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To Automate, Or Not To Automate, For HR, That Is The Question

Posted by Mathew French

27 August 2019

The technological revolution has brought with it both hope and fear, excitement and trepidation. The jury is still out on whether the advances that technology enables will be overwhelmingly positive or negative. The reality is that it we humans need to take responsibility for making well informed, intelligent decisions about how we use and apply technology in our lives to ensure that the results are positive. Nowhere is that more relevant than in the workplace. Over the next few weeks, we will be doing a deep dive into HR automation to unpack the latest research, best practice and trends about how to apply HR automation to the employee lifecycle. This blog series will highlight what every leader and HR professional needs to be aware of in order to make those fully informed decisions about HR automation so as to ensure that the effects those decisions have on employees and the workforce generally, create positive results for all parties. Not to mention for the future of HR and the future of work.

The People Equation

In his latest book 'The People Equation,' David Crawley makes the very important argument that 'innovation is people, not products.' In the book, he argues that if automation were to replace the manual, repetitive, administrative tasks of you and your co-workers, the organisation could still thrive by relying on a crucial tool: its innovative spirit. In what Crawley calls the 'fluid economy' of a world of work in transition, the long-term viability (and profitability) of business will necessitate innovation. To achieve this, organisations will need to rely on the wisdom of employees, with a particular focus on knowledge workers. The People Equation proposes that now and even more so into the future, 'social intelligence, cross-cultural competency' and 'human skills' hold greater value than their 'hard skills.'

“Because the modern hierarchical company is organised principally to get many tasks done rather than to generate new thinking, companies will have to organise differently; they will have to have different business processes and a different mind-set about how they treat their people.”

Viewed through the lens of HR automation, what exactly does that concept look like when applied in the workplace? This series of four blogs will explore exactly that.

What Is Automation, Exactly?

Automation refers to the use of electric or mechanised processes to perform work without—or with reduced—intervention by humans. Examples include robots that flip hamburgers, computer algorithms that eliminate human employees in medical and legal offices, and driverless automobiles and aerial drones.

In a report on the impact of automation on jobs, PWC defines characterises automation as involving three overlapping waves:

  1. An Algorithm Wave: The first wave of automation, which is already well underway, is primarily an automation of simple computational tasks and analysis of structured data. This includes manually conducting mathematical calculations, or using basic software packages and internet searches. Increasingly sophisticated applications for processing big data and running machine learning algorithms are available to the market and being commoditised. However, it is these more fundamental computational job tasks that will be most impacted first.
  2. An Augmentation Wave: The second wave of automation is expected to involve a more dynamic change to how many job tasks are conducted, in particular those that are routine and repeatable. For example, routine tasks such as filling in forms or exchanging information, which includes the physical transfer of information, will increasingly be augmented by technology. It is also likely to see a decreased need for many programming languages as repeatable programmable tasks are increasingly automated, and through machines themselves building and redesigning learning algorithms. This will also involve further advances in robotics, although generally these will not be fully autonomous during this period but will operate with the assistance of human workers and augment their capabilities. The impacts of this second wave are expected to emerge on an economy-wide scale during the course of the 2020s.
  3. The Autonomy Wave: The third wave of automation is one of autonomous AI and robotics that will further automate routine tasks but also those tasks that involve physical labour or manual dexterity. Problem solving will increasingly extend from analytical modelling of structured data to problem solving in dynamic real-world situations that also requires responsive actions to be taken. This will include the simulation of adaptive behaviour by autonomous agents, such as in factories or in transport. The full impacts of this third wave are only expected to emerge on an economy-wide scale in the 2030s, even though some of these technologies are already being piloted now.

The Automation Revolution

SHRM's recommendation on HR Today, is that no one should fear automation’s disruptive power. If managed well, with the right leadership, and a considered approach to implementation, automation can be embraced to enable the workforce to smarter and focus on customers.

With the algorithm wave already well underway, employees are already comfortably working side by side with ‘assistant’ bots that help them input and process tasks. This is just the beginning, however, as automation advances it will become possible to make routine activities simpler, freeing up employees to provide a deeper, more personal customer experience. And to say goodbye to the type of repetitive, manual labour that bogs many people down. It is hard to debate the benefits of face-to-face interactions, and when employees are freed up to be more effective across all products than online tools, as well as giving them the capacity to better serve consumers, 

On the other hand, preferences change over time and the human element may become less important. Younger generations are more comfortable with technology, and some might be quite happy having a Siri or Alexa automated assistant as a co-worker.


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Automation and HR

Most HR organisations spend an inordinate amount of time on manual administrative tasks. In near direct conflict with this reality is the search for ways HR can offer greater strategic contributions to their organisations. Iron Mountain have conducted a significant amount of research into how automating HR processes as a means to create the time and HR resources to move to more strategic roles. Results indicate that respondents from highly automated HR departments are about twice as likely to enjoy above-average productivity and considerably more likely as those from the least automated HR departments to say they enjoyed above average HR effectiveness (38% to 25%).

