Automation, AI and HR

Technology’s effect on HR is unmistakable. We spoke with four HR leaders about their approach to new tools.
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/31/2018

Jenny Poulos

senior vice-president of workforce strategy and employee experience in HR at RBC in Toronto

The financial institution has about 60,000 employees in Canada.

RBC receives roughly one million job applications every year, with recruiters obliged to review each of them manually. So, as a solution, the financial institution recently deployed machine learning to scan resumés at a rate of 2,000 per hour.

“It speeds up our ability to identify talent. It also removes any potential unconscious biases that recruiters may have, and it actually gives us a short list of candidates,” says Jenny Poulos, senior vice-president of workforce strategy and employee experience in HR at RBC in Toronto.

“Recruiters are excited because they don’t need to do the administrative tasks anymore and they can spend more time getting to know and speaking to the candidates that have been shortlisted. And hiring managers like that because we’re coming to them faster with potential candidates for them to consider, and we’ve done a better job assessing them more holistically.”

In 2017, RBC introduced a new job exploration site that uses machine learning to get to know internal and external  candidates and match them with opportunities based on their skills and experience.

“It is a little bit of what you see in LinkedIn but… the AI is a lot more refined,” she says. “It allows us to really get a look at individuals, their skills, serve up what they need — it is very much that Amazon-like experience for job search.”

But in evaluating the potential for automation and AI, cost is not a top consideration, says Poulos.

“It’s really starting off with ‘How do we need to continue to deliver the products and services that we need for our clients given this age of disruption?’ And knowing that, in order to do that, automation helps us move quicker. We need to invest in new models and some — through that approach — will be finding the cost efficiencies to do that. But it definitely is not a focus on cost efficiencies and pulling out headcount to enable that.”

Because of the speed of change, and the unknown, she says, “we need to make sure we are stepping into this quite systematically. But we are not seeing the impact to people losing their jobs — nowhere near what over a couple of years ago people were projecting. We’re excited about the new opportunities that will be available.”

While technology, digital, AI and machine learning are all going to enable extensive automation, human skills will still be crucial, according to Poulos.

“The human skills are going to be the skills that continue to be really important, so focusing on that will help the population,” says Poulos. “What we have always done and continue to do is make sure as work is changing, that we are upskilling our employees for the future work.”

“We’re at the start of what’s been called a fourth industrial revolution, and with lots of technology, we do see that there will be opportunity that lies ahead, so several new jobs will still be created that don’t exist today,” she says.

“It actually frees up capacity for people to focus on the work they thoroughly enjoy doing, versus the administrative tasks.”

The organization also introduced a feedback app in December. It’s about focusing more on people’s growth and enablement, and coaching each other, instead of following a process around performance management, she says.

“We use an app that helps them provide that quick, real-time, in-the-moment feedback that then can be followed up with a chat face-to-face or voice-to-voice,” says Poulos, noting leaders are also getting involved.

“We’re trying to break down the hierarchy which exists in many organizations.”

RBC is also improving its support to employee development by deploying AI to serve up learning solutions in bite-size pieces, when they need it. “RBC Learn” is a self-serve portal with curated content based on employees’ needs and interests, she says.

“It is a learning place that people will go to and help each other but then, as an organization, we will be serving up content that’s important to them.”

RBC is also looking at digitizing in areas around advice and mentorship, for more work across teams and a less siloed experience, says Poulos.

“We want to make sure it’s a multi-channel experience, so to speak. So you have digital, face-to-face — it’s very relationship-focused still.”

For all the changes, RBC is still a people business, says Poulos. “That won’t change… We’ve evolved over the years, and the speed of automation will create change even faster, but we do see that as creating new and exciting opportunities for people, and the human skills will still be, if not probably, even more important.”

Bryan Ward

manager of HR information systems in HR at the University of Winnipeg

The school has 850 regular employees and 1,900 casual staff.

The University of Winnipeg is constantly looking at things like automation and AI as it works to streamline its processes, according to Bryan Ward, manager of HR information systems at the post-secondary institution in Manitoba.

“While labour costs and service expectations of students and staff have continued to increase — yet governments typically have kept budgets flat — we look to automation and other tools like AI as a way to do more with less,” he says.

“As staff have turned over or maybe transitioned into new roles, we often look at that as an opportunity to transition those repetitive tasks into an automated solution.”

Training is a big part of it, says Ward.

“We’re pretty strategic about when we bring in automation, and we try to do it in a way that’s the least disruptive to staff as possible. And usually it’s done with staff as partner, so we don’t switch whole tasks to automation, but often we have staff who come and say, ‘We think there’s a better way to do something about this. How can we engage or how can we redevelop this?’ That’s where automation comes in.”

