One of my observations through my career has been that HR, in the main, is either a remote bureaucracy which might as well be staffed by Martians or a rather dim soul whose jaw hangs half open and does whatever management tells him or her. In the larger companies it’s been the former that prevailed, to the point many HR tasks were outsourced to an office in another country and everyday issues were governed by bulky procedures written by unknown authors who probably couldn’t say what the company does.
This probably doesn’t matter so much when it comes to stuff like contracts, payroll, and holidays but increasingly such personal matters as career progression, recruitment, and even appraisals are getting handled by people who don’t appear to have ever seen the operational side of the business. I’m of the opinion – which might be completely wrong – that businesses which outsource basic human management duties which used to be intrinsic to a line manager’s role are going to end up as bloated, unwieldy bureaucracies filled with unthinking drones who know all about the hierarchy’s latest wheeze but no idea how their activities contribute to the bottom line (assuming they do). As I’ve discussed on here before, I reckon smart, ambitious young folk will start avoiding the behemoths in favour of smaller, more nimble organisations – or they’ll start their own and work in the gig economy. My move into HR was in large part about bridging the gap between operations and HR in order to help a small company grow without creating a sprawling HR bureaucracy which sends anyone capable running for the exit.
I was therefore probably the wrong person to attend a presentation by an HR specialist in a major consulting firm, who wanted to tell us how automation, computers, and AI is going to revolutionise how companies manage their human resources. Now some of it is obvious, such as the aforementioned contracts, holiday approval, etc. and is ripe for automation. But I was rather surprised to see some of the functions which workers currently detest being handled by an HR drone who might as well be a robot are soon going to be done by an actual robot. One example he gave was a version of the MS-Word paperclip answering questions from an employee about their career aspirations and suggesting suitable training programmes. I can’t imagine any ambitious employee with an ounce of self-respect interacting with an automated chat bot to obtain career advice.
One of the biggest complaints I used to hear from my erstwhile colleagues was about the career management system. You’d be assigned someone who doesn’t know you and, if they’ve read your CV, doesn’t care about anything which occurred before you showed up on their doorstep. Most of the time they have no expertise in the positions they are trying to fill, nor the knowledge to appraise an individual’s skills. My career manager had worked her whole life as a translator before being put in charge of the careers of dozens of project engineers and managers. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter: in many large companies, particularly oil companies, the golden boys and girls are hand-picked early on and their careers carefully managed with plum postings while everyone else is just a pleb who gets slotted in wherever they fit, or don’t. For the vast majority “career management” is simply a charade to convince people they have a chance of promotion and recognition. This is why it’s managed by the cheapest person they can find, and it might as well be done by a robot. The same is true for annual appraisals: it’s blindingly obvious to everyone that managers and employees just go through the motions, and treat the whole thing as a painful admin exercise which must be completed before Christmas after which nothing changes. They are becoming increasingly automated, and eventually will be fully so. You can imagine what value an automated employee appraisal system adds, aside from ticking a compliance box that they get carried out. And if companies are going to automate recruitment, I can’t see it bringing an end to the laments of department managers who are kept out of the process and sent candidates that are hopelessly unsuited to the position.
I stuck my paw in the air and asked whether increasing the already giant chasm between flesh-and-blood workers and HR is a good idea and got an interesting response. Firstly I was told that companies aren’t stupid and they wouldn’t do anything which would harm their operations and upset their staff. That HR functions have already been taken away from line management and given to remote, sprawling bureaucracies ought to give lie to that statement. The second was that the move to automation and AI will free up HR resources to concentrate on those more important, human-related tasks. What those were we weren’t told, but I made the point that unless HR actually knows something about the job the workers do, freeing up resources won’t help. HR is not short of resources, they’re short of knowledge and competence. I’m not sure this remark went down very well.
I suspect what’s happening is this. The consultants have come up with very clever software which they’re now flogging to big companies, whose HR directors see a way to reduce costs, get rid of annoying admin tasks, and boost their prestige by being owners of a fancy IT system. Senior managers in big companies are suckers for big tech solutions, which is why there are fleets of high-end Porsches in the car parks of consulting companies. They’ll adopt this software and fire a few drones, but they won’t save costs. Firstly, many HR departments exist to provide jobs: a proper business review would have got rid of them regardless of technological progress. Secondly, the HR personnel who are now free of the admin burdens will turn their attention to more pressing matters – such as sexual harassment trainings and diversity workshops. I’m sure this will cheer the workforce up no-end.
The one thing missing from this architecture was any solid link in knowledge and experience between HR and what the company actually does. Apparently workers were consulted by the designers of these systems, and I daresay in some cases this was done properly and good feedback obtained. But the whole thing looked to me like a top-down, Soviet-style project where clever people sit in a room and design a system to serve tens of thousands of people they’ve never met and couldn’t even describe, and they’ve done it so brilliantly it can be applied anywhere regardless of industry. And the difference between what this and what we have now is it removes every last trace of human contact and understanding. How will this turn out, do you think?
It’s rather ironic that the new era of human resource management, in which whole ranges of human behaviours, desires, and emotions are supposedly considered, is reckoned by experts to be best managed by an algorithm. I waved my paw in the air again and pointed out there’s somewhat of a contradiction between saying businesses must become more touchy-feely as Millennials join who want to feel special and valued from the outset, and mass-managing all personal issues with a robot. But someone piped up and said they were a Millennial and they didn’t care who processed their payroll. Which is true, but they might care who – or what – decides you can’t change department, alter your workload, or complain about how your boss communicates with you.
I daresay these automated HR systems will become the norm in large companies, increasing the gap between them and those outfits which actually do the productive work in any given industry. And they will be yet one more reason for smart, ambitious young people to avoid huge corporations and go somewhere smaller, or work for themselves.