Can HR tech replace HR professionals?

Human resources technology enables companies to make quicker, easier decisions about employees, but much is at stake giving power to machines


Amplifying HR

Adoption of HR technology at speed and scale presents a tricky conundrum for business leaders, with many left to answer a difficult question: what role do humans have in human resources?

The functions of HR have always been built upon a senior department having responsibility for employee experience and welfare. But over the past decade, HR tech has grown to become integral to the role. Indeed, estimates of its global worth range from tens of billions to hundreds of billions, indicating its major significance.

AI and machine-learning playing a bigger role

However, as companies have ploughed investment into this side of the HR function, many HR departments have seen budgets and workloads reduced for those tasks previously undertaken by humans.

Such repetitive and manual input jobs have been automated through administration, tracking and talent management software, while computer modelling for people analytics has replaced a human expert’s keen eye for spotting what’s going wrong and what needs improvement.

Artificial intelligence (AI) with machine-learning has become a core focus. It is able to quickly analyse the deluge of data now captured on employees, across performance management, the working environment, productivity, health and wellbeing, and training and development.

But despite these HR tech trends, many argue the roles and budgets of HR leaders should increase to cope with critical organisational and cultural challenges, such as diversity, mental health and the changing workforce.

Áine Hurley, head of the global HR practice at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, is responsible for placing such senior roles and believes these HR leaders are critical to an organisation’s values, purpose and corporate social responsibility.

HR must reimagine human engagement for revised notions of productivity, inclusion, sustainability and innovation

Hurley explains that chief executives are shifting away from hiring HR recruits based on characteristics including “digital acumen, the ability to operationalise change and analytical skills”, focusing on softer, more human, skills instead.

Attributes of HR professionals evolving

“The attributes now looked for in HR professionals include drive and determination, courage, resilience, curiosity, and strategic and contextual thinking, she says, going on to describe how chief executives see these as integral to building purpose-led organisations. “This is a deeply human aspect of the HR role and not something that can be substituted by a piece of technology, she adds.

Historically, experienced HR leaders and HR departments would spend years curating vital knowledge about their people through face-to-face conversations. Such a need for human connection and team support has been clear during the COVID-19 pandemic as remote working became a requirement.

But a fear among HR leaders is companies will develop too much reliance on technology for crucial decisions, including hiring and firing, diminishing the role of strategic and experienced human-thinking.

Covid-19 a catalyst for change

Dr Theresa Simpkin, associate professor at Nottingham University Business School, believes the pandemic offers the perfect time for humans to respond to fundamental changes in the nature of work.

“HR must support and leverage diverse human experience to generate innovative responses to a new business as usual, she says. “This can only come about by divesting long-standing biases and barriers to inclusion. Fundamentally, amplifying the human in human resources is the key to leveraging resilience, outside bureaucratic crisis response, with diversity of thought, experience and capability.

“HR must reimagine human engagement for revised notions of productivity, inclusion, sustainability and innovation, says Simpkin.

In most companies, data-driven evidence from AI and machine-learning will surely make sales and marketing decisions easier. But fears that unconscious human bias is often unwittingly programmed in are well reported, raising concerns this could hamper representation across gender, disability, class or neurodiversity.

Dr Nancy Doyle, an occupational psychologist who founded Genius Within, is fearful explaining that in HR visual recognition software used to pre-screen candidates via video link “has not been programmed to allow for sight loss, facial tics, paralysis or autism”.

She adds: “Our technology is only as good as the programmers who wrote the code. There will be an ongoing need to critique, review and update new initiatives. In HR our role is to take that critical view and challenge implementation without consideration.

“We hold the expertise about the wider impact of technology on culture, communication and strategy.”

Of course, none of this means HR tech has no place at all in the HR function. Indeed, research for Capterra showed 56 per cent of respondents thought AI could make a positive impact on HR, although more than half (59 per cent) would prefer a human manager to make a decision about a promotion.

Tech tempered with emotion

This perhaps demonstrates a need for HR tech trends to be tempered by human emotions. Belinda Parmar, founder and chief executive of The Empathy Business, agrees: “HR departments have an opportunity to lead in embedding empathy into everything we do.

“Seeing leaders being authentic, empathetic and even vulnerable manifests itself through higher empowerment and employee scores.”

For natural food company Wessanen UK, a B corp and brand owner of Clipper Teas and Whole Earth, which balances purpose and profit, this is already the norm. HR director Ann Chambers prizes connecting with employees on a personal level to create a solid team unit. “Our intrinsic care and listening capabilities are what allow us to exude our human principles through HR function each day, she says.

Her view would suggest the difficult questions around a human’s role in HR do have a simple answer: it is critical to ensure HR technology works in the best interests of both companies and employees.

As Lisa Pantelli of simply communicate, a network for internal communications and HR professionals, points out: “HR technology’s benefits are undoubtedly plentiful, but there is no substitute for human relationships.