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What we watched this week… Automation: Getting the transformation right

ThePeopleSpace editorial director Siân Harrington watches the HR videos so you don’t have to. This week – is HR prepared for the automated workplace?

HR automation

HR too often ‘automates the spreadsheet’ rather than exploiting the full capability of automation to transform the employee experience.

The function regularly sees automation as a way to do the same it has always done, just using a system rather than paper.

“It is missing a trick. Instead of individuals driving what’s needed automation becomes polarised into HR. Some of this is not understanding the capability the automation brings, and some is not working closely enough with CCOs and IT to really understand the power of what these tools can do today,” Melanie Steel, non-executive director of the British Retail Consortium and an interim HRD, says on a webinar organised by HR magazine.

I would much rather the HR business partners I work with were there to make informed and intelligent decisions than sitting behind spreadsheets and trying to collect data for days on end

By approaching automation in a more joined-up way, an organisation can capture data that can be used by managers, individuals and HR, enabling HR to be transformed in terms of service given.

“Companies who have been on that journey have continued to invest in it. Once you get on it you don't get off it – it’s continuous improvement and value add. On the other side, though, people are still manual record keeping, at best sometimes using spreadsheets. We're still using paper and pens in some instances as well. The big downside to the organisations who haven't got anything is the lack of getting data and spending the time that's freed up to really drill down into it to help with those businesses decisions and to influence,” says Steel.

Kessar Kalim, director of HR at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, agrees.

“The age-old arguments around creating efficiencies, streamlining processes and saving money are valid. But to build on those, you want your people to be adding sophisticated, important, intelligent input and not solely focusing on administrative input. I would much rather the HR business partners I work with were there to make informed and intelligent decisions than sitting behind spreadsheets and trying to collect data for days on end. Much of our time, some 70%-80% often, especially in higher education, is spent on admin and a lot less time on quality, true business partnering.”

Unsurprisingly industries such as technology are further along the value-add automation journey. As Emma Ayton, people business partner at Sage, says: “Within tech we’re finally drinking our own champagne.”

However, the public sector still has what Kalim refers to as a “cottage industry of whole groups of employees whose jobs are simply to maintain records”. For these people, automation is seen as a threat or a challenge, so it's about shifting the cultural mindset.

Increasing HR's influence in the business

Why does this matter? Well, there are so many activities that can be easily automated in order to free up HR’s time to have more effective business conversations with leaders. Using data and analysis you can anticipate issues that may be 12 months ahead and start planning for them now.

Says Ayton: “We can share way more useful insights into  how business areas are performing. We need to develop our capability to be able to do the best that we can possibly do with this insight to help predict what the organisation could look like and help HR business partners understand scenarios of risk in their organisation that we may not even anticipate is a problem right now. It's so much more powerful and gives us way more credibility because those are the types of conversations that you can have with leaders that will make a massive difference.

“I feel we have an obligation as a function to move forward with this, and at pace.”

Meanwhile, Kalim points out that admin is exhausting and, by the time you’ve done all that, you don’t have much energy or time to focus on more sophisticated, value-adding activities.

Where to start

So what to do? Steel points out that it is hard to do predictive analytics, but being able to scenario plan, ie this could happen and could mean x, or this could happen which means y, enables HR data to be  viewed as commercial as customer data, which is valuable in a future that is becoming less and less predictable.

Having the courage and the conviction to take that first step on the journey is important. The panel points to areas such as recruitment, onboarding, performance management, employee engagement and employee self-service as ripe for automation first. But it is vital this is seen as solving a business issue rather than coming from an HR perspective only.

“What is the business struggling to do at the moment where automation could play a really good role in helping it? The quick wins are the stuff that the business is complaining most about. You get the buy in. You get some of the business wanting to do it. And then you make the job easier for yourself and the team,” says Steel.

Kalim adds that it’s important to have the right people in HR. “If you've got people who are absolutely resistant to change, regardless of automation, it won’t work. You need the right people in the first place because change is happening quicker and it's more unpredictable. So you need people who are change-ready regardless of automation. And that’s been a challenge.

“The problem is HR is very good at doing operational, transactional type stuff. But we are now saying, we don't need you so much for that, we would like you on the strategic side. A good example is the legal sector. There’s technology that legal firms are now using that can scan some 200,000 legal documents a day, whereas previously a junior lawyer would probably scan half a dozen a day. But that doesn't mean junior lawyers are no longer needed. They are just deployed in a much more resourceful way, supporting clients and making better use of their skills and their experience. And that's where HR needs to move to.”

The business case

To convince the sort of CFO, COO or a CEO, start with the numbers. For example, how streamlining a process will save x on the bottom line. But supplement that with the cultural journey, how people now come to work and expect a certain level of automation and technology. And by not having that in place, you'll struggle to attract and retain your key people.

When dealing with vendors, check whether they have clients in your sector and get recommendations. Talk to people who have worked with the technology. Check how future-proof the system is. What will you want to achieve with the software in the next 12, 24 and 36 months? What further out? Is the software on the cloud, as people want to access itfrom their mobile phone today?

Overall, the panel is optimistic about HR and automation. As Steel says: “It’s just helping us create time and bandwidth and getting more accuracy. Automation is a big opportunity for us to be more human.”

Published 10 July 2019

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