How AI is giving HR a shot in the arm

Machine learning assesses future organisational challenges through the lens of employee behaviour, with IBM's Watson able to predict which employees are about to quit.

Lee Naik
By Lee Naik, CEO of TransUnion Africa.
Johannesburg, 22 May 2019

What if I told you that artificial intelligence (AI) could predict that your best employee was about to walk out on you?

IBM Watson can. IBM recently revealed it's able to predict with 95% accuracy which employees are about to quit. Pretty impressive, right?

Now, what if I told you that tomorrow's HR technologies could predict you're headed for bankruptcy in the next two years? Or that your revenue is down because you're not offering the right learning and development programmes?

Much of the focus on new technologies in the workplace has been on recruitment, performance management and retention of employees. But what about the strength of an organisation as a whole?

Sure, it's great to be able to screen employees for the right cultural fit, but what if your culture is the problem in the first place? Flexible work hours can only go so far if your workplace suffers from chronic mismanagement. Good luck building those personalised compensation packages when your profits are in freefall.

HR is the beating heart of the organisation and employees are the blood cells that flow through every part of it.

Often, organisations struggle to identify gaps in their structure or strategy until late in the game. Poor governance, outdated business models, and unclear decision-making processes can slowly consume a business like an illness.

Of course, we know IBM Watson is as skilled at detecting healthcare issues as it is unhappy employees. Could the same approach be used to monitor a company's overall health and wellbeing?

Healthy, wealthy and agile

How do you build a healthy organisation in an age of disruption? We know that creativity, agility and openness to change are needed to stay competitive.

McKinsey identifies several factors that differentiate agile businesses, including knowledge-sharing, meaningful values, role clarity and inspirational leadership. We see similar business practices among the world's top companies. Netflix, for example, identifies independent decision-making from employees, information sharing and transparency as some of its key values.

Because culture and organisational success are so closely linked, the workforce is often the first place where strategic issues manifest. HR is the beating heart of the organisation and employees are the blood cells that flow through every part of it. And just as a blood test can tell us where something's not quite right in the body, your people can give deep insights into what's going on in the business.

Bunch AI, for example, lets businesses define what kind of company culture they are striving towards and then uses natural language processing to assess how well they are adhering to those goals. Deloitte's in-house AI app monitors various productivity metrics, identifying the cause of increasing costs, poor performance and staffing issues. Hitachi has developed its own AI-based happiness meter that uses facial recognition technology to identify when employees are being overworked.

We are also starting to see machine learning used to assess future organisational challenges through the lens of employee behaviour. AppZen, for example, uses deep learning and natural language processing to determine a company's risk profile. Just like fraud prevention technologies such as True Identity can detect suspicious financial behaviour early, AI could be used to identify organisational problem areas before they spiral out of control.

As these technologies improve, we might be able to get a full assessment of a company's organisational and cultural health in real-time, detecting the aches and pains that could grow more dangerous if left untreated.

Just what the doctor ordered

Any doctor will tell you recognising the symptoms is just the first step. There needs to be a drive to act on these insights and fix the chronic issues that keep popping up. Emerging workplace technologies also give us the tools to be able to address the problem areas.

Take Salesforce, named the number one employer in the world. It is focused on creating seamless experiences across the employee lifecycle. It has its own employee service app, for example, that helps employees find the answers they need in real-time. Meanwhile, its Power of Us Hub facilitates peer-to-peer collaboration and knowledge-sharing among employees.

Players like Salesforce and IBM aren't simply slotting talent management tech onto each end of the employee lifecycle and calling it a day. They're transforming their HR function into a growth engine, seeking new ways to unlock strategic business value at every employee touchpoint.

While not every organisation has the benefit of Watson or DeepMind behind them, they can take steps to transform their existing digital strategy for HR.

Reimagine HR's role: Think beyond the traditional functions of HR and start repositioning it as the centre of your organisation. As important as recruitment and performance management are, there is enormous value that HR can bring to the table as a strategic enabler.

Define a holistic vision: What kind of workplace do you want to create? Does your current culture reflect your values and goals as a business? Are they in line with the values that differentiate agile players like Netflix, Salesforce and Amazon from the rest of the pack? Then think of what data you would need to put in place to track the organisation's progress towards each of these values.

Empower people: The number one question you should always ask is how you can enable people to bring value to the workplace as a whole. What HR technology and processes do you have in place to identify their productivity roadblocks? How can you drive their autonomy to make better decisions by giving them access to fast insights and meaningful collaboration tools?

Prevention is always better than cure. It's time to embrace a long-term HR health plan, otherwise you might just find your business on life support.