Q&A with Janet Wood at SAP: Can Artificial Intelligence Keep the Prejudice Out of HR?

March 7, 20178:10 am
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Celebrating women leadership in the HR tech space, we at HR in Asia salute efforts of women leaders who have inspired and those who aspire to revolutionise the world of work, be it through tech in itself or a careful blend with management principles, we would like to thank every woman (those in and out of the workforce today) for their extensive contributions in shaping the new world of work with unique leadership styles. Wishing all a very Happy International Women’s Day!

In times of economic uncertainty, calling the need for change and digital disruption requiring workforce to be more aware of machine learning tools, business and artificial intelligence, workforce analytics and predictive analytics, we seek answers for some of the most toughest questions from Janet Wood, Global Head, Talent & Leadership, SAP. This whole new tech conundrum has influenced equations between co-workers, new styles of leadership, change in workplace culture, and led to emergence of new business models coming to play.

Some of the key takeaways you can look for this interview: How will machine learning and AI influence the workforce of the future? Would the rise of artificial intelligence tools mean the role of recruitment specialists will cease to exist in the near future? A lot more insights to explore keep scrolling….

  • How can artificial intelligence help HR professionals stay off the unconscious bias and discrimination that happens during hiring and performance appraisals? How can human resources be objective?

Bias in business undermines employee commitment, performance and retention. SAP believes technology can help root out and eliminate bias, and promote more diversity and inclusion across the entire business.

With SAP SuccessFactors, we’re moving from workforce analytics that help us understand where bias lives, to machine learning that will enable us to prevent that bias in the first place. We’re investing heavily in this roll-out of new capabilities throughout the HCM suite, because we believe a comprehensive approach is necessary to help organizations harness the best talent.

The new features include data crunching that flags potentially biased language in job descriptions that could unintentionally limit certain group of candidates. Descriptors such as “rock star” or “ninja” in a job description, for example, could have the unintended effect of discouraging female candidates, so the SuccessFactors software might “suggest” alternate nouns.

Countless studies have been revealing one thing: women systematically underestimate their own abilities. Women tend to focus on what they do not have and hence do not apply; men look at what they have and are comfortable in applying. The unfortunate reality is that women at every stage in their careers are less interested than men, in becoming a top executive and that needs to change.

In simple terms, these alerts are like grammar checkers you might find in a word-processing application. Only these are designed to flag terms that could hint at a pattern of unconscious bias. The idea is to bring these habits to managers’ and employees’ attention so that, over time, they occur less frequently.

  • Share some insights on the Future of AI in HR. What could be the potential impact on HR ?

Just as household technology platforms like Apple’s “Siri” and Microsoft’s “Cortana” have helped consumers navigate their lives more easily, other forms of rudimentary artificial intelligence platforms are starting to proliferate the HR industry.

One of the areas where AI will impact HR will be in mass personalization of information, particularly around training and employee growth. For example, when someone takes up a  training program, it will also suggest other trainings. It could get to a stage where the job profile determines the required competencies and experiences; it will proactively create and send out potential trainings.

In general, the whole data analytics is getting more predictive. Right now, you have to draw your own conclusion from the analytics you receive, but the future of AI takes the data and suggests the things that you need to be thinking about and the programs available on how you can engage employees etc.

The type of machine-learning algorithms that make movie and restaurant recommendations will soon be available to do similar types of mass customization for employee-related training and coaching. As this happens, it will unleash improvements in workforce productivity that we haven’t seen in decades.

  • How will machine learning and artificial intelligence influence the world of work in future? How can HR professionals be better prepared for this technological change?

One of the trends we are seeing is the number of jobs that will be automated across all industries. According to a McKinsey study, 45 percent of work currently done by people could be automated, and even high-wage jobs could be automated to a certain degree. For example, work that takes up to 20 percent or more of a CEO’s time could be automated, allowing more time for other activities.

If more and more things are going to be automated, the question is how can HR be prepared for this technological change? Interestingly, when I was talking to my colleagues in Singapore, they mentioned about progressive trainings for the population in order to create more white-collared jobs and how people can be constantly retrained and reskilled.

I think that is something HR needs to be proactive about. How do we look ahead to the number of jobs that will be automated by computers and think about what that means for the workforce: job security, attracting people instead of letting the jobs turn obsolete?

What this also requires is an HR function that is rapidly becoming more strategic and has a seat at the table—one that employs new kinds of analytical tools to spot talent trends and skills gaps, and provides insights that can help organizations align their business, innovation and talent management strategies to maximize available opportunities and capitalize on the transformational trends.

