· Insights

Webinar: Getting HR automation right

Our webinar explored how far HR has managed to automate its processes, and how the function can take this to the next level

When an HR magazine and Sage People webinar last year unearthed that just 2% of viewers felt their HR function was very sophisticated in terms of automating processes and introducing new technologies, alarm bells started ringing. Worse still, almost half (46%) reported that their function wasn’t sophisticated at all.

And yet separate research from McKinsey estimates that 60% of all occupations have 30% of activities that could be automated, highlighting a significant opportunity for HR to unburden itself of some of its more tedious administrative tasks.

It was against this backdrop that a panel on our latest webinar with Sage People set out to debate the topic of ‘HR automation: Getting the transformation right’ and explore how far along HR is on the automation journey.

Why automate?

Speakers on the panel explained why it is crucial that HR focuses on automating some of its processes.

“If we look at our colleagues’ experiences outside of work… they’re taking advantage of technology and from an HR point of view we need to take advantage of that too,” said Sage’s people business partner Emma Ayton. “So I feel we have an obligation to move with that and at pace.”

Beyond the experience technology offers, the panel agreed that the main benefit of automating HR processes is that it can free up time to focus on more strategic value-add activities.

“It’s the age-old argument around creating efficiencies, streamlining processes…,” said Kessar Kalim, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s director of HR. Pointing to concerning figures that 70% to 80% of HRBPs’ time is spent on admin rather than true business partnering, he added that he would rather his HRBPs were “out there with the business and supporting managers in making intelligent decisions”.

“Technology has got so sophisticated nowadays, it’s better at doing repetitive tasks than humans,” added interim HRD Melanie Steel.

Sector differences

The panel pointed to discrepancies in HR’s progress on automation across different sectors. In the tech sector companies are now realising the benefits, said Ayton: “I think it’s making a huge difference. With technology we’re finally drinking our own champagne in how we’re getting things done.”

Meanwhile, the journey is perhaps taking longer in the public sector, pointed out Kalim, adding that the move to automation there requires a “mindset shift”.

Given this mixed picture it’s perhaps unsurprising that an audience poll during the webinar found that more than one in five (21%) organisations have not yet automated any of their HR processes.

The obstacles

There are several obstacles holding HR back from adding a greater degree of automation to its processes, another audience poll agreed, including lack of investment for systems (32%), lack of technical understanding among the HR team (23%), not knowing where to start (15%), and ethical and security concerns around automating the processing of personal data (13%).

Kalim encouraged HR to use financial information to secure buy-in from the business for greater investment in automation.

“Making that financial case is important to convince the CEO, CFO or CMO,” he said. “But to supplement that, the cultural journey is important as well.”

When it comes to tackling ethical concerns, Steel said HR has always had the complex role of “look[ing] at things from a wider lens”.

“In HR it’s always difficult as we need to balance the digital and the business focus and also be the custodians of the ethical perspective,” she said.

But HR has “done this before”, Steel highlighted. She gave the examples of people carrying sensitive people information on trains or reading confidential documents in public places.

So HR must continue to see its role as instilling principles and educating people on this, she said.

Turning things around

Introducing people analytics specialists into the HR function is one way to get started, suggested Ayton, adding that being able to present dashboards and data in conversations with business leaders will give HR “more credibility”.

“You’ve got to make sure people are taking us seriously,” she said. “So we need to make sure we have the right capabilities in our managers and colleagues.”

However, Steel said that predictive analytics might be beyond the reach of some, adding that she would instead encourage a focus on scenario planning for several different eventualities.

“Being able to do those scenarios will be helpful in a future that’s becoming less and less predictable,” she said.

Some areas of HR are further along with automation than others, the panel agreed. Recruitment was found to be the most common area where automation has been applied, according to an audience poll, with 16% of viewers reporting that they’d introduced some level of automation here. This was closely followed by payroll (14%), engagement surveys (12%) and absence management (10%). But adding a level of automation to succession and career planning is apparently not yet on HR’s radar, with just 1% reporting introducing automation to this area.

Keeping the ‘H’ in HR

“There’s still the ‘H’ – the human [in HR],” said Steel. “We have the digital, automation and data – that’s great. And we have the science and the behavioural part… But then [we need] the human; otherwise it’s not HR, as that’s what [makes us] different.”

This human side of HR will be particularly needed to help improve the skills of the future workforce, to prepare them for less admin and more decision-making roles.

Kalim said “mentoring” will play a key role here to help “develop the full human”. “We’ll also need entrepreneurial skills,” added Steel. “To be a great entrepreneur you need to be able to do a whole myriad of skills, not just technical”.

“Bring colleagues on the automation journey and help them be part of the solution,” encouraged Ayton.

Yet for those that still don’t have the right skills, the panel conceded that HR will have to make some difficult decisions about their futures.

A recording of the webinar is available for those who missed the live event.

This piece appeared in the July – August 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk