Taking the robot out of the human

Johannesburg, 13 Oct 2023
CTU Corporate Training Unlimited held a masterclass on AI in HR.
CTU Corporate Training Unlimited held a masterclass on AI in HR.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has a role to play in many areas of business, and human resources (HR) functions are no exception. In fact, one could go as far as to say that AI could redefine the future of HR and even evolve it to become DR – digital resources.

To unpack the possibilities, CTU Corporate Training Unlimited held a masterclass on harnessing AI in HR in early October. AI advocate and thought leader, Professor Johan Steyn, led the masterclass. Steyn started out by saying that AI is often a hugely misunderstood topic and there’s a tendency to overestimate its capabilities.

AI has diverse applications across HR verticals, from recruitment and performance appraisal to learning and development and talent management. The masterclass aimed to explore the role and impact of AI in different HR areas, investigate opportunities for AI integration, understand best practices and obstacles, leverage AI-generated insights and design AI integration plans tailored to specific HR needs.

Steyn highlighted that while AI can be valuable, it will never replace human experience and common sense. These human qualities remain relevant and valuable. He says before implementing AI, organisations should ensure their basic processes and existing technology are being used effectively. “AI can’t fix broken processes if the foundational structure is flawed.”

Looking at the potential future impact of AI on human beings – including advancements like brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering, artificial organs, nanotechnology and the concept of "post-humanism" – highlights the increasing importance of HR’s role. “As AI and automation become more prevalent, the role of HR professionals may evolve to manage not only human employees, but also non-human AI entities. This could require new onboarding processes and considerations.”

Steyn says we need to take the robot out of the human. What he means by this is that there should be a clear division of labour, where all mundane, repetitive and low-value tasks can be performed by AI. This frees up employees to do higher-value tasks that are unique to humans. “When we create roles, advertise and recruit, we need to keep this in mind. Are we bringing people in to do work that we know robots will do in a few years' time? How can we utilise our employees’ human ingenuity and problem-solving skills, and set them free from tedious tasks? By asking these questions, we not only remove the fear of AI taking over people’s jobs, but it can also relieve them of tasks they don't enjoy.”

HR tasks involving administrative work and decision-making, and even employee interactions can be improved through AI. Automation can be used to streamline processes such as recruitment, interviews and employee engagement. The technology can improve both the employee experience as well as that of people wanting to interact with the business by, for instance, applying for a vacant position.

Steyn advises HR practitioners wanting to onboard AI to start by creating a business case for the technology and convincing the board that it can impact the bottom line. He says: “Start small with a use case that makes a lot of sense and has a positive impact. People will go from not understanding the technology to realising it is helping them do their day-to-day job. When it comes to AI initiatives, there is always resistance to change. That, combined with a lack of expertise and budgetary constraints, are the biggest barriers to AI adoption."

He advises that a successful AI business strategy should encompass various elements, including a smart technology ecosystem with AI, machine learning, etc, at the centre, supported by organisational design, regulatory compliance, change management, reskilling and upskilling. If any of these are lacking, AI deployment can fail.

HR plays a significant role in preparing the workforce for AI adoption, says Steyn. The business needs to consider how it can better use its existing tools, then find the right use case for AI and find a balance between human/technology collaboration.

The HR practitioners must ensure that they’re harvesting the right kind of data on employees and using it responsibly to better manage them. Data analytics can be used to predict workforce trends and align talent strategies with business goals, ensuring the business has the talent it will need in the future. It can also help with employee retention, by analysing turnover data and designing AI-driven retention interventions.

One key aspect of AI deployment, according to Steyn, is that AI in HR must comply with ethical and legal standards, and efforts should be made to detect and correct biases in AI algorithms. At the same time, protecting employee data with stringent cyber security protocols is essential.

In summary, HR professionals are advised to approach AI with common sense, seek the right expertise, start small in the right areas, think about future AI-HR dynamics, use data responsibly, demystify AI and make the most of existing tools.

A last thought from Steyn: “AI will never replace HR, but it might replace HR professionals who don’t embrace AI!”