand where we need to have increased training, where we need to have more benefits and perks instead of higher pay, for example.
Kulp: So much of HR's time-consuming paperwork is responding to emergent situations. Whether it's incident reports, benefits enrollment or payroll updates, you spend so much time reacting that you can never seem to get ahead of the curve. Let automation tools feed the machine so you can take time to dream up new, better ways of doing things. The digital assistant fills out the accident report while you figure out how to prevent it from happening again. RPA keeps the existing benefits system running while you create a new wellness initiative that actually engages employees.
'Let automation tools feed the machine so you can take time to dream up new, better ways of doing things.' — Tim Kulp
What can people provide that technology can't do?
Kulp: If your bot is screening resumes, you can be putting in face time at talent scouting events and meeting one-on-one with qualified candidates. When you bring on the new employee, your digital assistant handles the paperwork, freeing you up to make connections. Orient the newbie to company culture and core workplace values. Introduce her to go-to team members and potential mentors. Build the human-centric bridges that make people feel supported and comfortable coming to you whenever necessary throughout their tenure.
Hill: More than 50 percent of our communication is nonverbal. HR can focus on starting to understand those nonverbal communications via Zoom, text, Twitter, Slack or any of the mediums. How do you get to the heart of what's going on, what's going to motivate your workforce and what are the outcomes that you're looking for, which then drives what talent and resources you need? That's where you're going to get value coming out of HR in this new world.
Kulp: Automation is a journey to free people, not replace them. As the AI economy continues to fundamentally change our workplaces, companies need HR units to anchor and facilitate their value center: human creativity and collaboration. The less time you spend working like a robot, the more time you have to put the "human" into human resources.