HR Process Automation: Current State and a Glance into the Future

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We live in an exciting time of technological progress. Not only does computing power continue to double about every two years (known as Moore’s law), more data is generated exponentially as more devices are connected to the internet every day.

These developments have a huge impact on our daily lives and the way we work. One of the most important developments where the increase of computing power and data availability comes together is automation.

Recently, Gartner has stated that the next 10 years will be an age of hyper-automation:

“Hyperautomation deals with the application of advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), to increasingly automate processes and augment humans. Hyperautomation extends across a range of tools that can be automated, but also refers to the sophistication of the automation (i.e., discover, analyze, design, automate, measure, monitor, reassess.)”

The use of analytics and complex algorithms will increase the likelihood of tasks that can be automated through a process called Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Now, the term ‘robot’ is often associated with human-like metal beings, but the term is much broader. The definition from Brittanica states:

“Robot, any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort, though it may not resemble human beings in appearance or perform functions in a humanlike manner.”

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So, a robot (or bot) may very well be a robotic arm designed to place doors on cars in a factory or a series of algorithms designed to automatically patch through a caller to the right contact within a call center.

The impact of this hyper-automation is huge and has many implications for the way businesses need to respond, especially on the human/employee aspect.

Age of automation infographic
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HR is a department that is important in supporting businesses with people practices and people processes. With the maturing of HR technology and the rise of the use of data through HR and people analytics, it might be useful to review the latest developments in automating HR processes. This is why I asked myself the question:

What is the current state of HR process automation and how will this likely evolve in the future?

Automation in HR – 3 examples

According to a recent survey by PWC among 600 HR and HR information technology (IT) leaders on six continents, intelligent automation or process automation is the focus for 45% of the participants.

Automation in HR

With an ever-growing spend on HR technology, HR management seeks out to automate human resources as much as possible, so that the human resources staff are freed up so that they can attend to their jobs with greater efficiency.

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When basic HR tasks are automated, the whole HR department is enabled to shift from a supportive, administrative, and mainly operational department to a front-line, business-driven strategic department that can provide the agility a business needs to thrive in the future.

This requires that –at least- the basic administrative tasks HR performs take up as little time as possible. For this, the following admin-heavy processes can be automated:

1. Payroll

Traditionally, payroll has entailed personnel spending hours or days entering payroll data. With automation, the staff can complete a couple of simple steps to complete the process. The benefits of payroll automation can be found in the following factors:

  • Save time; takes away repetitive monthly tasks from a payroll employee
  • Reduce errors; a computer is usually better at computing than humans
  • Create reports easily; schedule sending out reports every month consistently
  • Simplify tax filings; program and update tax regulations in the software
  • Compliance; centralized historical data, to stay compliant and be ready for a possible audit
  • Enables Employee Self Service; payroll insights and updating information by the employee
  • Save money; all of the above results in yearly recurring cost-savings and makes for a simple business case

Indeed, most organizations (over 98% according to a survey by Sierra) big and small have a payroll software solution in place that at least partially automates repetitive payroll tasks.

2. Talent acquisition

Finding, attracting, and recruiting new talent off the market is an ongoing process for most organizations. The processes involved require a lot of steps and communication. Automating this talent acquisition process can help with:

  • Pre-screening candidates; through a short survey or pre-assessment you’ll be able to make a first selection based on no-go criteria
  • Text mining CV’s; the ones that get through upload their CV which are analyzed on specific criteria (e.g. education level or number of spelling errors)
  • Scheduling interviews; Let the candidates schedule their interview based on the interviewers’ agenda
  • Analyze for the best match; some tools can give you a top three based on scores on specific criteria

In the future, RPA can be used to aid the recruitment process by automating the online sourcing process by canvassing hundreds of talent pools and databases for quality candidates. It will also become possible to deploy chatbots that leverage sentiment analysis and computational linguistics to interpret a candidate’s communication and to formulate an appropriate response.

Chatbots enable organizations to offer a more responsive and engaging candidate experience by eliminating the downtime between a candidate submitting an application and receiving a response from a recruiter.

