The Future of HR: eight technologies that will reshape the HR function

PwC’s latest Future of Work report tells us that organisations are not doing enough to prepare for the transformation of the world of work and that technology is at the heart of these changes. So how is HR responding? According to the report, 65% of business leaders don’t think HR is tech-savvy.

Despite the recent shift to the cloud in HR driven by software vendors like Oracle, SAP and Workday it is clear from the survey that HR functions are not consistently leading on the use of technology in their functions. If HR did this well for themselves, could this help them be better prepared to advise the business on the impact of tech on the future of work more generally? If so, which technologies are most relevant for HR leaders to engage in and plan for when looking at their function?

To explore these questions, PwC convened a round-table discussion featuring leaders and practitioners from different geographic markets and specialties - the second in our ongoing series of discussions about the future of HR. The first sought to identify the skills HR that will require in the future to help manage a new, multi-faceted workforce comprising both people and machines. For this piece, we reconvened the same group to discuss the potentially transformative impact of technology on HR.

PwC’s Essential Eight Technologies report provided a great starting point for the discussion and we adapted this to identify eight technologies that need to be on the agenda for HR leaders. We’ve ranked them here in terms of maturity and adoption, starting with several already in use today at many organizations and ending with those that are still some years away for the majority.

1. Chatbots - Chatbots are already permeating throughout all service aspects of organisations and many HR functions are already using chatbots to replace a traditional, staffed help desk and instead give employees 24/7 self-service options to find information and resolve basic issues. Increasingly, these tools are also able to complete transactions in underlying HR systems (e.g. moving an employee from one team to another, or approving a leave request), but this typically requires data, process and system standards to be in place and many are still on this journey. When combined with AI the improvement in employee experience can be seismic.

2. Process Automation - Automated HR services and processes, including robotic process automation, can increase efficiency and accuracy while also reducing costs. Automation works best for highly standardized, rote processes that don’t require much judgment or analysis. It is rapidly becoming the standard means of handling such tasks. Software robots are relatively inexpensive to deploy, but are also likely to have a short lifespan. Today, they most often plug gaps in existing systems where people need to key data - e.g. filling in a form to advertise jobs on legacy recruitment marketing sites and the systems are evolving quickly.

3. Artificial intelligence - AI has myriad potential applications in HR. For example, it can improve the process of identifying new talent during recruitment, by sifting through CVs and creating short lists of candidates matched to job requirements. AI can also provide advice and recommendations, saving large amounts of human time and resource. Critically, however, the technology raises ethical concerns. Some high-profile AI applications have led to biases in hiring, evaluations, and promotions, primarily because the technology had “learned” based on previous data and therefore merely reinforced biases instead of rooting them out. Regular checks are needed to review the AI algorithms but there are already examples of AI augmenting the decision process in performance reviews to support human decision making, providing decision points on areas such as hot skills and cold tenure to enable elevated value career based conversations.

4. Virtual reality - Although still in the early stages virtual reality is being used in onboarding and training situations. For example, a companies are running simulations that allow employees to train safely in situations that involve real-world health and safety risks. PwC has been using VR to in large change programmes to help employees and managers experience how their behaviour has an impact in the workplace - helping shift preconceived ideas and the ‘critical few’ behaviours that make a difference..

5. Wearables - Wearable technology and the internet of things could give managers and HR leaders a more effective way to assess the health, productivity and even happiness of employees. As with AI, however, wearables bring ethical considerations such as how employees can retain some privacy from employers. Some companies—and even some countries—may want to avoid these kinds of tools. The key takeaway for HR is that it is essential to understand the technology in order to advise business partners and leaders on how it might be implemented.

6. Sensors - Sensors can give companies greater insights into employee performance. For example, arrayed sensors in a supermarket can indicate how employees move through the site, potentially leading to suggestions to improve efficiency. Facial recognition technology built into laptops can gauge employee moods and link those to productivity levels. Thus far, most of the companies innovating with HR-related sensors are small, and for good reason. Large organizations will face thorny issues such as integrating sensor data across geographic markets (which may have different regulations in place regarding sensors). Moreover, there is a real question as to whether employees would welcome these kinds of applications or resist them.

7. Drones - Arguably the most disruptive technology affecting companies, drones also create the biggest opportunities from an HR perspective. Drones essentially allow managers and HR leaders to see everything in the organization, everywhere. For example, a company could deploy drones to fly through a workplace collecting information about task completion, productivity, quality control, and other attributes.

8. Blockchain - Finally, blockchain can be extremely useful in HR. Although the more common applications are in payments and complex supply chains, blockchain can help companies by creating a standard, verifiable, and accurate record of employee qualifications, including things like education, training, and workforce performance. It can also be used to manage cross-border payments and liabilities. Blockchain is essentially a distributed ledger, in which a change automatically gets registered across the entire chain. In that way, it significantly enhances cybersecurity and fraud protection for HR functions.

This is not a comprehensive list—rather, it’s a starting point for HR to understand the technologies likely to drive change in the coming decade. Please weigh in by adding comments to this thread. And stay tuned for our next update, in which we focus on the employee experience—particularly the gap between recruiting and onboarding.

Christian Murray

Christian Murray | Partner, Global HR Transformation and Technology Consulting leader
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Elizabeth Yates

Elizabeth Yates | US HR Transformation Leader
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Prasun Shah

Prasun Shah | Partner
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