ReimagineHR: 5 Ways HR Can Take the Lead in Digitalization

ReimagineHR: 5 Ways HR Can Take the Lead in Digitalization

In his keynote address at the opening of Gartner’s ReimagineHR conference in Orlando, Florida on Sunday, Gartner Group Vice President Brian Kropp shared a very salient figure with the hundreds of HR executives gathered in the room: 67 percent of CEOs tell us that if their organization does not make significant upgrades to its digital capabilities by 2020, it will no longer be competitive. “And if you work for one of the 33 percent,” Kropp told the attendees, “start polishing your résumés,” because those two-thirds of CEOs are probably right.

Digitalization is one of the most pressing challenges facing businesses today, and it’s not hard to see why. When CEOs talk about digitalization—in meetings, in employee communications, and increasingly on calls with investors—they frame it as a means of driving increased efficiency, productivity, and growth, the better to compete in a fast-paced and constantly changing business environment. However, Gartner research has shown that over the past five years, employees are exhibiting dwindling rates of discretionary effort: Just at the moment when organizations need to get the best out of their people, fewer of them are going above and beyond the call of duty. Meanwhile, labor markets in the US, Europe, and around the world are historically tight, so organizations have to work harder to find the right people and hold on to the valuable talent they already have.

As a result of these trends, HR leaders today find themselves in a situation where the CEO is demanding improved performance from employees, while employees are demanding an easier and more seamless experience at work that matches the app-driven, on-demand experience they are increasingly used to in their personal lives. Digital solutions are needed to meet these demands, but those solutions involve much more than merely adopting new technology; fundamental aspects of the way the organization works need to be rethought and redesigned for a digital world. HR has an enormously valuable role to play in ensuring a successful transition into the digital enterprise, but it’s not always obvious how to achieve that goal, and many organizations have been going about it the wrong way.

“What does digitalization mean to you?” Prompted with this question in a poll, Sunday’s audience responded with words like “efficiency,” “easy,” “seamless,” “simplicity,” and “experience.” These answers reflect HR’s unique mission today of driving business outcomes while (or better yet, by) improving the employee experience. Here are five of the key challenges posed by this new environment, and what—in brief—HR can do to tackle them:

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Amazon Abandoned AI Recruiting Tool After It Learned to Discriminate Against Women

Amazon Abandoned AI Recruiting Tool After It Learned to Discriminate Against Women

Amazon canceled a multi-year project to develop an experimental automated recruiting engine after the e-commerce giant’s machine learning team discovered that the system was exhibiting explicit bias against women, Reuters reports. The engine, which the team began building in 2014, used artificial intelligence to filter résumés and score candidates on a scale from one to five stars. Within a year of starting the project, however, it became clear that the algorithm was discriminating against female candidates when reviewing them for technical roles.

Because the AI was taught to evaluate candidates based on patterns it found in ten years of résumés submitted to Amazon, most of which came from men, the system “taught itself that male candidates were preferable,” according to Reuters:

It penalized resumes that included the word “women’s,” as in “women’s chess club captain.” And it downgraded graduates of two all-women’s colleges, according to people familiar with the matter. They did not specify the names of the schools. Amazon edited the programs to make them neutral to these particular terms. But that was no guarantee that the machines would not devise other ways of sorting candidates that could prove discriminatory, the people said.

The company scuttled the project by the start of 2017 after executives lost faith in it. By that time, however, it may have already helped perpetuate gender bias in Amazon’s own hiring practices. The company told Reuters its recruiters never used the engine to evaluate candidates, but did not dispute claims from people familiar with the project that they had had looked at the recommendations it generated.

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Lessons from Last Year: HR Tech Leaps Forward

Lessons from Last Year: HR Tech Leaps Forward

Technology played a huge role in shaping the direction of HR strategy in 2017. As organizations struggle with the rapid pace of change, challenges in implementation, and digital skills gaps, being nimble enough to take advantage of emerging technologies has become more important than ever. If done correctly, effective leverage of tech can lead to significant progress for the HR function as a strategic center rather than an order-taking and operations-focused unit.

Here are some highlights from the year that was in HR tech:

Tech Titans Entered the Fray

In the past year, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have made major plays in the business services space, with implications for HR in recruiting, productivity/collaboration software, and more. Google launched an expanded job search offering in June, which serves job seekers as well as large and small businesses. Most recently, in November, the online search giant added functionality for tablet in addition to desktop and mobile and the ability to independently estimate a salary range for job postings based on publicly available data.

Following its acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016, Microsoft began to make some interesting plays in this space last year. To start, the Seattle-based software company has been hiring AI talent by the thousands and plans to develop connectivity between LinkedIn profile data and Office 365 services such as the Outlook mail client. It will also connect LinkedIn data to its Dynamic sales and recruiting platforms, allowing users to quickly get background information on prospective targets. Dynamic will also have an AI-powered virtual assistant to help users with troubleshooting and completing various tasks. Additionally, Microsoft Word will be able to suggest job postings on LinkedIn to users as they are updating their resume, which stands to streamline the job search process for many candidates. Microsoft is also reshaping the next version of its Hololens headset as a powerful enterprise tool.