These types of automation help gain the following benefits for Talent Acquisition:

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  • Save time; saves time and effort from recruiters by automating most of the crucial processes
  • Save money; Many tasks that are traditionally outsourced to expensive external parties can be automated
  • Improve the quality of hire; create a feedback loop to improve the effectiveness of screening and candidate selection
  • Focus on improving talent strategies; instead of time spent on filling vacancies

3. Performance management

Aligning organizational goals with personal goals and having an ongoing conversation with employees on their performance and ambitions is important for any organization. Although there is an increasing difference in the way organizations do performance management, some tasks can be automated through a system:

  • Streamlined workflow; whatever your PM process is, providing input and feedback as employee and manager is part of an automated workflow, pushing notifications to indicate the next action
  • Scheduled notifications; it is possible to plan notifications, for example when it is time to provide quarterly feedback
  • Automated aggregated reporting; aggregate performance ratings on any organizational level

The main benefit of an automated performance review is that HR only needs to monitor the process, facilitate any technical difficulties, resolve any unwanted steps in the process, and improve every review period. Sure, there is this long-standing discussion on the use of performance reviews. This is probably something automation can’t resolve, but however you design the process, automation is key to make the experience as accessible as possible.

The examples above are already available in most HR technology suites or point solutions. There are of course many more current examples of HR process automation but for now, I would like to start looking at the future of HR automation.

HR automation

The future of HR automation

In the future, we will be using analytics to tie it all together and applying complex algorithms on data across all processes in an integrated way. This enables organizations to customize the employee experience in such a way that employees feel like the organization is providing tailored services to their specific needs.

This is something dubbed the Workforce of one. I have written about this development before and I think the next 5 to 10 years we’ll be seeing a major shift in the HR technology landscape while HR technology matures further and analytics integrates within HR technology.

For example, the learning experience of an employee within an organization might be completely customized based on preferences by the employee based on information and analytics:

  • personality traits
  • future ambitions
  • an analysis of preferred learning methods
  • an analysis of learning effectiveness in the past
  • an analysis of learning behavior

But why stop there? If we are talking integration, it should be possible to have an AI planner that links your learning objectives to your agenda and makes suggestions in real-time. For example, a 45-minute meeting is canceled in your agenda, and in your learning objectives, it states you want to learn all about strategic HR metrics. The HR tech system might send you a notification:

“I noticed your meeting from 12:45 was canceled. You might use this time to complete module 3 of the Strategic HR Metrics course. Click continue to proceed or next for other suggestions.”

Once sets of algorithms (AI) can access multiple (HR) technological platforms and can access a wide range of data, the services HR is able to provide will be rich in customization and personalization. This will go way beyond automating basic HR tasks, but these AI bots will learn from their environment and help employees perform better at their work and experience their workflow in a way that suits them.

Impact on the HR function

We are already seeing a shift of mindset in HR towards business impact and I think we can all agree employee experience is currently the most popular buzz-term in HR.

Put simply, the automation of HR processes gives HR business partners more time and focus on tackling actual business issues instead of chasing managers to do their performance reviews on time. This means that HR experts can focus on improving the integrated employee experience instead of constantly reinventing basic talent practices in their own siloes.

In the distant future, we might actually see that HR foremost becomes an R&D function. As AI-driven technology is tasked to run an integrated HR operation and delivers automated communication along the way, the main concerns for HR are:

  • to make sure the ‘machine’ has new ways to integrate valuable data
  • to use scientific methods (e.g. psychology, market analysis) to develop and configure algorithms appropriately

Beyond the HR operation, AI-driven technology might produce strategic scenario’s based on data and provide suggestions for tactical HR policies accordingly. HR leadership will then only need to make choices (or conclude that the algorithms are not configured correctly).

On a final note

In conclusion, we might want to start thinking about the further implications of automation beyond the replacement of simple HR tasks. As AI technology advances we might also rely on complex algorithms to replace significant and time-consuming parts of the decision-making process in strategy and policymaking: collecting and processing information. 

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