HR: AI’s Guinea Pig or Champion?

We’ve allowed artificial intelligence into our lives almost without even realising it. Alexa (or one of her competitors) will tell us what the weather will be like tomorrow from a barely distinct command. Netflix’s algorithms suggest what we might like to watch based on viewing habits. Health apps are crunching data and drawing conclusions about our wellbeing while we struggle to get a doctors appointment. 

At work, it’s a similar story. The CIPD’s April 2019 report, People and Machines: From Hype to Reality, found that – despite the technology being in its relative infancy – 32 per cent of UK organisations had already invested in AI and automation, with 22 per cent introducing software to perform cognitive tasks. 

It would appear that demand for AI is there, but what about supply? Because when it comes to company wide adoption of new initiatives there’s usually only one department we look to: HR.

But is the department ready?

Before HR can help the rest of the organization plan and evolve for long-term impacts of AI – a story that’s still in its prologue in most companies – it needs to understand how AI might change its own department.



In 2004, Professor Frank Levy from MIT and Professor Richard Murnane of Harvard University published a detailed study of the job market, listing those professions most likely to undergo automation.

Truck driving was given as an example of a job that could not possibly be automated in the foreseeable future. Back then, busy roads seemed far too chaotic to be navigated by algorithms. But in less than a decade Google and Tesla could not only imagine this, but were actually making it happen. Whether we like it or not, AI has already revolutionised the way we live and work. And the pace of change shows no signs of slowing down.

In this perfect storm sits recruiting. A process that gathers data with incredible speed and churns it even faster. A department that, for many, is top of the list when it comes to benefiting from AI and automation. 

The opportunity for HR is massive and companies are already making decisions on their HR departments – with mixed results. 

A global study by Harris Insights in collaboration with IBM found that while more than 80 percent of employees in the U.S. and UK believe having AI skills will be a competitive advantage for their companies, 42 percent said they don’t believe their HR departments can execute it.

Deloitte’s “2018 Global Human Capital Trends” report showed a similar lack of confidence. It found that while 72 percent of respondents think adopting AI is important for their business, only 31 percent feel ready to address it.

Raphael Roche, the Chief Transformation Architect at Edanlit Techlab & Consultancy believes a mindset shift is required to kick the lack of confidence from decision makers. 

“There is an upside to Artificial Intelligence that can be nailed down and leadership and HR from the very beginning.” 

Only then can the true opportunity of AI in hiring be realised. 


The Opportunity

The potential benefits are significant. In the absence of a heavy administrative burden, HR professionals can be freed up to focus on what really matters: human interaction. 

And, in turn, inspire the adoption of AI across other departments. 

Creating the Next Generation of HR Professionals

A common factoid banded around AI discussions is the threat is poses to job security. 

And although some roles, that are completely devoid of ethics and decision making will be under threat, HR, recruiting and hiring still has a large slice of human left in it. 

Indeed, instead of eliminating HR and recruiting jobs, AI ultimately could end up creating more than it replaces, said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at employer reviews website Glassdoor, at the HR Tech Conference in October 2019. “It requires a big dataset to train on, everything needs to be labeled, and [it] breaks all the time,” Chamberlain said. “They don’t teach themselves, there are always people behind the scenes. People team up with it and end up doing more.”


Putting the Human back in Human Resources

For employees of all kinds, including recruiters and other talent management personnel, AI is a job transformer, automating things people are bad at such as high volume, repetitive tasks. 

This adoption has been seen at the highest level of the public sector. 

William Lovel, Head of Future Technology at Bank of England, believes that AI application has made a massive impact on the overall productivity and happiness of those working there. 

“We used natural language programs to sift through thousands of PDFs, scanning for buzzwords to create shortlists. What that enables us to do is actually make our people more productive.”

AI is already being put to work in key areas such as recruitment, onboarding and employee development. For talent teams, these technologies are helping to free up resources, make better decisions, and crucially, deliver the type of experience that encourages top talent to stick around.

But the adoption of this technology also brings its own problems and will rely on HR professionals knowing when to stick on AI and when to twist. 

Ira Wolfe, TEDx Speaker, Author, and expert in workforce and employment trends, believes that organisations who create synergy between AI and HR will curb the ‘over-administration’ of the role. 

He believes that the call for AI in Hiring has manifested as a two pronged attack. As the technology’s impressive applications pushes from one side, HR’s growing inability to embrace the human in human resources pulls from the other.

“Ironically, HR has become more machine-like than human with an emphasis on administration and compliance. It has itself so buried in forms and procedures, it has no time for human interaction.”

What differentiates humans from machines comes down to skills such as empathy, creativity, communication, and complex problem solving. 

Therefore, interviewing, coaching, mentoring, and development are all still fundementally human processes. Technology also has no ethics, humans do. 

Instead of utilising technology such as applicant tracking software to automate administrative tasks and enhance communication, HR unintentionally and foolishly relinquished its role to technology. People want and need empathy and communication. HR needs to step up and deliver it.  AI and automation can help HR make this happen but only if it embraces technology to automate what should be automated and do what machines can’t.


Removing Bias

Often the companies selling these tools make even greater promises; that they’ll reduce or even eradicate the role of unconscious bias or human ‘gut feel’. After all, a machine can’t make judgements about a name or choice of university or make a guess at an individual’s age. “As humans, we’re not good at judging people without bias – that’s human nature – so assessments and other tools, or blind CVs, can take out that bias,” adds Eubanks.  

Yodel, like many others, is satisfied it runs a bias-free business. But the received wisdom on AI’s role in encouraging diversity is beginning to change – and as the application of algorithms spreads from hiring into performance management, reward and beyond, that makes understanding the real, unintended side effects of the technology crucially important. 


The Warning

Despite only relatively recent developments, AI has already started to make eyes water as the prospects for incredible business applications, automation and more make headlines. 

Sherin Mathew, Founder at AI Tech UK & a Microsoft Analytics and AI Solution Architect at IBM, believes that HR professionals are perfectly positioned to play the role of moderators and work with developers to build better AI.

“Today’s AI has the maturity and capability of a 4 year old kid. What happens when it becomes a rebellious teenager?”

AI sceptics frequently roll out a 2018 story about Amazon, which scrapped an AI-driven hiring tool because it was making choices in favour of male applicants for software developer positions. Because the algorithm was based on data from past success stories – the majority of whom were white and male – it gave lower scores to candidates with female attributes.

Sherin, a big believer in collaboration and education, is the founder of AI Tech UK, a collaborative platform for artificial intelligence innovation. 

“If you want to turbo charge your car, you need to improve your breaks and strengthen your chassis. The same applies to companies looking to supercharge their business with AI.”

New job functions will require new onboarding processes and training. 

“There will be new jobs. Data scientists, analysts, philosophers. These will all be needed for the changes and it will be HR’s job to facilitate.” 

Throw into the mix the damning and sometimes unfair portrayal of HR as a department of technophobes and dinosaurs and you have a recipe for rejection. 

Despite all this, one thing cannot be denied. HR will need to be ready for mass adoption. 



The message is clear: AI is coming to HR, and HR shouldn’t stand in it’s way if it wants to continue to drive positive experiences for its candidates and staff. 

As Ira puts it:

“HR is positioned in the ideal place to be protectors of the human in human resources.”

Only one question remains: will HR be the willing champion of AI or the guinea pig?