There's no doubt that a more automated future is coming. Employers predict 17 percent of work will be automated by 2020, compared to about 5 percent in 2014, according to Willis Towers Watson, a global consulting company.

Automation drives advancement not by eliminating jobs but by eliminating particular job functions at which humans are inefficient, inconsistent or exposed to risk, according to Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson and co-author of Reinventing Jobs: A Four-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).

Want to discover more about how automation can improve your organisation at every stage of the employee lifecycle? Simply click on the link to explore the blog.

HR Automation SHRM KPMG

​A recent KPMG report found that virtually all HR functions can and will be automated. Of 21 responsibilities, KPMG found only five to be relatively less susceptible to automation:

  • People performance whole system architecture (building a high-performance work system).
  • HR and business strategy.
  • Organisational effectiveness.
  • Change management.
  • Employee relations.

Outlined in the remainder of this Blog are some of the areas of HR that will be most impacted by automation.

  • Workforce Planning: as automation takes hold, HR professionals will need to re-examine their organisations' workforces and the mixture of full-time employees, part-time employees, contractors and machines. Shaping the workforce is a new discipline for HR and one that includes key skill sets that HR is often not well-versed in, such as being evidence-based, using insights and analytics, and seeing organisations as complex systems and architecting those systems.
  • Data Analysis: Automated functions are easy to measure, record and analyse, meaning that enormous quantities of data are a byproduct of automation. Increasingly powerful HR tools, including smarter human resource information systems (HRIS), also generate terabytes of data. As a result, many say HR managers at larger employers are being asked to stay abreast of all data-driven workforce trends.
  • Implementing Automation: HR professionals often have a critical role in implementing automation efforts, which can be enormously time-intensive, complex and stressful. Introducing process improvements that affects how employees perform their jobs can lead to a reduction in the workforce. Such implementation needs to be handled intelligently, sensitively, collaboratively and transparently to ensure the best possible outcomes for all parties concerned.
  • Hiring: The sourcing and hiring processes are becoming increasingly automated. This is transforming the role of HR professionals, who will have more time to focus on higher-level functions. Many organisations will be chasing the same types of tech-savvy employees, and HR will  need to lead the way in finding them, competing effectively for them and facilitating speedy offers, as delays often result in losing prospects to competitors. Chatbots and intelligent analytics are already performing this type of automated sourcing. The human (re)sourcers who remain, some say, will use technology to analyse and widen the pool of potential candidates.
  • Training: Automation will help make employee training an enormous area of opportunity for HR, says Willis Towers Watson's Jesuthasan. Use of simulators and electronic instruction will increase. The old process of master-apprentice, wherein employees are slowly trained by masters in their jobs, will be supplemented and in some cases replaced by digital training. Apps, webinars and recorded training will allow employees to learn on the job during lulls in workflow or when they need it, rather than when the schedules of a large number of individuals allow. HR also may have a role in training machines, which need knowledge from real people and help adhering to human standards. Unsupervised technical employees can, for example, inadvertently impart biases, such as racial or gender preferences, into systems.
  • Administration: Increasingly, automation is enabling employees to establish digital personnel records. That allows them to update and track employment milestones throughout their tenure with the organisation. HR may have an increasingly important role in overseeing such records and helping determine how much information should be shared within the organisation. These platforms will also allow employees to access their basic records and perform simple HR transactions themselves.

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Keeping The Workplace Human

Increasingly, employees will be working with machines that don't need benefits, reassurance or human support—or weekends and holidays off. They will provide endless streams of data and conceal nothing. This is prompting fears that automation could lead to a race to the bottom regarding work conditions. Criticisms of Amazon and other technology companies have included allegations of excessive measurement of, and expectations for, employees, particularly lower-level workers.

Ensuring that humans at the top of the agenda is crucial as the level of automation increases. Putting employees ahead of process and technology is the means by which HR can facilitate an organisational transformation without creating negative fallout and long-term consequences. The day we lose sight of the fact that people are at the heart of our organisations, won't just be the day that organisations falter. There are wide-reaching flow on effects from how individuals, organisations, governments, nations and society as a whole manage the integration of automation with humans in the workplace.

Stay tuned for the next four HR automation Blogs as we explore what the human-automation collaboration might look like, what effect automation will have on the future of leadership, workers and the organisation as a whole, and where the greatest efficiency gains can be made by automating HR tasks and processes.

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Topics: performance management, the future of hr, HR automation, Performance Management Software, The future of leadership, Employee Onboarding Software, The future of work, Employee onboarding

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