Of course, there’s also fear about the impending disruption, but history speaks otherwise, he says.

“When sewing machines replaced manual sewing, the jobs didn’t go away, they just changed. So, I kind of look at AI and automation the same way — the work that’s being done may change, but the work is still there,” says Ward.

“Once you demonstrate some value in automation, really the potential, the way people look at it changes quite a bit. So there’s less fear once they’ve seen that it’s not the work that’s going away.”

The cost savings of automation may take some time to be realized, he says.

“You can’t anticipate that suddenly, by introducing automation, you’re going to be saving tons of money up front. Sometimes you can but it also depends on strategy and what you’re doing and what you’re automating, so to speak. And I think AI will be the same way — it’s not that tomorrow AI will exist and suddenly we’re going to save half our budget. It’s going to be you’re going to learn how to incorporate aspects of AI into your process and into the services you offer and then, over time, you’ll see savings there as your priorities are realigned.”

It’s also important to identify the emerging skills required with automation, says Ward.

“What we’ve often seen is that automation has played a key role in — and in some cases, has taken over — roles or tasks that were done by entry-level positions or formerly entry-level positions,” he says.

“Suddenly, that opportunity for learning on the job and moving into higher-level roles has also decreased. So when we’re now looking for new employees, they need to have a higher skill set already coming in the door... Now that that lower level is being performed by automation, they already need to have a higher level of skill when they’re joining the institution.”

The university has not really delved into AI at this point, but it’s being considered for the future, says Ward.

“It’s an area where there still needs to be more development to see how it would really apply to an institution like us, or our workflows.”

The area of employee benefits has potential, he says.

“We really see that as something in the future that could be handled by AI because it would know who’s asking questions and it would know what those benefits are and could answer a lot of those questions on its own. But, certainly, that’s the future — we’re obviously not there yet.”

And with HR sitting in between people and business, it’s well-placed to facilitate how automation impacts organizations, says Ward.

“As a sector, HR generally is still working on learning how automation can fit into the services we offer. But I also know HR people are resilient and creative people so I know it wouldn’t take much to incorporate that into the services they’re thinking about.”

Chris Taylor

CHRO at Best Buy Canada

The Vancouver-based company has 12,000 employees in Canada.

The topic of automation and AI is one of the biggest issues in the HR community right now, according to Chris Taylor, CHRO at Best Buy in Vancouver.

And while it’s not a topic that’s being overblown, it’s possible the pace of change won’t be as fast as some people think, he says.

“I think that whole idea of exponential growth in the space will be accurate. I think it’s going to take off very rapidly but I think over the next year or two, as companies invest and start to get in the space, it won’t be overnight; I think people are trying to figure out their data strategies.”

In the retail and “e-tail” space, automation is heavily driven by consumer expectations, with people looking for a fast, seamless experience, says Taylor.

“It’s really a war for time, and using technology to save people’s time,” he says. “It’s about how automation can move product through the warehouse more efficiently and get it out the door to a customer.”

Over time, that type of automation will start to replace mundane, repetitive jobs, says Taylor.

“But we hope we can reskill people who are interested in learning about this technology and stay(ing) within the organization. And the turnover within those areas is generally quite high anyway, so we don’t see a forced situation where we would be losing or costing jobs. But we see over time implementing this type of technology to be more efficient for our business and our customer and, at the same time, giving people way more interesting work they aspire to — so we think it’s a win-win.”

One of the big areas of focus is the cloud, with Best Buy making a fairly significant investment to move its customer service technology and HR technology there, he says.

“We believe once we move our key platforms to the cloud, then we’re in a better position to maximize AI and automation in the software world, and be managing those releases throughout the year, every year, whereas a lot of companies are stuck with the old technology and can’t move at the pace that needs to happen. So I think if companies aren’t investing in the cloud today, they’re going to be left behind very, very quickly.”

In HR, the move to the cloud includes transactional work in payroll but also opportunities in the talent acquisition space, says Taylor, “using some of the algorithms and AI tools to both attract and assess the best candidates, so rather than wait for them, use the technology to source the web to find individuals that best fit our organization.”

Then it’s about looking at building the data strategy and understanding why people join Best Buy, why they stay and why they leave, he says.

“(It’s about) how we use that data to make sure the programs we develop and the information that we get to them is getting to them before they even ask for it. I think that’s what AI and the cloud does, it starts to understand the behaviours through the system that your employees are using and… you can start to cater your information and curate directly to individuals.”

Information is not always available, so inefficiencies remain for employees when it comes to finding answers,  says Taylor.

“We see the future solution having answers and information at their fingertips, across the suite, which frees up our leaders, frees up our employees to do the work we want them to do, to ultimately take care of our customer. It won’t be easy.”

