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HR Needs to Stay Ahead of Automation

Harness the power of automation or risk being automated out of your HR job.

Will automation cause the workforce of the future to be dominated by malevolent, beady-eyed robots gleefully expelling humans from their offices and cubicles to lay claim to their jobs?

Probably not. But if it takes scary robots to alert HR professionals to the importance of tracking and responding to the rise of automation in the workplace—and the threat that automation could pose to the careers of many—the image will have served its purpose. Automation is everywhere, and its impact on human resources is expanding, but many say HR professionals are only dimly aware of the trend.

There's no doubt that a more automated future is coming. Employers predict 17 percent of work will be automated by 2020, compared to about 5 percent in 2014, according to Willis Towers Watson, a global consulting company.

For HR, automation increasingly affects workforce strategy. It vastly expands the potential of, and expectations for, HR analytics. Technology is transforming traditional HR functions such as hiring, training and benefits administration. And the execution of all this change demands a strong HR role.

The understanding and use of the power of automation may prove to be the dividing line between those who advance in the field and those who are marginalized and, eventually, automated out of their HR jobs.

Some HR operations "have woken up and are leading a higher-purpose conversation on the trajectory of automation within their organizations," says Robert Bolton, a London-based partner with KPMG, a global consultancy. "But far too frequently I'm seeing other business divisions raise the issue, and HR is nowhere to be seen."

A chief information officer at a telecommunications company told Bolton that HR was not leading on anything with respect to automation and the workforce. The CIO proposed taking over the HR function, as he saw the integration of humans and machines in the workplace as the job of IT.

"I think HR needs to step up—and step up quickly—because other functions are laying claim to where the action is," Bolton says.

Automation and HR

​Automation refers to the use of electric or mechanized processes to perform work without—or with reduced—intervention by humans. Examples include robots that flip hamburgers, computer algorithms that eliminate human employees in medical and legal offices, and driverless automobiles and aerial drones.

Automation drives advancement not by eliminating jobs but by eliminating particular job functions at which humans are inefficient, inconsistent or exposed to risk, according to Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson and co-author of Reinventing Jobs: A Four-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).

As a practical matter, experts expect that automation will lead to a declining number of generalist employees responsible for mundane repetitive transactional tasks, including HR generalists. At the same time, more HR staff will be performing analytical functions and getting more involved with other organizational activities.

​A recent KPMG report found that virtually all HR functions can be fully or partially automated. Of 21 responsibilities, KPMG found only five to be relatively less susceptible to automation:

  • People performance whole system architecture (building a high-performance work system).
  •  HR and business strategy.
  • Organizational effectiveness.
  • Change management.
  • Employee relations.

Even lower-level HR practitioners will be required to increase their value by mastering technology. Improved connectivity and faster access to virtually stored information can give all employees access to the best ideas and solutions, enabling staff with lower qualifications to review organizational data and perform high-level HR reporting, Bolton says.

How can HR professionals best function in this new environment? "Make sure you have high business acumen, strong critical thinking skills, good data analysis skills and good judgment," says Lynne Smith, senior vice president of human resources at Menlo Park, Calif.-based HR consulting firm Robert Half.

"You must be a good business partner and able to cover so much more ground and analyze more data than in the past," Smith says. "HR professionals will be called upon to work out problems quickly. Time is not on your side. If you're not solving the problem, someone else out there will be."

The following are some of the areas of HR that will be most impacted by automation.

Workforce Planning

As automation takes hold, HR professionals will need to re-examine their organizations' workforces and the mixture of full-time employees, part-time employees, contractors and machines.

"Workforce shaping is a new discipline for HR and one that includes key skill sets that HR is often not well-versed in, such as being evidence-based, using insights and analytics, and seeing organizations as complex systems and architecting those systems," Bolton says.

"A weakness of too many HR professionals is that they are narrowly compartmentalized, with someone looking at talent, someone else at performance, and someone else at rewards. In many organizations, no one has all the necessary skills to deal with changes that artificial intelligence is forcing upon the HR-related aspects of organizations," he says

Adapting to automation requires fundamental conceptual adjustments toward what employment means, says John Boudreau, a University of Southern California professor of management and organization and co-author with Jesuthasan of Reinventing Jobs.