HR should be thinking one step ahead and preparing the workforce for the technological change. We also need to incentivize lifelong learning, and governments and businesses have many opportunities to collaborate more to ensure that an individual has the time, motivation and means to seek retraining opportunities.

See: Cognitive Intelligence to Accelerate Innovation in the Future

  • Would the rise of artificial intelligence tools mean the job role of recruitment professionals will soon go extinct in the years to come?

A lot of online assessments today screen out applicants without ever talking to anybody, so it might go down the route. A lot of what AI will do is about providing a mechanism to augment decision-making, rather than threaten and replace what humans do. For example, we can use AI-based machines to sift through CVs based on parameters pre-defined by the hiring manager in order to boost productivity, save time and reduce errors.

But we can’t do without the human interaction entirely because we will still need a human to determine the culture fit of the candidate. The hiring managers will want to ensure a synergy between the applicant and the team, and that would mean spending time with the individual.What AI would do is to help speed things up in the early stages of recruitment through automation, but the human part will not disappear. It is after all, called ‘human’ resource. The work that humans do will always be necessary – although it’s likely to change over time to be less labour-intensive and more strategic in nature.

  • How will AI influence the sphere of people management, talent attraction and retention globally, and in specifics to Asia findings?

The recent Leaders 2020 study conducted by SAP and Oxford Economics reveals just how much being a ‘digital winner’ matters. Companies that have found a way to embrace digital disruption and technological changes such as AI enjoy more satisfied, productive, and loyal employees, more effective managers, and greater financial returns.

With the staggering influx of data in the human resource space, AI offers an ocean of insights in key areas that often go unnoticed such as people management, talent attraction and retention. This would help HRs understand their workforce in a much better way and foresee workforce trends as well as identify problem areas well in advance.

More importantly, AI will also help in solving one of the most critical challenges faced by HR people today i.e. creating and executing strategies for improvement, all by suggesting specific actions to tackle these problems well ahead of time. At the same time, AI enables visibility into where in the recruiting pipeline talent is dropping off, and at what point in their careers they are leaving and why.

With the technology such as AI fully disrupting Asian societies now, there is no doubt that digital skills will be in high demand. AI is good at gathering data to suggest solutions. It is most effective for companies whose business environment does not often change. Asia however is one of the fastest growing regions experiencing exponential change.

In such an environment, human decisions will remain crucial. Asia businesses will have to balance the processing power of machines with human instinct to get the most out of these new human resource tools.

  • What do you think will be more challenging for HR professionals: AI vs EI?

World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs report estimates that by 2020, over one-third of skills (35%) that are considered important in today’s workforce will be changed. In fact, Emotional Intelligence, which was not one of the top ten skills in 2015, is estimated to be the sixth most important skill of the future workforce by 2020.

It goes without saying that HR professionals of the future will need to be digitally savvy but above all they will need a forward-looking approach that embraces technology such as AI and realises the benefits it can bring. This, combined with an abundance of adaptability, flexibility and emotional agility will enable HR professionals to guide their organisation forward.AI will only be a useful tool if HR professionals have the EI to use them effectively.

  • Highlight some of the key HR trends revolutionising the world of work in times to come.

Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic today and it’s not hard to understand why. We’re in the midst of the latest business model disruption as businesses are forced to digitalise or become irrelevant. And that means we need more people, doing different things, in jobs that in five years could be different from anything we see today.

Yet, Asia also faces the twin challenges of an ageing population and a shrinking workforce. According to the World Bank, 36 percent of the world’s population over 65 currently live in East Asia. This figure is expected to rise over time and by 2040, the region will lose as much as 15 percent of their working-age population.

I believe the talent shortage can be overcome. It’s time to enlarge the pond you’re fishing in. For many companies, it’s a self-inflicted problem that leaders create by having too narrow a focus on who we attract, recruit, hire, develop and promote.

One of the most under-utilised talent pools in Asia is women who took career breaks, especially after child birth. Head hunters and HR executives often assumed the worst of these women – that they are out of touch, her skills were no longer relevant and she was too old to learn. The reality is, these women are well qualified and are armed with years of working experience.

This is exactly why SAP launched the Back-to-Work program in Asia Pacific Japan: to make a difference to the lives of these women and to engage this untapped talent pool.

Globally, SAP has a board-level commitment to increase the percentage of women in management to 25 percent by the end of 2017.

Also read: Early AI Adopters Can Expect 35 percent Revenue Increase by 2020

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