Jeanne Meister on the future of work and how AI is disrupting HR

In this Q&A, HR analyst Jeanne Meister explains how AI will transform the way companies deal with talent and how HR departments can transform disruption into a competitive edge.

When it comes to modern HR, there's no such thing as business as usual -- or, at least, there shouldn't be. The exponential changes in culture, technology and the global economy are forcing companies and their HR departments to revolutionize how they relate to potential and current employees. Jeanne Meister, award-winning co-author of The Future Workplace Experience and founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR advisory and research firm, spends her workdays focused on just how to do that.

Meister spoke about why AI for HR is such a disruptor, why creating an overarching HR strategy is non-negotiable and who HR should include on its change journey.

The great disruptor -- AI for HR

Which technology trends are most disrupting HR?
Jeanne Meister: Without a doubt, artificial intelligence -- especially machine learning -- is the single most disruptive technology affecting HR. The way we all work is going to change, regardless of our role. McKinsey estimates that about a third of the activities of most jobs can be automated with AI.

So, the question is: What are companies and individuals doing to upskill? Work is going to be radically different as organizations adopt AI to automate the … routine activities of many jobs. We'll each need to focus on what makes job roles uniquely human.

So, we have a focus on creativity and critical problem-solving.
What can companies and their workforce do today to be thinking of how AI might affect their particular job, their particular company?
Meister: The call to action for employers and HR leaders is to provide employees with a wider array of upskilling opportunities.

The biggest trend in learning and development is the focus on curation rather than of proprietary content. Companies need to be smart and think about how to use machine learning platforms for recommending publicly available content to employees.

And with some of this type of content [e.g., massive open online courses], you can get a specialization and a digital badge, and often, that only costs a couple of hundred dollars. It's not a big investment, and some companies are stepping up and saying, 'We'll pay for that.'

From customer experience to employee experience to AI

Back to the concept of AI more broadly -- since it affects so many areas, where should companies start?

Meister: You start by developing an AI strategy for HR. That strategy is going to impact all of the employee lifecycle. It's going to impact how you recruit. It's going to impact your strategy for learning and development. It's going to impact performance management and coaching because there are many AI tools to give you that instant feedback on how you're doing on the job.

HR [also needs to] develop a better and deeper relationship with the chief marketing officer and the marketing team to understand how they're using AI to create a more powerful customer experience.

Just as employee experience is borrowing from customer experience, even with AI, you're looking to that customer focus to develop your tech focus.
Meister: Yes, exactly. And the marketing department has the decades of experience on this as they've really gone to digitalization and personalization of the marketing experience with customers. And ultimately, adopting an AI strategy for HR helps you create a much more personalized employee experience. You're going to understand the real needs of your employees, and you're better able to deliver on those needs.

Jeanne Meister quote

Chatbots for better candidate and employee experience

Can you provide a few illustrations of the use of AI for HR?

Meister: The recruitment function is the one to be massively transformed by artificial intelligence. There is a lot in that talent acquisition function that is manual and routine that immediately can be transformed with an artificial AI tool [like a] chatbot.

Some of the venture-funded chatbots -- one is called Mya -- say that they can automate 75% of the recruiting function. The biggest issue in recruitment is the 'big black hole.' You go to the website, you see an awesome job, you send your resume -- and what happens? Basically, nothing. You never hear from that company, or maybe, you hear from them six months later.

Research tells us that that's impacting [potential candidates'] perception of that employer as a brand.

A chatbot, which some companies are developing their own … can communicate with the applicant. For example, 'Let me check the skills and competencies you have against what's required for the job, and make sure [we] didn't miss anything." And these chatbots are giving you status updates. 'We're taking you to the next level.' You don't expect to get an offer for every job you apply to, but you do expect to hear from the employer as to what happened to your application.

So, AI tools such as chatbots can really provide much more of a personalized, one-to-one experience between the company and the job candidate and lead to a higher satisfaction in that candidate experience.

Once the applicant gets into the pipeline and we've identified skills and experience, what can we do to see: Does the candidate have an affinity for the organization [using various factors]? All of this can happen in the back end with machine learning. Now, you have vastly improved the list that you're now going to vet for that new opening.

A new view of the right candidate, HR

Currently, there is a tendency for companies to look for applicants in terms of exact keyword matches or having done the exact same job before, a practice often executed with the help of applicant tracking systems. But such practices won't work as people change jobs a lot more, the gig economy grows and there is more of a need for horizontal and transferable skills. Do you think AI for HR will help solve some of these problems or just exacerbate them?
Meister: I think it helps to solve the problems. For example, let's take a look at the accounting function. There are a lot of roles in that function that are ripe for automation, and that's one of the 10 functions listed by the World Economic Forum that is going to be massively automated between now and 2030.

Let's say you're an accountant, and you're wondering, 'What does this mean for me?' But you have deep relationship management skills. Those are horizontal skills: relationship-building and communication skills. If the company is identifying those skills, you may not think of them in relationship to an accountant, but machine learning can help you identify real core horizontal skills that can be transferable across roles and across business units and functions. And using those core skills -- and others -- that accountant could be identified as a [for example] customer success director candidate.

You need to start thinking from the point of view of the individual, from a human-centered point of view.
Jeanne MeisterFounding partner, Future Workplace

[Core, transferable skills are what] companies will really want to recruit for. Because jobs are changing so fast, you're going to need talent with core skills and agility to pick up and go from one department and function to another. So, using AI for HR improves not only the candidate experience, but also the ability of the employer to identify individuals with these horizontal skills and bring them into the company and give them internal mobility opportunities.
That makes sense, but I think a real thinking shift will have to happen, no matter what the technology can do.
Meister: That's why AI for HR strategy needs to be not only focused on the technology and whatever tools you [use], but it needs to be focused on the people, the impact on the people, the change. Change management is too weak a term here. It's a change evolution that's needed in the mindsets of companies.

Or even revolution?
Meister: Yes! I think that's what needs to shake people up, this concept of how do you [create] a revolution in your company. Think about: Who do you need to take on your [AI for HR] revolution journey? You're going to be surprised that it's often individuals and stakeholders you probably haven't worked with before. For example, what about your design thinkers? If you don't have them in your company, you need to identify them and bring them on your team. You need to start thinking from the point of view of the individual, from a human-centered point of view.

Who else do you need? You need HR and IT, of course, and design thinking as mentioned, but also employer branding and marketing. Those are probably functions that you haven't developed deep partnerships with yet, but this is an opportunity to do that.

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