Imagine a future in which technology transforms HR, but people remain at the heart.

Welcome to a new age, HR professionals. The digital revolution is starting to reshape the HR profession in fundamental ways. Technology is already able to deliver some of HR’s core responsibilities better, faster, and with greater reach than humans. Yet people cannot be designed out of HR. In fact, the opposite is true. Digital allows HR to refocus on its central purpose – people.

That focus must be at the heart of the plethora of changes that digital is beginning to unleash across HR. Smart use of HR analytics can underpin improved strategic workforce planning, with better projections enabling earlier action. More targeted employee branding can improve the attraction of talent. Chatbots and virtual assistants can support training and development, as well as helping employees with questions about company policies or benefits, while development needs can be identified through better HR analytics and the pro-active management of the competency matrix. AI can also support engagement and retention, predicting if an employee is about to leave the company, enabling timely counter-measures.

No business can yet claim to have exploited the full range of these potential benefits, but there are examples that point the way ahead – especially in recruitment and onboarding.

Transforming recruitment

With firms competing for the best talent, recruitment is an area of potential strategic advantage, yet HR often struggles to deliver excellence. The day is long gone when HR could simply post a job advert and wait for applications to flood in. HR has to actively hunt out the best candidates and attract them to the organization. Doing so is time-intensive – which is where AI can help. Automated search processes can free up HR professionals to spend more time where it counts. Plus, technology enables companies to tap into far bigger candidate pools. When automated systems can scan thousands of profiles in moments, screening processes need not be constrained by the hours in the day. They can also help reveal hidden talent among internal candidates and can support diversity, bypassing the proven biases of traditional candidate screening processes.

One ground-breaking system is HireVue. Candidates record short video answers to a set of questions. The first stage of screening is done by the software, assessing not only the words used by candidates, but their tone of voice and audible signals of stress. Such technology is unlikely to replace job interviews, but it can help ensure that only the very best candidates make it to the interview.

Yet for all the sophistication of digital recruitment software, its application still rests on the very human work needed from HR to define the skills and capabilities required in any given role. That demands real understanding of the business, and it requires focus: some companies claim to need up to 15,000 skills, when a more realistic number is usually 200-400. Software alone cannot make those decisions, so HR’s work is crucial, laying the foundations that underpin digital processes.


Another key advantage of digital is in onboarding talent. New hires need to be productive at the outset. One American bank found that its preparation for new recruits was so poor that only 10% were fully ready to work on day one; for 30%, it took more than ten days for the company to provide everything they needed, whether it be laptops, email accounts, or building access. A major global healthcare company calculated that chasing the teams responsible for delivering these preparations ate as much as 5% of recruiting managers’ time.
Yet this could straightforwardly be automated: the (electronic) signature of an employment agreement should trigger tickets with relevant teams, with the hiring manager able to monitor the process much more efficiently. This frees up time that can be more productively spent on the work that adds real value to their organizations: the human dimension of providing leadership to the people they work with.

Leading change

It has been estimated that 800 million workers globally could lose their jobs by 2030, thanks to automation. Almost all of us will see significant changes to our work as different tasks are automated and as our roles are re-aligned with the digital model, and HR will have a critical role to play in providing effective support and development opportunities for employees – many of whom will struggle to cope with change. Of course, like other support functions, HR also has to evolve and grow its own digital capacity. Fully realizing the potential benefits will demand that HR develop a better grasp of technology, but that cannot be at the expense of the human skills required for engaging and working effectively with partners across their organizations. Success means putting people first.

HR, with its responsibility to develop talent, must also have its finger on the implications of change more broadly. There is a role for HR to engage with communities and society to prepare for the future. Like any area of business, digital has transformative potential for HR. The potential of new technologies to help HR leaders support business success is increasingly clear. This will lead to an augmentation of people’s roles, not their wholesale replacement. Digital has to make HR more human, not less.

Sharmla Chetty is president of global markets for Duke Corporate Education and global managing director, Europe and Africa, for Duke Corporate Education. Hans Kuipers is partner and managing director, and Yann Letourneux is director, at Boston Consulting Group.

— Duke Corporate Education is hosting The Davos of Human Capital in South Africa on 11 July. The event will explore the impact of technology on business and society, with keynote speakers Dr. David Hanson and his robot creation, Sophia (pictured above). More information at Duke. An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.