Myths and Facts: AI Is Not Just for Techies

By Mariana Saintive Sousa

This is the first in a series of articles about AI myths and facts, and their impact on HR.

2019 marks 11 years since I received my first human resources certification from a global accredited HR professional society. I have learned a lot since then, but I never expected artificial intelligence (AI) would be part of my HR curriculum.

HR trends come and go

Consider how HR has changed in the past 10 years: social media used to be something banned by some employers, feedback surveys and performance reviews were rigid once-a-year processes, little was done to derive insights from HR data, telework was not common, and employee-employer relationships were based primarily on tenure and loyalty.

As the years passed, administrative tasks and personnel data management took more of a back seat while HR professionals (thankfully) turned their attention to people strategy, employee engagement, and workplace culture. But artificial intelligence? Deep learning? Cognitive computing? Is this a trend worthy of attention by HR professionals?

The AI trend and associated myths

My grandfather is an engineer. While teaching me math, he tried to persuade me into an engineering career, but I wanted to work with people. Nothing against engineers, I do envy your math skills, but I was drawn towards psychology, human relations, culture, leadership, and people strategy, not statistics, algorithms, and neural networks. In my mind, those subjects were for techies! Which brings me to my favorite AI myth…

AI MYTH:  AI is only for techies

When I speak with HR colleagues about IBM’s HR AI solutions, the most common reaction I receive is, "Wow, this is fantastic!" Followed by, "but we’re not ready." And this reaction is not exclusive to the HR function. IBM's research on the human-machine interchange found: "More than 80 percent of operations executives say employees need training and encouragement to feel comfortable working with intelligent machines, but most have not taken steps to make this happen. What’s more, 43 percent of executives cite a lack of skills and resources to execute effectively as the number one challenge to their organization’s use of adaptive robotics."

When it comes to AI, we need to demystify the hype from the facts. It’s natural for us to mistrust what we don’t understand. And when I hear people say, “We are not ready,” what I am really hearing is “I’m not sure our HR team has the expertise to implement AI empowered tools.”  HR professionals are not typically known for being data confident, but this should not prevent us from engaging more fully in the AI conversation. You don’t actually need that much technical knowledge to engage with AI solutions.

AI FACT: To embrace AI all you really need is technical curiosity, business acumen, and analytical skills

HR’s technical knowledge has traditionally focused on having a deep understanding of people practices, organization structure and effectiveness, and workplace compliance. HR practitioners are used to holding this information and acting as an advisor for people leaders and managers. To implement AI, HR professionals do not need to leave these skills behind.

AI can be understood on various levels and can be used effectively by those whose understanding is incomplete. Think about your HRIS systems, do you really understand everything that takes place behind the user interface? Probably not, but you can certainly attest to its benefits and use the tool without having taken IT classes.

IBM recently released a research report titled “The Business Case for AI in HR.” It summarizes IBM’s extensive experience in implementing AI into its HR processes and talent management strategies. One key insight from the report is that if HR is working with a trusted technology partner rather than developing its own AI application, “you do not need AI expertise but rather an analytical approach, the desire to understand how technology works and how to use it effectively.” According to the report, what matters just as much as that analytical approach is for HR to be much more knowledgeable about their organization. This is particularly important when it comes to AI applications, because they often work across functional areas to serve employees. For example, assignments overseas can now integrate with career development, so that relevant new role opportunities are flagged directly to suitable employees.

In short, don’t let your tech apprehension prevent you from starting your AI journey in HR. Start with a business case, ask questions, test it with a pilot AI application, define your minimum viable product (MVP) and be part of the AI transformation.