5 Misconceptions About Automation in HR
As automation becomes increasingly integrated into the way we work, concerns over change have created much misinformation about the technology. This article seeks to bust the most common myths about automation and elaborate on its potential in the context of HR.
Much of the conversation about automation today revolves around the anxiety—harbored by nearly 60% of Americans, according to Indeed—that automation is coming to steal our jobs.
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One is liable to hear evidence of such alarmism everywhere they go—it’s prevalent across many industries and disciplines, and the field of human resources is no exception.
This is in part due to the fact that automation has already altered the role of HR as a business function pretty meaningfully. Neel Gandhi of McKinsey and Co. put it plainly earlier this year when he wrote, “use of software with AI and machine learning capabilities to handle repeatable tasks that humans have traditionally performed is changing the delivery of HR services.”
In truth, however, the concern that automation is dangerous for workers springs from a variety of obdurate misconceptions regarding both automation’s potential application in the context of HR, as well as its role in the workplace more generally. Here are a few of the more pernicious ones—along with why, exactly, they’re incorrect.
1. Automation is about replacing people
Perhaps the biggest misconception about automation is that it exists solely to replace people. This isn't true. Automation exists to eliminate inefficiency and, in turn, empower people to do more fulfilling, important work.
In the context of HR, automation has the potential to solve many of the more obdurate problems that have long wasted HR professionals’ time. For example, automation helps connect systems and applications to complete processes or projects end-to-end that would otherwise require tedious, manual workarounds.
To this end, is automation eliminating some purely administrative tasks, like data entry, box-checking, and QA? Yes. Is it eliminating the need for human employees in the field of HR altogether? No; that will never happen. Automation is merely a means of augmentation. It requires human beings to direct it. As Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson, noted in his book, Reinventing Jobs: A Four-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work, automation drives innovation not by eliminating jobs, but by eliminating functions at which humans are inefficient.
2. Entry-level jobs should be administrative jobs
In business, the jobs whose primary functionalities are most at risk of being automated away are what we think of as entry-level jobs. The fear of automation as it relates to entry-level work, then, is that automation will eliminate an entire layer of work—making it harder for aspiring HR professionals to break into their careers.
This misconception stems from an outdated understanding of what entry-level jobs can or should be. An entry-level job need not entail fundamentally mindless work, like data entry and administrative toiling. The promise of automation, in fact, is to elevate the work required at entry-level jobs so that they not only provide more value to employers but also prove to be more rewarding to employees.
Entry-level jobs will always exist. College graduates, for example, need to start somewhere as they seek entry into the workforce, however, automation will change that starting point. Students and employees will need to cultivate and hone new skills to meet new talent demands. It’s an opportunity that both entry-level job employers and new employees should strive to seize and prepare for.
3. HR jobs can be automated
Many fear automation because, well, if automation is poised to automate administrative, clerical work, then it could automate many HR business functions. This assumption is just as flawed as assuming HR tasks are administrative.
It is a product of an outdated belief. HR work should not—and is not—limited to administrative tasks. In fact, a shift has been taking place across forward-thinking companies for some time to transition HR from an administrative department to something more like people operations—or, an outfit designed to empower employees across companies to engage in more strategic, high-leverage work.
Google, for example—the company that coined the term “people operations”—has redesigned its entire HR apparatus to that end. The result has been an increase in innovative capacity and employee happiness that’s evidenced by Google’s world-dominating success. The success of its new people operations department also evidences the game-changing potential of leveraging HR developments to drive progress, innovation, and engagement internally.
4. Automation is the same as AI/machine learning
One reason—so far unmentioned—that people fear automation is they conflate it with artificial intelligence. In fact, the difference between the two is stark. Automation solutions are tools that augment and empower—but they’re not themselves sentient; they require a decision-maker or executioner to tell them what to do, a “human-in-the-loop”, in other words.
AI, on the other hand, is defined by the ability to mimic—by way of machine learning—what a human can say, think, and do. Sean Chou of CMSWire defined the difference well:
AI can deal with conceptual ideas and uncertainty and should analyze and apply new information to react to situations. Machine learning is one subset of AI. Automation refers to to...technology powered by programmable bots. Automation follows rules to handle straightforward tasks, and can’t react to new situations.
In short, automation is not worthy of the same anxious fretting as AI. They’re categorically different things with categorically different use cases.
5. A SaaS platform will solve all your automation needs
Interestingly, many who remain wary of automation adulate software—specifically enterprise SaaS that deigns to automate specific processes and functions. COOs, for example, who believe that to improve the efficiency of a certain business function, all they need to do is purchase a SaaS platform capable of automating the underlying process.
Such a strategy can be unproductive for several reasons. First, purchasing software to automate one process at a time can have a myriad of negative effects. It perpetuates what is called “The Last Mile Problem” in business operations. As Mary Lacity and Leslie Willcocks wrote in the Harvard Business Review when you purchase software to automate processes in such a piecemeal fashion, you in effect force workers to “spend substantial time dealing with...new quirks and shortcomings that are just as endemic to systems as their strengths.”
Asking employees to mold their behavior around the needs and limitations of new applications across an entire ecosystem of platforms and apps means encumbering their productivity with an ever-expanding amount of manual work.
One value-add of automation is that it acts as an adaptive layer to be used on top of packaged applications. This helps to enable more meaningful, seamless integration and in effect prevent this propagation of manual labor. Which brings us to the crux: technology on its own will never be an ultimate solution. It has to be coupled with human creativity, strategy, and purpose.
At the end of the day, companies, employees, and HR departments have a simple choice: work strategically to harness the power of automation, or see themselves go the way of the switchboard operator. As David Tobenkin wrote in HR Magazine, “The understanding and use of the power of automation may prove to be the dividing line between those who advance in the field and those who are marginalized and, eventually, automated out of their HR jobs.”
The first step in preventing yourself from such a fate?
Question your automation-related apprehensions.