Artificial intelligence is just beginning to make its presence felt in the way employees are recruited, managed and encouraged to keep their skills up-to-date.

Let’s start at the beginning of the journey. The CVs of hopeful applicants have long been scanned and sorted algorithmically, with many rejected before they ever pass before a human eye. However, this is often a rough-and-ready process based on a few key indicators that ejects a fair amount of good wheat with the chaff.

In future recruitment processes, AI will become a lot more focussed and smarter. As with other areas of HR these days, recruitment is attracting plenty of venture capital (the HR sector attracted $1.741 bn in Q1 2019, compared with around $1 bn for the whole of 2017) and there is a lot of startup activity in the space. One such firm is JamieAi – a specialist recruitment startup based in London that’s focused on data professionals, which was founded by Adrian Ezra, a former banker and headhunter for tech talent in the finance sector.

JamieAi is trying to replicate in software the knowledge that an experienced recruiter who has worked with a client for a long period can bring to both the client and the candidates, to provide a more streamlined recruitment mechanism with improved targeting of opportunities. The aim, said Ezra, is not to replace skilled recruiters, but to give them a way of making the process more efficient and user-friendly.

“Where does it become smarter? Around the matching,” Ezra said. “We’re building AI based on matching criteria, getting the machine to learn what makes a good match, not in a generic form but for a particular case. Why does this individual work better for this client and this individual not? Why do I put this person forward and this one not? I might put him to client X but I definitely don’t put him to client Y.

“An experienced recruiter goes through that subconsciously because they know the client and the candidate. We’re trying to give JamieAi similar expertise.”

The company hopes to have its system fully operational in two years.

Tracking significant events

Companies themselves will be using more AI to check on the well-being of staff – and whether they are likely to abscond. In particular, they should be shining a spotlight on events that have the most profound emotional impact, such as being refused a pay rise when other colleagues were granted one or being overlooked for a promotion. These events have a profound influence on peoples’ feelings towards their employer, but they’re largely left unmanaged, said Brian Kropp, group vice president of analyst firm Gartner, who says that companies have realised they are spending serious amounts of money on HR systems that aren’t always best suited to modern working patterns.

There are certain experiences that employees have that are dramatically more important than [employers] thought

“Companies are starting to realise there are certain experiences that employees have that are dramatically more important than they thought and other things are dramatically less important.”

The trouble is, HR has not traditionally been a centre of innovation. A change of mentality is required so that these experiences can be digitised and mapped, Kropp went on.

“The HR mindset has been ‘don’t take risks’ – because of obviously with something like payroll you don’t want to experiment. But that sort of mindset permeates how HR thinks about what sort of tools and services they should be providing for employees.”

The old process-driven methodologies are no longer fit for purpose, Kropp said. Instead HR needs to work in a more Agile employee-focused way, trying out new ideas and being willing to kill them if they don’t work. The aim should be to use technology to decrease effort, making it easier for employees to engage with HR rather than adding new services and processes, he said.

“Managers and employees don’t need more to do. What HR should really be going after is ‘why is it hard to do stuff?'”

This need goes beyond providing self-service portals, which are often just a way of delegating HR tasks to line-of-business managers. Instead, businesses should try to identify the handful of frequent HR tasks managers and employees carry out frequently and concentrate on making those as frictionless as possible, in the manner of Amazon’s one-click purchasing.

“HR should shift from thinking ‘bells and whistles’ to making it easy, that’s an important change,” Kropp said.

Where AI comes into the picture is in the ‘nudge factor’, gamifying training for an employee based on their professional progress and ambitions, suggesting a manager has a chat with an employee based on their apparent change of attitude, or sending a message to an employee to take a break based on information their laptop’s camera has picked up about their tiredness, or to identify people who may be at risk of quitting as judged by their attendance of meetings or use of a door pass.

Such product features are being created in university labs and HR start-ups. They are attracting big money and we should expect to see them start to appear in the workplace soon.

Whither privacy?

But all of this requires a lot of highly personal data and many will feel uncomfortable about that, particularly if such schemes are mandatory. Pointing to research showing a growing public acceptance of being nudged by technology into behavioural change, Kropp said resistance is likely to diminish, claiming that 50 per cent of employees are now accepting of the idea so long as systems are deployed to improve their health, opportunities and productivity – and not to punish them. It’s also crucial that HR explains how the data is being used, and there should always be an option to opt out.

As technologies developed for CRM and customer experience find their way to pastures new, data-driven and UX-focussed initiatives are springing up all over the place in HR.

Computing‘s recent Delta research found that respondents place a high value on HR vendor’s investment in new technologies like AI, to meet the expectations of employees and ease of use by non-technical staff. As these technologies progress the strtups will inevitably be purchased by the big vendors, but for now it’s a golden age for HR tech pioneers.

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