Unravelling the People Paradox

Challenging themes from HR Technology 2016 Conference & Expo, Chicago

A week on, we’ve just about recovered from this year’s provocative and stimulating HR Tech Conference in Chicago and we’re reflecting on some fascinating debate around the two clear themes that emerged from this wide-ranging event.

The first is the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in HR technology, moving on from the predictive analytics that dominated last year’s agenda. The second is employee experience – putting the humanity into HR.

Traditionally and neatly, you might argue that the former is a fabulously empowering tool to enable excellence in the latter. But we heard a range of interesting and cautionary views that challenge – or at least temper – this assumption.

The positive message about AI is that it’s out there and available to leading-edge businesses to support HR decision-making and power strategic progress. We’re well embarked on an era of cognitive computing, with sophisticated software algorithms that can understand, learn, reason and interact with information gathered from surveys, behavior and hard data to predict outcomes and reduce risk. It can bring a wealth of deeper and more granular knowledge, add new perspectives and influence our people decisions all the way from a micro to a macro level.

But there’s a sense of anxiety emerging about this powerful technology capability.

Within the shift to people-centred HR, something our CEO, Adam Hale, talked about last week, it seems counter-intuitive to give power back to the machine. Employee experience deals with real humans, not personas, and people are not necessarily predictable. If we leap to a reliance on AI to guide our approach, do we risk losing touch with the instinctive, illogical and unpredictable trends and preferences that significantly color the way people work and what brings them fulfilment?

So what about employee experience then? Delegates and speakers discussed employee experience as covering key focus areas that are not simple to quantify. A typical new employee experience index could cover:

  • Belonging: feeling part of the team and a deeper connection in the workplace
  • Purpose: understanding why your work matters and how it contributes to the whole
  • Achievement: the satisfaction of getting it done and being recognised for that
  • Happiness: that elusive inner glow that comes from enjoying your job and workplace
  • Vigor:  levels of enthusiasm, passion and motivation

In measuring these and making decisions to improve the experience, relying only on analysis could fall short. There’s a clash of the head versus the heart here: HR execs and leaders worry about technology running away with itself and getting out of control, with too much faith being placed in data and not enough on gut instinct in decision-making and planning.

What does this mean for HR and people analytics, as AI takes them into a new era of sophistication and continual evolution?

It certainly means that the expertise and experience of the best HR professionals and leaders is needed more than ever, to make sure conclusions and recommendations meet both rational and instinctive human needs. It also means that we need to be careful about suggesting that algorithms and advanced technology solutions are by themselves a silver bullet to solve every HR challenge. Human intelligence needs to control the way we choose to use this powerful, enabling capability.

The power to see the bigger picture, to review performance, to make use of a vast range of data in constructive and enlightening ways and to predict the possible future, has transformed HR and helped leaders to understand the strategic impacts of people-related policies and choices in our businesses. We’re very mindful of the need to keep it in the context of what we know instinctively and experientially about employees, workplaces and human nature.

Learn more about how Sage People is helping mid-market organizations see this bigger picture. We recently announced our new people analytics which revolutionizes the way companies use information, enabling them to know as much about their people as they know about their customers.


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