Ben Eubanks shares why AI in HR isn’t just about automation

A leading HR analyst and author of “Artificial Intelligence for HR” on his chatbot “aha moment”—and much more

By | 7 minute read | August 12, 2019

This story is part of Talent Pioneers, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of HR.

You can safely say that Ben Eubanks is a new generation of HR expert – someone who infuses social media with real life, who balances personal and professional with ease. Why? Because it’s been his life, his whole life.

Consider that he was drawn to human resources as a child. That’s right. He worked for his family business when he was young and realized that his parents were most successful – and happy – when they had good employees.

Now, as a principal analyst for Lighthouse Research & Advisory and author of the book “Artificial Intelligence for HR,” Eubanks continues his passion for work-life balance, excellence, and personal fulfillment.

If he’s not doting on his family, running 5Ks, or motivating HR conference crowds, Eubanks is thinking about the next breakthrough in HR practices, technology, and people.

Is your work your passion? What are your passions outside of work?

Absolutely. I wake up every morning excited to be able to do the work that I do. That passion means I’m bringing my best ideas, creativity, and effort to helping solve the problems facing HR leaders every single day. When I’m not working, my other passions include running and spending time with my four children. We can’t all be great at everything, but I’ve found that if I can focus intensely on a handful of things, then I can be fulfilled both in my work and in my personal life.

What were your career aspirations as a child? How has that shaped who you are and how you operate today?

It’s funny, when I was just starting out in the workforce I had a very entrepreneurial mindset. I thought of everything in terms of supply and demand. For instance, I worked for my parents’ small business and saw all the people problems they had with hiring, training, and so on, and I decided that I would learn how to manage others because those skills seemed to always be in demand. Fast forward to college and I learned that this thing called “human resources” was an actual profession! Very few people set out at a young age to be in this field, but I think entering it on purpose helped me to really stay true to my mission of making the HR profession better, one person at a time.

We talk a lot about HR being positioned to be one of the most sought-after professions in the business. How would you advise your HR peers to seize this opportunity and step into this critical role?

I am thankful that I found some amazing mentors in the small gap between when I got my degree in HR and when I got my first job in the industry. Those mentors were forward-thinking leaders in the HR space, and their beliefs blended to help me create my own worldview: HR is and should be a strategic driver of the business, not a passenger in the back seat. By using evidence-based decisions, proving the value of the function with data, and creating value that aligns with the direction of the business, HR leaders can shift the discussion from “HR is here, what is wrong?” to “HR is here, now we’re ready to make things happen.”

Why is AI important for organizations to be leaning into today, and in the future?

AI isn’t going anywhere. Our data show that venture capital funding in AI-focused HR technology firms was 50% of the total investment for the last two years, which means these capabilities are coming to the HR technologies employers use. On top of that, AI in the broader marketplace is going to impact jobs to some degree, meaning HR needs to step up and lead this conversation about the skills employers will need, what can be automated, and how to balance that mixture of human and machine for optimal results. And what I find really intriguing is that mix. Where’s that exact point where we can bring in the best that machines have to offer and the best that people have to offer so we can get the best results?

When I was researching my book, one of the really interesting things that I kept coming across over and over again was that in spite of technology being a big part of how work is done, essentially it’s human, right? It comes back to people, the ones that drive the business; people, the ones whose skills we focus on. We focus on the capabilities they bring to the table. And what amazes me is that AI can help us to make sure we’re getting the most out of those people by understanding their skills, helping them to find career paths, helping to engage them on the very front end of the process in terms of candidate experience.

What kind of value to do you think AI can bring to HR?

One of the interesting examples I write about in the book is this idea that chatbots and other tools can help us to automate some pieces of the process. And the thing is, I’ll be completely honest, when I first ran across those, I was kind of unimpressed. I didn’t think that they had the ability to really change that perception and change the experience for candidates. But then I talked to some. And I’ve talked to a lot of providers in the industry.

What I found was that when they’re at the end of an experience with a chatbot, 75% of candidates will say “thank you.” Even though they know it’s a bot, even though they know it’s not a person. And that made me think. That was a light bulb moment for me because it made me think that this is really different. It’s not just like uploading a resume to a website. There are other examples throughout the employee experience where this is not just about automating something, handing it off to a machine. If you do that, if your focus is only efficiency and automation, the results you’re going to get are not ones you want.

If you’re doing this to create an opportunity to really engage the person, to make the experience feel personalized, make it feel connected to their interests, their desires, it’s going to be a different kind of approach. They’ll say thank you to the bot. They’ll feel like it’s more engaging for them.

What advice would you give to employees during this new era?

When I think about the employee’s side, a lot of HR leaders are curious, like what happens to my employees? How do I communicate with them? Or what do they need to know?

We all know that AI means change, right? We’re not debating that. The thing is that we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. There is some conflicting research coming out now that says when AI is implemented that companies actually need more people because they can deliver more things more efficiently than they could before and so now they’re able to serve more customers.

So we always think that the jobs are going to change, the jobs are going to go away. We don’t fundamentally know what that means, or what’s going to happen there. One thing that we discovered in doing the research for the book is that when automation happens and changes jobs, the resulting work, the resulting jobs are more human in nature.

We built a skills model that focus on the five key areas where employers can focus on developing skills in their people to make sure they’re somewhat future-proofed. But also people can focus on developing themselves so that they can be ready as well for the future. Those five skills are creativity, curiosity, collaboration, compassion, and critical thinking. Machines can’t do those things equally. They can’t copy those things easily. It’s about focusing on the things that are truly human, those human characteristics that we bring to the table. That focus will enable us to get the best out of both worlds.

What advice would you give to your younger professional self?

Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do. And don’t stick around in jobs where people don’t value what you have to say. I have a few memories that stick out from the first few jobs I held in my career where some “authority” in the business was always quick to tell me why my ideas wouldn’t work, even if they were later implemented because someone else brought them to the table. If I could go back, I wouldn’t stick around in those jobs as long as I did due to fear or worry because they didn’t give me the opportunities I craved to be creative and bring new solutions to the organization.

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