Getting practical with AI in HR: Can it actually help you help your people?

HR professional raising hand to ask question about AI in HR

When the words "artificial intelligence" or "data science" come up in a conversation about HR strategy, there are times when you can almost hear the eyes rolling in the room, especially in a small to medium-sized business context. "Here comes the sales pitch," listeners think while wondering what kinds of AI insights will be so valuable that they'll offset all the extra hours spent beyond the day-to-day to put them in practice.

The issue is too many times when HR professionals hear about AI, the conversation focuses on the AI itself and not how you actually work with it or fit interacting with it into all your other responsibilities. Knowing the nuts and bolts of how this machine learning algorithm works or how that particular statistical process is just so, so efficient doesn't matter. What's needed is a clear picture of how these processes will help you help your organization's people, and how they'll fit with the many hats you have to wear daily.

So in that spirit, I'm going to talk about how when AI in HR is done right it can help you proactively get strategic without bogging you down. I also promise you won't hear anything more about algorithms or statistics for the rest of this article. Sound good? Let's explore.

The best AI is the kind you don't talk about

I know, I've already said "AI" a lot in this article, so why start this way? Well, it's really to illustrate that AI shouldn't become another task on the checklist. You shouldn't have to work that hard at it. Instead, it should be something that makes the other tasks you're trying to accomplish easier to get through and gets you to a place where you can continuously improve people processes in strategic ways.

When this becomes the priority — adding value to your everyday HR activities — your relationship with technology becomes different because the outcomes are focused on you and your people rather than it:

  • You don't devote time to digging through people data to figure out what to act on. Targeted answers come to you as you're working.
  • There's no more worrying about automating away people's jobs or losing touch with what matters to your people. Your technology helps you and your people excel in your roles and adjusts to your organization's needs.
  • You don't have to guess at what you can do to improve things or make strategic changes. You have the facts and guidance you need to make informed decisions delivered right when they're needed.

I know this may sound like fantasy land, but it's possible. Here's how.

1. Think like you're hiring a strategic advisor

If you were hiring one of those top-shelf consulting firms that most businesses can't really afford, you wouldn't expect them to come in, dump a bunch of information on your desk, and then just leave, right? So why is it okay for HR technology to do that?

There's enough confusion already around all the different aspects of people analytics HR is expected to track to be strategic. In an ideal world, any information you get from your HR solution should be served up with something that makes it actionable for you — guidance. Beyond just being built into the single solution you use to manage all your people data, your AI should function as an advisor, able to take your priorities into account and give recommendations based on what it's seeing so you can spend less time analyzing and more time making an impact.

A big part of this all comes down to timeliness and flexibility. If you have to go ask for predictions or information from your AI solution, it will just become another to-do item on the stack and won't help when you need it most. Instead, it should do what any good advisor would and actively look for opportunities to help, such as:

  • Sending you quick heads-up alerts when it looks like employees are likely to leave the company, explaining these flight risks and offering up possible ways to address them
  • Establishing benchmarks based on what normal activity looks like across your organization, proactively notifying you when something falls outside that norm, and suggesting whether that change is positive or negative
  • Stepping in to assist in your regular reporting activities, giving tips on how to answer different people analytics questions, and providing quick help setting up charts or dashboards so you can maximize your time and get answers fast

Consultants anticipate your needs and help you not only do what's best for your people and organization but also help you become a better HR leader in the process. AI can do the same thing if it's built to focus on adapting to your organization and embedded in the flow of your employee life cycle.

2. Find ways to deepen your relationship with people managers

Beyond just increasing your ability as an HR professional to be efficient and strategic, being able to present and share the right data at the right times to make an impact can help you build strong, positive relationships with the people managers you work alongside.

Think about it — if you're getting automatic insights into the people activities going on at your organization and getting time back from not having to dig through data, you have some breathing room to align strategies with managers. And your HR technology can help you there, too.

The benchmarks I mentioned earlier are a major advantage for tapping into what matters to your managers and helping them to get out of the weeds and do what's best for their teams. What's important to remember here is that it's not just about mitigating risk or penalizing people. When you have a constant feed of benchmark information at your fingertips that's proactively pointing out where there are outliers, those outliers can also be positive changes that you want to capitalize on, and your HR technology should guide you to those opportunities in addition to showing you where you can reduce risk.

Here's a quick example. Say you've got a manager on a particular shift who's particularly skilled at setting up fair schedules and the people on their team are starting to recognize them for it and are becoming more engaged and productive as a result. With the right solution, you'd see the change on that team in real time and get a helpful notification about where their performance sits relative to your other benchmarks side by side with what their scheduling patterns are.

This opens the opportunity to talk with that manager, understand what it is they're doing that's working, and roll that process out on a wider level by finding time for them to train their peers or collaborating with them to draft some new scheduling policies. You form a new alliance with a strong manager, they feel heard and recognized for their efforts, and the wider organization gets the benefit of some process optimization that will help employees succeed — win-win, am I right?

3. Remember that emotional intelligence matters as much as business intelligence

I know by this point you're probably thinking something like "but these are all still just hard numbers, how can they really translate into insights on how people at my organization are feeling or what they're thinking?" You're right, and good AI should go beyond just advising you on operational metrics.

Another key piece of the puzzle is what's called sentiment analysis, which is the only big-ticket data science term I'm going to throw in for the rest of the article, I promise. Basically, it means your HR solution can look at written responses from your people during different activities like recruiting evaluations, performance reviews, and engagement or pulse surveys to help you understand what the feelings behind those responses are.

I'm sure you can already see why this is valuable. It gives you a factual way to look at and talk about something that would otherwise be just a gut feeling in many cases. Here are just a few of the possibilities:

  • Zero in on the HR processes or initiatives people feel particularly positive or negative about and either change course or reinforce them
  • Process feedback from hiring teams faster by understanding their general emotions toward different applicants going through your recruiting channels
  • Get advised on performance review trends, such as if a particular manager consistently provides overly positive or negative feedback to their team

Sentiment lets you bridge the gap between common business goals and KPIs and the well-being of your people. With this kind of data mix in hand on a regular basis, you'll be able to communicate with leadership about how overall organizational strategy should align with the needs of everyone working there and become an even more critical part of those conversations. 

Conclusion: "Practical AI" isn't an oxymoron after all

As we've discussed, conversations about AI in HR get overwhelming fast and the solutions often seem like more trouble than they're worth. But if you come at your search for HR technology from the right perspective and ask the right questions, you'll find that there are many ways AI can benefit you, your people managers, your organization, and ultimately all your people. So make sure you bring up the advantages above when you evaluate your organization's strategic HR options — they'll help you have better conversations about newer options like AI without getting lost in the noise.

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