“There’s a data strategy that’s going to take a couple of years. I think all companies realize it’s not an overnight (process) but it’s pretty exciting work and in a couple of years, it’s going to look very, very different.”

In implementing these changes, work processes will change radically, and hopefully take away a lot of repetitive tasks, he says.

Of course, there’s a small fear that would mean a reduction in headcount, says Carter.

“Any company is going to want to look at that, and say, ‘It should at some point create some savings for you’ but as we roll it out, we’re going to make sure our team is just transferred to more interesting work.”

It’s very exciting work but it’s going to take some time, and everybody’s trying to figure it out simultaneously, he says.

“This technology shift and data shift has, I believe, brought organizations closer together, even ones that actually compete to some extent, to have better discussion about how they move and thrive going forward, so there seems to be less fear of sharing,” says Taylor.

“I’ve never felt a stronger sense of community of the HR individuals in my market and across the country… so that’s a product of how fast technology’s moving, that companies feel like ‘If I don’t get out there and network and talk to my peers, there’s a chance (I) get left behind there,’ and there’s a lot of openness to that, which I think is awesome for the Canadian economy.”

Ingrid Wilson

vice-president of HR at Echelon Insurance in Toronto

The company has about 250 employees in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C.

When it comes to trends in automation, the insurance industry has endured a few challenges, according to Ingrid Wilson, vice-president of HR at Echelon Insurance in Toronto.

“You have a lot of paper-based (work) and (it’s about) trying to move towards client expectations which are ‘Can I buy insurance on my mobile phone?’”

In addition, there are a lot of long-term staff in the insurance sector, she says, “so for some it will be challenging for them to make those transitions.”

When it comes to HR being prepared for the disruption, it varies, says Wilson.

“Because we move at such a fast pace here in terms of thinking, I need my HR team to be very adaptable, and it’s been a challenge to me through the years to get people who have 20-plus years’ experience to shift to that adaptability because they’re still carrying ‘Oh, I need to do the paperwork before we respond to the client’… whereas I’m more focused on ‘What’s our end game?’”

The firm’s small HR department is trying to use more online tools for its work, and looking to provide staff with benefits accessible via mobile devices, she says.

“We have to reiterate to employees every year ‘You do have online tools you can use.’”

Echelon is also looking at automation in areas such as accounting and bookkeeping, according to Wilson.

“Because we’re a public company and there’s a lot of requirements and lot of time-crunching, there are tools that the accounting team (members) are using that allow you to share documents and update documents and allow them to focus on the end product, the financial statement and efficiencies, returns on equity… rather than the more service-driven, very administrative pieces. So we’re automating there where we can,” she says.

But staff aren’t necessarily told this is about automation.

“The way we approach it is ‘We’re trying to allow you to focus on the more strategic items, and take away the more manual, administrative (part),’” says Wilson. “But that also means a different mindset, when you have a generation that’s been working with people forever — it’s retraining them on how to use those tools.”

“It’s really the focus about getting used to it, and the stress around learning a new tool versus their jobs. We don’t focus on ‘Oh, you know, automation’s going to have you losing your job in the future’ because we’re retraining people on using tools. It’s an enhancement for them, whether they stay with us or go outside to another company. And, quite frankly, the personal tools they’re using, Siri, Alexia, Google Play… they’re using those tools outside as well, so if you think about it, it’s not just work, the world around is changing as well.”

Some of the talk about automation and AI destroying jobs and industries is a little overblown, she says.

“It’s really up to the company and the HR team to transition people... A big part of it is retraining staff for new skills, and pulling them away from more technical skills. Especially insurance — we’re very technical and we don’t concentrate on the soft skills so much,” says Wilson.

“There’s a small percentage that will make the decision ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but there’s others who will realize, once they get training, ‘This is giving me more skills to help me with real life out there.’”

For HR, it’s about identifying the skills and competencies needed by staff, whether you’re a professional, supervisor, manager or more senior person.

“We’ve rewritten our performance reviews this year,” she says. “We’ve written our competencies so that they’re more simplified, connected at different levels, and then they’ll work through the online performance tool… so each of the employees will know the competencies of each level.”

“It does (account for AI and automation) because it identifies those higher level soft skills, so not just leadership and collaboration but what we call effective communication, being able to weed out the fluff and what’s not really necessary, and critical decision-making, especially as you go through the levels, how to get from A to Z without the unnecessary diversions.”

Human skills have been talked about for a while, says Wilson, but they’re even more critical now.

“Anybody who comes through the door is expected to have the technical skills for the role. It’s those other pieces, and where is this role going to be in next five years: Are you looking for this to be a leadership role where they have those leadership skills, the critical thinking, effective communication — all those other human skills we need? So that’s a discussion that may happen at the beginning.”

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