When At Sital was looking to automate the labor-intensive transactional tasks in his company’s human resources group that had long been done manually, one of the first technologies he considered was robotic process automation (RPA). Sital, a domain lead for smart automation with Nouryon, a global chemicals company in Arnhem, Netherlands, knew that RPA—smart software designed to automate work activities that are rules-based, manual and repetitive—had been used for years in areas such as finance and information technology but had only recently made inroads in HR.
"We decided to conduct a pilot to make an assessment of whether RPA adds value to HR,” Sital says. “The idea also was to create use cases to show what was possible.”
The pilot program, implemented using an RPA platform from vendor Automation Anywhere in San Jose, Calif., automated the process of combining data from disparate HR systems into a single source of employee information. Previously, HR staff had to use an Excel spreadsheet to manually match and check data for that task.
By implementing RPA and running it overnight, the HR function eliminated the need for that daily 45-minute manual task, Sital says, with the added benefit of enabling more frequent database updates.
The success of the pilot program encouraged Sital and HR leaders at Nouryon to evaluate a host of other processes in which RPA might create new efficiencies and free HR staffers to do what they do best: use their consulting and human engagement skills to help line managers make better people decisions and improve the quality of the employee experience.
RPA Adoption Grows
While not as well-known as other forms of intelligent automation used in HR—such as chatbots routinely used to screen resumes or interact with job candidates—RPA is nonetheless receiving increased attention from HR leaders as more use cases like Nouryon’s emerge and the price point for the technology begins to moderate.
The terms “robotic process automation” and “artificial intelligence” are often used interchangeably, but, in fact, they represent different applications of related technology. RPA is a software robot designed to mimic human actions—essentially to do—while AI is primarily designed to mimic human judgment, or to think.
RPA is now regularly used within HR to automate processes such as coalescing or auditing datasets, sending offer letters to job candidates, onboarding new hires, facilitating health plan enrollment, and even creating badges for conferences and special events.
Over the past few years, RPA has moved from a fringe application to wider adoption. According to the results of the 2019-2020 Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey, the use of RPA tools in HR functions increased by 50 percent over the prior year’s study. Industry experts say improvements in the user-friendliness of the technology, as well as a growing desire to free HR staff from manual tasks so they can pursue work that adds more value to the organization, has led more HR groups to evaluate or implement the technology.
“The real difference in the RPA tools of today versus workflow tools of the past are improvements in the graphical user interfaces,” says Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics for Sierra-Cedar, a technical consulting firm in Atlanta. “They’re now platforms that business generalists and HR can begin to work with to create basic bots rather than needing to be a programmer or expert in the process.”
Harris says use of RPA in human resources has expanded beyond common uses for data entry or onboarding to areas of what she calls “tangential” HR ownership, such as communications, special events or volunteer efforts. “These are things an HR system isn’t typically set up to do but can reduce the work that might fall to employee self-service or manager self-service applications,” she says. “It might be things like automating orders for T-shirts for volunteers, for example.”
Harris predicts that as the cost of purchasing RPA technology begins to drop, more HR leaders will consider using it. “You need a price point that’s reasonable for midmarket and smaller organizations because in many cases they’re the ones who need the technology the most,” she says, adding that larger organizations often have staff and resources to develop RPA-like integrations and applications on their own.
Can RPA Bring More Humanity to Work?
While employing robotic process automation has benefits, such as creating more-accurate HR data and reducing labor costs, experts say one of its biggest advantages is that it can liberate HR staff to use their people skills to help find solutions to pressing business problems.
In its 2018 Technology at Work study of 12,000 employees around the globe, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that most people don’t want interactions with machines to fully replace the human connections needed to create a sense of belonging at work. Some 45 percent of respondents said they still prefer face-to-face interactions for tasks such as asking questions of their HR team or getting help with difficult problems.
“Helping employees and managers resolve challenging workplace issues is why many people go into HR in the first place,” says Mike Pino, partner and workforce learning strategies leader at PwC. “By taking them away from data entry or cutting and pasting e-mail responses, it allows more of these valuable in-person conversations to happen between HR and
Nancy Hauge, CHRO of Automation Anywhere, says the smart use of automation can bring more humanity to the workplace. “It allows you to put technology in the background and move uniquely human skills up front,” she says. “Most people are attracted to HR because they want to be engaged with human beings and help them solve their problems. The use of automation where it makes sense can give them more time to pursue that work and lead to more-fulfilling jobs.” —D.Z.
