A look at what HR leaders think about HR technology

With technology transforming how businesses and HR function, what do HR leaders really think about HR technology?
By: | February 18, 2020

Steve Boese is HRE’s Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. Boese recently spoke at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at [email protected].

One of the resources I like to consult as I plan for themes, topics and speakers for the annual HR Technology Conference is Human Resource Executive®‘s annual “What Keeps HR Up at Night?” survey. The research sheds light on what HR leaders are thinking about, how they are spending their time, and importantly, what subjects, functions, processes and programs are proving challenging to them as they strive to execute their people strategies. At HR Tech, we endeavor to provide the most relevant content program that helps HR leaders see more clearly how modern technology can help them with these most pressing challenges. With that said, I wanted to share a few observations about what the latest HR Executive survey results suggest about the state of HR technology.

What was not surprising
I bet that, even without looking at the results of the survey, you would likely be able to guess most of the top-five concerns that HR leaders responded as being the most pressing and demanding their attention. Retaining key talent, identifying and developing the next generation of leaders, improving employee experience, driving culture change and improving innovation all topped the list—and have been commonly vexing HR and talent leaders for years, perhaps even decades. While the challenges for HR seem to remain more of less the same, the solutions—and, in particular, the nature of the technologies to help drive these solutions—are starting to change.

What was surprising
Of all the options given to respondents about what’s keeping them up night, “effectively using AI and machine learning” came in second from the bottom, with only about 7% of respondents indicating this as a concern. Only “overseeing gig and remote workers,” at about 5%, was lower on respondents’ radar. While gig/remote work coming in so low is surprising, the AI results seem almost hard to fathom—given all the time, energy, innovation, marketing and even general press attention that has been given to advanced tech like AI and the impact of these technologies on work and workplaces. Scores of HR-tech providers have been completely built from or with AI technology, and just about all of the established, legacy providers are incorporating AI into their toolsets. With all this attention and investment in AI for HR, why did using AI rank so low on HR leaders’ radar?

A few hypotheses
I think these data may suggest a few things.

One, there looks to be at least limited success from the HR-technology community—tech providers, consultants, analysts, even event programmers like me—in effectively communicating the value, capability, applicability or even a basic understanding of AI and ML technology to the HR-leadership community. The messaging is seemingly not making an impact just yet. And second, and perhaps more telling, is that the same HR-tech community might need improved and more meaningful messaging. We are all probably talking too much about AI and ML as tech solutions, and not talking enough about how these technology innovations actually speak to and can support what HR leaders tell us over and over again about what is important to them. Probably none of us advocates and providers of AI should even be talking about AI. But rather we should only be focusing on talent retention, leadership development, employee experience, driving culture change, etc. Those are the real challenges for HR, not “implementing AI.”

I will admit, as a longtime “technology” person, I have the tendency to see most business and workplace challenges as ones that can be solved, or at least supported, by the application of the right or best available technologies. At some level this is true, but often in the past it applied to what have been, admittedly, some pretty simple (but important, nonetheless) problems: things like having an updated payroll system to help the organization keep current and compliant in times of growth and with changing legal and regulatory requirements. Or providing employees and managers better, easier to use self-service and mobile access to HR information and transactions. Or even creating a library of organizational information, policies, and learning and training materials. In truth, plenty of the recent HR-tech breakthroughs fall into this category: important, necessary and valuable, but not truly game-changing drivers of competitive advantage.

But this next wave of HR-software solutions—powered by much more advanced tech like artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural-language processing and more—offers organizations and HR leaders capabilities that extend much further than the prior generation of HR technologies ever could. The last 20 years of HR tech have largely been about efficiency, accuracy, accessibility and perhaps even transparency. Perhaps the “automation era of HR tech” describes the main, most common benefits realized by HR organizations, and it could explain why some of these “efficiency” and “accuracy” kinds of challenges rate pretty low on the HR list of challenges. Now, perhaps, it’s finally time to tackle the top of the list after all this time.

The next 20 years or so, in what might likely come to be known as the “AI era in HR tech,” promises much, much more—even if we are not sure, just yet, as HR leaders that we are ready to be interested and invested in AI. But the truth is, we really are interested and invested in making our workplaces better, our employees more engaged and supported, and in creating the best HR organizations that we can. And AI, whether or not we talk about it explicitly, is almost certain to be a part of those aspirations.

Of course, all the innovations and insights about AI in HR tech will be a major focus and feature of the HR Tech Festival Asia in May, where we plan to showcase both the current state and future direction of AI in HR and the workplace. Make your plans now to join us!