"The biggest opportunity for HR is to shift toward recognizing that jobs will not be static," Boudreau explains. "Work needs to be reinvented and jobs need to be reinvented. Jobs will be deconstructed and reconstructed into fundamentally different jobs."

Job requirements for previously low-skilled positions may change, says Chris Streit, a senior director of client solutions at HR consultancy Korn Ferry. "There is a change, for example, in the profile of the person who we want to work in warehouses, as [he or she needs] additional skills to deal with the addition of automation to those facilities."

‘I think HR needs to step up, and step up quickly, because other functions are laying claim to where the action is.’
—Robert Bolton

The composition of talent at organizations will likely change. Notably, the number of technology workers will rise, including such positions as coders, engineers, human technology monitors, mechanics, and business and data analysts, many of whom will be employed short-term or by the project, Boudreau notes.

Given the workforce shift toward more technical positions and capabilities, HR professionals must increase their involvement in, and understanding of, how these workers are used and what they need, says Nancy McKeague, senior vice president and chief of staff for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

HR personnel at McKeague's organization must have people and communications skills to be able to interact with patients and others in the health care system, she says. "We need to understand how that will work and how we can train them. This is new."

A diverse group of business leaders have told McKeague that automation has not led to significant reductions in headcount at their organizations, but rather that it's being used to expand the ability of existing team members to deliver value.

In many cases, it will be a major step forward for HR employees to join or begin the conversation on these workforce-shaping topics, in conjunction with IT, operations and other stakeholders.

Data Analysis

​Automated functions are easy to measure, record and analyze, so enormous quantities of data are a byproduct of automation. Increasingly powerful HR tools, including smarter human resource information systems (HRIS), also generate reams of data. As a result, many say HR managers at larger employers are being asked to stay abreast of all data-driven workforce trends.

Since 2015, for example, software vendor Workday's Human Capital Management clients can use a retention risk analysis function to quickly identify and understand the danger of employee departures for the entire organization or for a specific department. The software can predict whether top performers are at a high risk of leaving in the next year and project the cost to replace them, says Cristina Goldt, vice president of human capital management products at Workday.

Implementing Automation

​HR professionals often have a critical role in implementing automation efforts, which can be enormously time-intensive, complex and stressful.

At a previous job, Johanna Soto was team facilitator for an initiative to introduce process improvements that would affect how union workers performed their jobs. The rollout was successful, but it ultimately led to a small reduction in force.

Despite receiving initial opposition, Soto says she was able to convince employees and the union to accept the changes with the shared goal of improving safety. "In such situations, one has to identify the biggest proponents to get them on board and win over key stakeholders," says Soto, vice president of corporate services at Secaucus, N.J.-based home delivery service Cory Companies.

​"Conversations should start early on, though not perhaps from inception," she says.

"We solicited employees' problem statements and made them part of solutions and efficiency projects in the plant. People got excited about participating in project teams and doing something impactful. We celebrated and recognized the work of the teams," she says. "It helped that we had a strong and mutually respectful relationship."

A key part of automation planning is considering the impacts on humans, says Korn Ferry's Streit: "Sometimes, employers only look at potential output and how many staff they can eliminate." Too often, they don't consider the employees who will need to stay and work with the new technologies. In some cases, that results in more work for them, Streit says.

Messaging to employees and, if relevant, to their union representatives, about why employers are replacing previously human-led functions, or whole jobs, with automation is critical. "Every time we go through an introduction of new automation that affects jobs, we explain to employees and the union that it's something everyone needs to embrace," says Matthew York, director of labor relations at General Motors.

"We note that technology may lead to a leaner workforce but also emphasize that there will be benefits for those workers who remain, especially where the technology is intended to assist the operator. If you remain stagnant and you don't evolve, you become obsolete. So instead of losing a small number of jobs here or there, we will be talking about losing thousands of jobs. Our unions generally understand the need to remain competitive."

Organized-labor leaders say that thoughtful automation policymaking means recognizing labor unions as an important stakeholder. "Our members are constituents, they are workers, and they matter," says Kara Deniz, spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has 1.4 million members. "We always want to be proactive partners in discussing the needs of workers, and while we support innovation that improves companies and the jobs of workers, we are opposed to automation that will hurt workers."

The understanding and use of the power of automation may prove to be the dividing line between those who advance in the field and those who are marginalized and, eventually, automated out of their HR jobs.


