Could robots take over in the HR department?

Do you remember the film Big, in which Tom Hanks’s character is spooked when he sees that the mechanical fortune-telling Voltar machine is moving and talking, but not plugged in? We saw this same confusion between machine and automaton in the 1850s, when the Mechanical Turk chess-playing machine was exposed – it was not in fact able to ‘think’ for itself, but a mechanical illusion.

As technology has become more and more advanced, it can be even harder today to draw this line, particularly in the field of automation. Is it robotics? Process automation? Intelligent automation? Or just a glorified dashboard list of tasks – an electronic to-do list?

HR is one of the functions that stands to benefit particularly well from Robotic Process Automation. Similarly to the finance function, it encompasses a plethora of entirely rule-based activities that can be easily repeated, and therefore automated, such as payroll.

Although the HR function has arguably led the way compared to other business teams in adoption and integration of technology, this is perhaps now the very factor that is holding it back from easily seizing the true value of robotics.

The automation myth

It’s true – many people processes have been ‘automated’ up to the point at which the business makes its decisions. Many large organisations have invested in business process management technology to tackle the 'hire to retire' cycle, including on-boarding and exiting.

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Here however, we must stop talking about automation, and refer instead to business process management tools, for this is the category into which many of these technologies fall.

Although these processes might be considered to be automated to a degree, this is only true up until the point at which a person is required to make a decision or take an action.

For example – when considering new employee on-boarding, ‘automation’ often only extends to raising a ticket in a shared service centre, letting someone know that they need to set up a new employee.

They must then go manually into the various systems required to create the necessary records, including payroll, health insurance, pension contribution, and tax. In a nutshell, where it hits execution, we’re back to manual input.

We have seen the impact of ‘fat finger’ errors across a range of industries, as they struggle to grapple with and mitigate the impact of over-reliance on manual spreadsheets.

In an HR context, this accuracy is critical, from both an employee management and legislative perspective. Overly complex processes risk staff attrition due to lack of recognition, satisfaction, or frustrating error prone admin, while one missed, inadequate, or mis-recorded background or reference check could bring significant regulatory fallout.

This ‘automation myth’ is even true of some of the more advanced technologies we see today. Take AI (Artificial Intelligence) or cognitive computing for example. All too often, this falls into the same trap of kick-starting the process, before passing on to thousands of workers to complete the task.

In an HR context, this might include interviewing technology, to assess applicants via mobile, desktop, or even in-person, before passing on recommendations for which candidates to interview. Of course, this saves time at that selection stage, though does not address the inefficiencies in the underlying process.

Looking to a digital human capital agenda

As the HR function continues to move up the value chain, the pressure for it to perform efficiently and provide value for money will continue to intensify. Senior business decision makers looking to rid human capital functions – both in-house and outsourced – of repetitive manual tasks, should look to new technologies to transform the traditional HR delivery model.

By introducing robots, businesses can devise and automated intelligent human capital business processes, connecting all critical applications and procedure steps no matter where they are, what they do, or crucially – where they reside.

This holistic view ensures total process efficiency from end to end, helping organisations make better use of the technology that is in place, and freeing up Full Time Employee (FTE) capacity.

From initial requisition, reference checking, and into final appointment, Robotic Process Automation can bring savings through reducing human interaction and speeding up processing time, without compromising the decision making process.

It also has the potential to bring significant savings in master data error handling, introducing standardised policies and procedures that provide instant notification of any inconsistencies in relevant data, to allow the team to manage by exception.

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Robotic Process Automation moves beyond ‘screen-scraping’, and can be scaled to become a virtual workforce, with the potential to run the majority, or even all, of an organisation’s back office if desired.

Although this is often pitched as a 'recipe for headcount reduction', the key to the effective implementation of these robotic systems is integration with human intelligence, and deep understanding of the business processes in play.

Once implemented, staff will find themselves freed up from labour intensive and uninspiring data processing tasks, with more time to focus on the human-intensive roles that robots cannot undertake.

The old saying rings clear – 'if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.' As we move into a new and more mature age of Robotic Process Automation, business leaders will need to move away from asking themselves what they’ve automated, and turn the spotlight on staff numbers and the tasks they are performing. In today’s data-laden, digital and connected world, business’ ability to drive a true competitive edge will be contingent on their willing to expand this toolbox.

Sourced from Neil Kinson, VP EMEA, Redwood Software

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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