Microsoft also launched a Workplace Analytics tool as an add-on to Office 365 enterprise plans. The software captures metadata from email and calendars to help companies understand how employees collaborate and spend their time. It could be particularly helpful for understanding how high-performing teams are different from average ones. Microsoft is also launching an AI tool on the Azure Machine Learning suite called Pendleton, which helps with data collection, preparing, cleaning, and analysis.

Amazon is hoping its voice-activated virtual assistant Alexa, which has proven very popular as a household convenience, can deliver the same value in the workplace. In early December, the online retail powerhouse announced the Alexa for Business offering at its annual AWS re:Invent conference. This comes as a marquee addition to a suite of existing offerings from Amazon Web Services, including Workspaces and WorkDocs. Alexa can be programmed with “skills” or apps for business uses such as turning on lights, connecting to conference lines, and managing schedules. Alexa for Business will also be able to connect with third-party services such as Microsoft Office or the Google G-Suite.

Perhaps the most surprising of the tech titans to make big plays in the enterprise market in the past year was Facebook, though in hindsight, it looks like a natural fit. After launching an employee collaboration platform called Workplace in late 2016, the social media giant partnered with ZipRecruiter to expand its job search capabilities and began testing a wide range of options and features to help connect its massive user base to prospective employers.

These forays by some of the largest and most successful companies in the world confirm that technology will continue to drastically reshape how business is done in the coming years. These titans are investing heavily in the talent and assets to get a piece of the enterprise software pie, in competition with some of the more established companies like Oracle and SAP. We can expect this heightened competition to continue driving innovation in this space in the coming years.

HR by VR

As the cost of virtual reality technology goes down, we’re starting to see it used in a variety of workplace applications. In addition to the Microsoft Hololens, Google Glass has emerged as a potentially valuable business tool, though the two technologies are designed for slightly different uses. Microsoft’s headset offering creates more of a closed environment and is capable of displaying much larger graphics, while all the computing power is contained within the headset. Google Glass looks more like a pair of glasses and is less disruptive to the user’s field of vision. It also needs to be connected to a smartphone or computer of some kind to operate. Facebook-owned Oculus and HTC are also selling VR technology directly to companies.

VR has also been used for training purposes, helping the learning and development function standardize and scale training that mirrors real-life situations more closely than any other available option. Walmart has been an early adopter of VR learning, while KFC has also released a campy, gamified chicken-frying tutorial. We have also seen VR being used to support employees’ mental health and wellness, with offerings for anxiety, ADHD, fear of public speaking, meditation, PTSD, and more.

Employee Monitoring: Big Brother or Benevolent Buddy?

Late in 2016, we started to see the emergence of employee monitoring tech in the form of badges that can track an employee’s whereabouts and even analyze their mood based on their tone of voice. Through this tool, companies have been able to make improvements in productivity, such as finding out that socializing improved performance and that adding lunch tables helped employees socialize more.

In 2017, this trend continued, with some employers even experimenting with implanting microchips in employees. The microchip functions like a badge, able to open doors or unlock printers “with the wave of the hand.” While this particular initiative, first undertaken by a Swedish startup, has little to do with monitoring of health or productivity, it’s easy to see how it could. However, corporate fitness tracking programs using bracelets like the Fitbit seem like a more practical option for companies interested in monitoring employee health.

Another application of monitoring technology has been to help companies use space more efficiently. Barclays was among the companies to experiment with the OccupEye devices, which are attached to desks to determine how much time employees spend there. Part of the bank’s success in rolling out this initiative was a clear communication strategy. “The sensors aren’t monitoring people or their productivity; they are assessing office space usage,” the bank said in an emailed statement. “This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption, or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments.”

Automating the Process

One of the primary obstacles to widespread adoption of HR technology has been leaders’ hesitation to dive headfirst into the newest technologies, due in part to concerns over which parts of the HR function are suited for a technological transformation. While there are theories for automating everything from performance management to keeping employees from overworking, the most practical applications of automation technology in HR are in more administrative or repetitive tasks. A survey from CareerBuilder found that employee messaging (57 percent), benefit setup (53 percent), payroll setup (47 percent), and background checks and drug testing (47 percent) were the most common processes currently being automated in organizations.

Recruiting is often compared to sales in the sense that certain best practices translate from one function to the other. In sales, automated solutions in lead generation are reshaping the way both B2B and B2C businesses are finding customers. Recruiting seems to be following suit in sourcing, a practice analogous to lead generation in sales. One of the most interesting emerging technologies is an AI-powered sourcing software called Helena by Woo, a recruiting platform provider, which communicates with and on behalf of both the company and candidate to automate the candidate identification and screening processes. The company claims that 52 percent of Helena-sourced candidates make it to the interview stage, whereas human-sourced candidates move on at a rate of around 20 percent. Woo’s founder steadfastly believes he can automate the entire recruiting process.

