Predicting the future is a tricky business but if there’s one forecast that can be said with any confidence it is that technological advances, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and the Internet of Things (IoT), will change everything. Such a thing is easily said, not easily done and easily misunderstood, which is perhaps why so many people are concerned about the impact AI, and other technologies, will have on their careers.
What differentiates these technologies from ordinary software are three core components – high-speed computation, a huge amount of quality data and advanced algorithms. To put these three components in context, take for example the once manual job of hiring: one would begin by sorting through CVs (data), then make decisions based on a variety of factors (algorithms) and spending many hours on the legwork (computing power). We are living in an era where AI and related tech are going to have a major impact on the way HR professionals operate. Below, we will explore the impact these technologies are currently having and what the future has in store.
Artificial Intelligence and overcoming bias:
The New York Philharmonic Orchestra has around 100 musicians and when you’re hired, it’s often for life, which in turn makes turnover extremely low. What’s more, during the 1950s and 60s, despite a few outliers, statistically speaking these musicians were all men. But following a discrimination lawsuit in the 1970s this started to change: blind auditions were introduced, whereby a screen was erected separating the auditionee from their interviewer. With the screen literally blocking the hiring committee from seeing who was playing, their decision-making rested only on the quality of the playing. This apparently simple measure had immediate impact. By the early 1980s, women made up approximately 50 percent of the new hires, bringing the total to approximately 10 percent; by 1997 most orchestras had around 25 percent female musicians and today the New York Philharmonic stands, well sits, at over 45 percent.
Although a screen may seem like a blunt instrument by modern standards, technology can be a scalpel. Take for instance, Tengai, who doesn’t care about your skin color, age, family background but only whether you’re qualified for the job. Tengai is a Swedish robot designed to conduct unbiased job interviews and help achieve the municipality of Upplands-Bro’s ambition of recruitment free discrimination.
In a study from the year 2000, Tricia Prickett and Neha Gada-Jain, two psychology students at the University of Toledo, and their professor found that judgements made in the first 10 seconds of an interview could predict the outcome of the interview. But, as the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google put it, ‘’these predictions from the first 10 seconds are useless; based on the slightest interaction, we make a snap, unconscious judgement heavily influenced by our existing biases and beliefs.”
Building rapport, so often considered an essential part of the interview process, is the perfect opportunity for biases to creep in and where discussions around shared sporting interests or old-school networks, say by the wearing of an old-school tie, quickly come out of the woodwork.
AI controlled robots don’t engage in pre-interview chats about which neighborhood they grew up in and therefore doesn’t suffer the same potentiality for bias as a human interviewer would. All of this said, and although an English-language version of Tengai is expected in 2020, there are few companies who would hand over their entire hiring program to an AI-assisted mouthpiece. But, going back to our Orchestra example, even when the screen was used for the preliminary round of auditions, researchers determined this step alone makes it 50 percent more likely that a woman would advance to the final round. If organizations started using technologies such as Tengai, at an initial stage, it could significantly increase the percentage of people from diverse backgrounds progressing further in the recruitment process.
Structural and wearable IoT
In the pursuit of being the best, athletes across the globe track how fast they can run, how much they can lift, the amount of sleep they get and the number of calories they consume. By measuring and monitoring these inputs, athletes optimize their performance and, when done correctly, take home medals. While those reading this may not be the next Roger Federer, as we all know, the desire to quantify, measure and monitor ourselves has spawned an entire industry of wearables that we all use day-today. On the other hand (ho, ho, ho), while IoT devices usually conjures up visions of consumer products Deloitte research has suggested that at work we behave as “corporate athletes”, ‘dealing with too many decisions, too many emails, and too many meetings in not enough hours’. What’s more, two-thirds of all businesses characterize their employees as being “overwhelmed”. Professionals, just as readily as athletes, need tools to track our productivity and our mental and physical wellbeing.
One company already applying IoT tech at work, is IT services provider Tieto in its Finnish HQ. As part of encouraging a laid-back culture, the company introduced hot desking and flexible arrival and departure times for their employees – good for increasing team morale, less good when your colleagues are hunting you down for a meeting. The solution lay in a combination of structural and wearable tech. Employees carry sensors on their person that displaying their whereabouts on screens based throughout the building, while furniture and meeting rooms are also equipped so that employees can see where meeting rooms and breakout spaces are available, also in real time.
IoT enabled offices may yet prove the way to get so much of the world’s workforce, currently working from home, back into the office. The open plan office, once so much in demand as our previous example demonstrates, may become unstuck by employees needing to maintain ‘social distancing’ gaps in order to reduce the spread of this and any future virus. One such company hoping to help staff back into the office is British robotics firm Tharsus who have developed a wearable that uses radio frequency tech to scan for other devices in close proximity and alert the wearer when they are getting to close to another employee. While the prospect of forcing employees back to the office and then tagging them with a bracelet, would hardly be conducive to most staff’s wellbeing, the development of these technologies certainly poses an interesting concept for what offices may be like in a decade’s time.
Finding a needle in a haystack
At its most basic, machine learning provides exploratory data analysis and diagnostics, or in other words, it finds a needle in a haystack. And what this can look like in practice, is that it can deduce which of your employees are going to quit before they do. Take for example, IBM’s patented “predictive attrition program” which, by trawling through vast amounts of data can with 95 percent accuracy (according to IBM) identify workers about to jump ship. And according to their CEO quoted in CNBC, this AI technology has so far saved them nearly $300 million in retention costs.
While the innovations at IBM may seem like the beginning of a sci-fi boxset and only accessible to the privilege of a few, this technology is already available at the fingertips of many HR professionals. Understanding and analyzing key factors linked to flight risk combined with informing managers ahead of any trigger points for the employee is slowly becoming a reality. This, alongside toolkits and training will aid better understand and give mangers the power to have meaningful conversations with employees about why they’re feeling the way they do.
This technology is already having a profound impact on the way that HR professionals can do their job and as time progresses, it’s only going to improve. One important thing to remember about tools, even powerful ones such as these, is that they are just that tools and that it is humans who will be required to be able to step in and act on the data that it feeds in. In this instance a human touch will be required. The technology will just have helped inform it.
AI, ML and IoT have the potential to transform the way that HR professionals carry on with the daily routines. From transforming how offices operate to ensuring that a real meritocracy exists when hiring, they truly have the power to improve the world in which we live. Employees and professionals alike are going to be impacted in a multitude of ways and so it is important to know the lay of the land and understand what the future has in store. Current events, from the pandemic to protests about bias, clearly show that change is required and fast – as these examples show, technology will be able to help meet this need.
Kristofer Karsten, Head of Human Resources, Ceridian Europe