Does RPA Displace HR Jobs?
One of the biggest fears of HR professionals is that technologies like RPA will eliminate their jobs. But most of the evidence to date indicates that this is unlikely.
“Jobs don’t usually go away per se; tasks go away with RPA,” says Mike Pino, partner and workforce learning strategies leader with London-based PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a research and consulting firm. “HR tasks present a lot of automation possibilities. I think as use of RPA and other automated technologies grows, HR professionals will find what they do each day on the job will be very different than in the past.”
For example, Pino says applying RPA to a process such as onboarding can allow HR staff to spend more time creating the “emotional connections” needed to bond new hires to
“When new employees don’t feel some sort of emotional tie to the company within the first few months on the job, they tend not to be engaged, and you see higher turnover,” Pino says. “When you can deploy your HR generalists more on the employee experience front, you get a double benefit. You get the ROI [return on investment] on employee retention as well as the ROI from reducing manual work and improving the efficiency of the onboarding process by introducing automation.”
Harris says she hasn’t yet heard of any cases where the use of RPA has displaced HR jobs. “RPA in most cases replaces ‘swivel chair’ tasks where an employee is working in one HR system or database and then swivels over to work in another system,” she says. “RPA simply takes over some data-entry or data-auditing tasks within jobs. It doesn’t usually replace entire jobs.”
Nancy Hauge, chief human resources officer at Automation Anywhere, the vendor used by Nouryon, has implemented a host of RPA bots within her own HR group and says they’ve yet to result in the elimination of any staff positions.
“If you’re in a job that can be fully automated, you’ve likely been obsolete for a while,” Hauge says. “HR is filled with a lot of transactional work that we no longer need human capability to perform. We measure the success of RPA here by how many fingers we can take off of keyboards. The truth is there are very few HR jobs that don’t require good decision-making, business acumen and human engagement skills, and RPA can enable HR pros to use more of those skills and have more-fulfilling work.”
Growing Automation Options
HR leaders have other technology options available to them beyond RPA to automate recurring processes such as onboarding new hires, responding to employees’ e-mail queries, generating reports or communicating with job candidates to keep them apprised of their application status.
The Mayo Clinic, the renowned medical center in Rochester, Minn., recently applied such technology in its HR group with the goal of automating routine processes, improving compliance and giving staff more time for strategic work.
RPA simply takes over some tasks within jobs. ‘It doesn’t usually replace entire jobs.’
Led by Kate Palmer, Mayo’s lead for HR technologies, the medical center implemented a cloud-based automation platform from a leading industry vendor. The technology is an intelligent “layer” that sits atop existing systems like an HR information system or applicant tracking system. Within the first six months of use, Mayo reported that the platform helped automate thousands of hours of HR work.
Processes that moved from manual to automated include allowing Mayo Clinic’s employees to sign up for or freeze health center memberships; tracking certification renewals; and providing transition assistance to employees moving to different roles, divisions or departments. When workers make these internal moves, the technology automates parts of the process, such as collecting information and sending out communications.
The medical center also found that the technology can help reduce risk in what is a highly regulated industry. Pino says risk mitigation is one of the most overlooked benefits of such automation. “Once you create a standarized process and apply something like RPA, when the rules change it simply becomes a matter of updating the software code to keep pace, rather than having to retrain large groups of people to stay in compliance with the law” he says.
Jeff Grisenthwaite, a vice president with Catalytic, a Chicago-based provider of automation platforms for HR processes, says the company’s platform can automate tasks such as responding to employee e-mail sent to a shared HR inbox and creating standard HR reports.
E-mail automation saves HR staff from having to manually type individual e-mail to respond to the large volume of messages typically received. The Catalytic platform reads and interprets incoming e-mail using natural language processing, compares the messages against previous queries and sends a personalized response. In the case of new questions or those worded differently than in the past, the technology can craft a potential response and route it to an HR professional for review.
Catalytic’s technology can also automate common HR reporting tasks, such as generating diversity-and-
inclusion reports. In many cases, that data is manually pulled and combined from different systems or spreadsheets by an HR employee.
“But compiling the data often leaves less time for analysis of the data by the employee,” Grisenthwaite says. “When you apply an Excel automation tool to pull in data from spreadsheets, it frees up time for HR professionals to conduct more analysis and create stories from the data to help others understand what the numbers mean.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.
Illustration by Michael Korfhage.