​Sourcing and hiring are becoming increasingly automated. This is altering the role of HR professionals, who will have more time to focus on higher-level functions. Many organizations will be chasing the same types of tech-savvy employees, and HR will  need to lead the way in finding them, competing effectively for them and facilitating speedy offers, as delays often result in losing prospects to competitors.

Chatbots and intelligent analytics are already performing automated sourcing. The human sourcers who remain, some say, will use technology to analyze and widen the pool of potential candidates.

For example, HireVue, a video interview and candidate assessment company, analyzes the results of game-based tests of candidates and their recorded responses to questions to facilitate hiring for its clients. It can also use artificial intelligence to perform more-sophisticated psychographic profiling of candidates, says Cynthia Siemens, the company's communications director.


​Automation will help make employee training an enormous area of opportunity for HR, says Willis Towers Watson's Jesuthasan. Use of simulators and electronic instruction will increase. The old process of master-apprentice, wherein employees are slowly trained by masters in their jobs, will be supplemented and in some cases replaced by digital training.

Apps, webinars and recorded training will allow employees to learn on the job during lulls in workflow or when they need it, rather than when the schedules of a large number of individuals allow, says Thomas O'Connor, SHRM-SCP, a SHRM program instructor and human resource consultant.

HR also may have a role in training machines, which need knowledge from real people and help adhering to human standards. Unsupervised technical employees can, for example, inadvertently impart biases, such as racial or gender preferences, into systems.


​Increasingly, automation is enabling employees to establish digital personnel records. That allows them to update and track employment milestones throughout their tenure with the organization. HR may have an increasingly important role in overseeing such records and helping determine how much information should be shared within the organization. These platforms will also allow employees to access their basic records and perform simple HR transactions themselves.

Workday's campaign management application leverages system data to push required and relevant content to targeted employee groups, Goldt says. For example, if a worker is required to update his or her succession plan, the system automatically generates a reminder. The notification may also link to suggested resources to help the employee think through how to find successors.

Such automation has consequences for HR staffing. "If companies are willing to let self-service run its course, there will be less need for HR professionals to process everyday transactions and, eventually, less need for as many HR people," says Jeremy Ames, CEO of HR technology consulting firm Hive Tech HR in Medway, Mass.

​HR professionals are often tapped to help guide automation of inefficient administrative practices. "This year I was tasked with figuring out a way to automate our time collection process," says Erin Wartenberg, a human resource manager at JLM Advanced Technical Services Inc., a Wisconsin company that provides paper mill machinery repair and maintenance services. "After reviewing 11 companies' time tracking software, we plan to select a new system that will allow employees to clock in and out on their own phones through an app, [and it] will allow supervisors to clock in their crews. The new system will cost $8,000 to $10,000 per year, but the return on investment will be well above that in reducing the cost from unnecessary extra payroll and overpaying people."


​HR professionals are increasingly tapping the power of automation to administer employee benefits, particularly more complicated perks such as retirement plans. New York City-based financial advising service Betterment uses a highly automated investment management system in which sophisticated algorithms designed by a small number of human advisors are used to help employees handle their own financial planning.

"More and more companies are looking for outsourced investment management for their retirement plans," says Tom Conlon, head of client relations at Betterment for Business, the company's 401(k) offering. "Only 10 years ago, resources such as those that we provide would only have been available to large pension plans or endowments. But technology has led to it being economical to outsource that function for the 40-employee tech start up."

Keeping the Workplace Human

​Increasingly, people will be working with machines that don't need benefits, reassurance or human support—or weekends and holidays off. They will provide endless streams of data and conceal nothing.

This is prompting fears that automation could lead to a race to the bottom regarding work conditions. Criticisms of Amazon and other technology companies have included allegations of excessive measurement of, and expectations for, employees, particularly lower-level workers.

At Lincoln Financial Group, a Pennsylvania financial services company, automation has rippled through the company in recent years, driving significant changes in such job functions as underwriters, marketers, advisors and actuaries, says Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and chief people, place and brand officer.

Keeping humans at the top of the agenda is important in automation efforts, she says. "I believe putting people ahead of process and technology is ultimately how HR will enable an organizational transformation when it comes to automation," Buckingham says. "Although, it's still the case that many transformation initiatives are more focused on process and technology than on their talent strategies, it's important to remember that people are at the heart of our organizations."

David Tobenkin is a freelance journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area.