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Automation in HR: Robotisation without losing sight of the human dimension

by Anne van den Berg

Although automation and robotisation are emerging in Human Resources (HR), the conversation that took place during CIOnet’s webinar on the future of work was mostly about people. ‘Automation in HR is about harnessing talent without losing  the people-focused dimension,’ one of the panellists said. But what that will look like differs from company to company. ‘That is also what makes our profession so interesting.’

Automating HR sounds like a contradiction in terms. This profession is about people, so, when it comes to the future of work, what role are robots going to play in it? This question was the focus of CIOnet’s webinar on the future of work and the impact of automation. Several HR experts joined in, including the People Lead of Randstad Digital Factory, a board member of the global HR Federation and an RPA specialist from UiPath.

What is work?

According to Suzanne Jungjohann, People Lead at Randstad Digital Factory, three key questions come up when she talks about the future of work: what is work, how will that work be structured, and in what way will we work? These three questions are influenced by the rise of the machine that is taking over more and more tasks, thereby requiring people to work differently, but also enabling them to work more remotely.

The answers to her own questions show that a dichotomy is actually emerging, one that recurs throughout the webinar namely that human beings are central, but machines have become indispensable. This dichotomy is also evident in the survey conducted by the World Federation of People Management Associations (WFPMA) among 6,700 participants from 113 countries.

Employee centricity vs data centricity

Panellist Lucas van Wees, a member on the board of the World Federation of People Management Associations (WFPMA), says: ‘Research shows that the importance of the employee is central. We call that employee centricity. On the other side we have data centricity, where automation is central. We’re talking about automating HR processes, but also broader processes in which HR plays a role.’

Because human beings are just as central as machines, standardising HR processes in off-the-shelf solutions is not really feasible, Mrs Jungjohann explains. ‘The standard packages are fast and effective, but not friendlier for the employee.’   So we cannot go about just automating everything, otherwise we will lose the human dimension, Mrs Jungjohann explains. ‘There are question marks about what may and may not be done, according to the AVG also.’

Automated learning advice

Where great strides have been made in her view and what works well is the use of data for outplacement. ‘That is mostly automated nowadays. You indicate what you want and what you can do, and a suggestion for a training course follows. Those are fantastic developments.’ Just like the opportunities that online learning offers, Mr Van Wees says: ‘An incredible number of people started learning online during the pandemic.’

In addition to advising employees and providing online learning opportunities, companies can get more out of automation, says Cindy Sichtman-Taphoorn, Enterprise Sales Director at UiPath. As far as she is concerned, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can be used to replace repetitive work that adds little value. Especially since you don’t want to waste talents on work that can be easily automated.

Being of more value to an organisation

‘Imagine that you are  now mainly copying data from one system to another. If you outsource that work, you can focus more on analysing reports and what actions you can develop based on the insights you get from them, and be more valuable to the organisation as a result,’ Mrs Sichtmann-Taphoorn says. A different mindset is needed to capitalise on these opportunities, however.

‘You can see that a new phase is dawning, in HR also, where people think about the question: is the system enabling for me? Or how can I make a system enabling? Themes that Mrs Sichtmann-Taphoorn says are at play here include, e.g. conducting reference checks or automating payroll. But, she says, the people-focused dimension is not lost when a robot is deployed.

Deploying robots during a maternity leave

‘Robotisation is for instance used for maternity leave to support the entire process, e.g. reminders to stay in touch, but also onboarding when someone returns to work. It is all about supporting the work, so that the person can do what he or she is really good at, without losing the people-focused dimension,’ says Sichtmann-Taphoorn.

But if our work becomes more and more automated, will we also move towards a three-day working week, the audience asked. Mr Van Wees: ‘It is a fascinating question. Studies by the McKinsey Global Institute show that since 1870 working time has been halved and we have become five times as rich. They estimate that it will be halved again in the coming years.’

Technology as an enabler

Technology is going to be an enabler in reducing working time and increasing productivity, Mr Van Wees thinks. It’s not that easy yet, as Mrs Jungjohann sees it. ‘We have to think about what work will look like. This will moreover be different for every organisation — especially since some companies really work with a collective agreement and cloud native companies deal with their staff differently.’

Technology therefore plays an important role in the future of work, but how can organisations make technology truly enabling? Mrs Sichtmann-Taphoorn: ‘The speed of the digital transformation depends on how the operating model is set up. Digitalisation is all about people understanding the technology and being able to implement solutions, but the alignment between the business and IT is essential.’

What connects people?

Mrs Sichtmann-Taphoorn: ‘To get people on board, you have to answer the questions: what connects them, how does the change fit in with the future of the company and how does it preserve the added value of the individual? If you can answer those questions, people will be receptive to the new situation and you will achieve results faster. Incidentally, the manager plays an important role in this, Mrs Jungjohann adds.

In the end, it is clear that automation and robotisation are bound to play a role in the future of work, but human beings will remain central. How the questions Mrs Jungjohann posed at the beginning are answered will therefore differ depending on each person and therefore each company. ‘There is no one-size-fits-all,’ she says. ‘There are and will continue to be different ways of working, but that is what makes the profession so beautiful.’

Learn more about HR and automation in this fireside chat

See also:

‘Automation requires human-centric IT’

Photo: iStock

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