Additionally, with so many companies folding AI into their products, not just in the HR tech space, demand for AI talent has skyrocketed. Microsoft more than doubled the headcount for its AI division and Amazon gave priority choice in the hiring process for engineers to its new Alexa for Business offering. Even the auto industry is playing ball, as Ford acquired a majority stake in an AI development startup as it competes with the likes of Google and Tesla in the race to develop fully automated self-driving vehicles.

Enabling Diversity and Inclusion

A number of major companies and startups are working on solutions to help businesses improve their ability to attract and retain diverse employees. SAP announced intentions to add functionality to its SuccessFactors recruiting platform, which will scan job descriptions for terminology that indicates bias towards men and recommend changes to attract more diverse candidates. It will also monitor performance ratings to find women who are overdue for promotions or identify if they experience a dip in ratings after taking maternity leave. Many other companies are working on solutions for reducing bias in the hiring process. They have their work cut out for them, however, as algorithms are only as good as the data that feeds them and there is a lot of evidence that most companies’ data is highly flawed.

Ultimately, this investment in developing diversity-enabling technology shows that diversity and inclusion are becoming more than just PR initiatives, as Quartz’s Sarah Kessler wrote in August, highlighting some of our research at Gartner:

Analysts at Gartner predicted in a March 2017 research note that by 2020, more than 75% of large enterprises will include features that promote diversity and inclusion in their selection process for HR software. John Kostoulas, a co-author of the report, told Quartz that companies have historically monitored diversity mainly to avoid breaking anti-discrimination laws, but he believes that they will take a more holistic approach as evidence continues to build for the case that diversity contributes to businesses in other ways.

It can be hard for businesses to keep up with the rapid pace of change as the capabilities of software and hardware accelerate so quickly. Leaders of large organizations will need to carefully consider the costs and benefits of making technological investments that could fundamentally transform the way they operate. The most successful types of technologies will be those that take much of the busywork out of existing processes in a way that is minimally invasive. Though 2017 was another great year for innovation, adoption is still low as leaders are increasingly less confident in the direction to take their technology strategy. At CEB, now Gartner, our HR practice will be closely studying the best ways to implement technology over the course of 2018.

Beware the Insight Gap as Workplace Monitoring Technologies Advance

Beware the Insight Gap as Workplace Monitoring Technologies Advance

Employee monitoring technologies represent the cutting edge of workplace gadgets, and these technologies are already becoming increasingly common, from sociometric badges to tracking devices at desks to sentiment analysis and even experiments with microchipping employees. Olivia Solon at the Guardian recently explored the next generation of this tech:

How can an employer make sure its remote workers aren’t slacking off? In the case of talent management company Crossover, the answer is to take photos of them every 10 minutes through their webcam. The pictures are taken by Crossover’s productivity tool, WorkSmart, and combine with screenshots of their workstations along with other data —including app use and keystrokes—to come up with a “focus score” and an “intensity score” that can be used to assess the value of freelancers.

Today’s workplace surveillance software is a digital panopticon that began with email and phone monitoring but now includes keeping track of web-browsing patterns, text messages, screenshots, keystrokes, social media posts, private messaging apps like WhatsApp and even face-to-face interactions with co-workers. …

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Microsoft’s Build Conference Hints at the Workplace of the Future

Microsoft’s Build Conference Hints at the Workplace of the Future

Build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference taking place in Seattle this week, is focusing heavily this year on AI and machine learning, and how the company plans to embed these technologies in the workplace of the near future. Wednesday’s keynote demonstrations showcased what Mark Sullivan at Fast Company calls “a vision of the workplace of the future where workers are surrounded by all manner of cameras, sensors, and other recording devices connected to internet-based AI services”:

Microsoft showed demos and videos of the “intelligent edge” in a variety of forms, in a variety of use cases, and in a variety of industries:

  • A heart patient was walking around wearing a sensor. He began to get tired, so the sensor sent that data up to the cloud for processing, and a nurse was notified to bring him a wheelchair.
  • A camera detected an employee accidentally tipping over a barrel containing a dangerous chemical, information it sent up to image-recognition software in the cloud. Some other database likely helped determine that the liquid in the barrel was hazardous. Presumably an alarm was sent to a cleanup team.
  • An employee in a shop was spotted taking a selfie while brandishing a jackhammer. The brain in the cloud recognized the employee, the activity, and the setting and concluded he was behaving recklessly, then contacted a supervisor.
  • Someone else in a shop was seen not wearing safety goggles. Alarm. Supervisor notified.

All this involves some sophisticated, on-the-fly AI. In the words of the presenter demoing the intelligent edge developer tools at Build: “The solution is running more than 27 million recognitions per second across people, objects, and activities.” But the use cases Microsoft showed onstage sound equal parts helpful and intrusive. Sure, getting a heart patient back to bed or detecting a dangerous chemical spill are health-promoting. But the notifications to the supervisor suggest a completely different, and possibly unintended, consequence of the technology.

“There is benevolent surveillance and then there is just surveillance,” Sullivan worries, “and the Microsoft technology could work in both scenarios.” But CEO Satya Nadella spent part of his time on the Build stage Wednesday dispelling the notion that Microsoft is out to turn the workplace into a surveillance state:

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