The growing trend of automating aspects of HR operations may be sweeping through the sector in Asia, but it has brought with it many challenges and risks that the industry needs to take note of, experts warn.

Using simple automation or more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) – where machines can simulate human intelligence – to perform HR jobs such as hiring, developing and engaging workers has resulted in productivity gains. Consequently, it has made HR decision making more data-based rather than intuition-based and “Asia has certainly embraced digitisation,” said Jennifer Van Dale, global law firm Evershed Sutherland’s head of Hong Kong and Asia Pacific employment practice.

A 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report backed the trend, finding that 79 per cent of companies in Asia consider automating elements of HR “an important or very important trend”.

It is not hard to see why. For example, the data generated by AI processes can help “align workforce strategy and business strategy, identify stress points to reduce turnover, and identify capability gaps for hiring, firing, learning and development”, said Van Dale. “Imagine if we had employee analytics that were as sophisticated as our customer analytics?”

Another major benefit is that AI can also help identify unconscious bias in interview questions and recruitment efforts, Van Dale said, adding that it streamlines routine tasks such as answering common questions and scheduling meetings and interviews. “When these tasks are automated or AI-assisted, it frees up HR leaders to do more strategic and valuable work,” she said. That strategic work is also likely to be supported by data analytics, such as analysing teams that cut across departments or geographic locations and identifying which are most productive teams and why, and how such teams can be replicated – all of which helps companies to thrive.

Using an app to capture attendance and routing it to payroll to handle pay and overtime claims is a further form of digitisation, said Liu Wei Hua, general manager of HR specialist Alchemy Resources, which has offices in Singapore and Malaysia. “This reduces mistakes and makes the process seamless and very efficient especially in certain sectors like food and beverage and health care,” Hua said.

Dr Bob Aubrey, chairman of the HR Committee of the European Chamber of Commerce (Eurocham) in Singapore and senior advisor for Asia to the European Foundation of Management Development, said that the Eurocham HR committee had focused on technology this year. It organised a meeting at IBM to look at how to move HR’s focus from engagement to employee experience, and also discussed the impact of AI, he said.

“For IBM the function of HR is fundamentally changing as HR becomes a facilitator for better employee experience. Also, the learning function is being fundamentally changed with the capability to personalise learning using algorithms,” he explained. The committee also talked with global software manufacturer SAP, which is further digitising its HR platforms and has altered the HR business partner role accordingly.

However, across the ASEAN region, the uptake in digitisation varies. More advanced economies like Singapore and Hong Kong, with tech-savvy populations, are banking on digitisation, said Van Dale.

Dr Aubrey agreed and said Malaysia was following suit, though he noted a huge variation between multinationals and smaller businesses that may not even have begun considering automation yet.

In fact, the biggest barriers to automation are often around mindset, said Van Dale. “I believe we need to see technology as an opportunity and a tool rather than a threat. We also need to move away from the idea of a traditional job with a fixed job description,” she said.

For example, if jobs are broken down into all their components, it’s possible to identify which ones need people and which can be automated, she explained. By “mixing and matching functions with people and AI, we have an opportunity to improve productivity exponentially,” she said, adding that it helps raise employee engagement significantly so staff feel supported by the technology rather than feeling they will be replaced by robots.

But she warned against “over reliance” on machines, adding that “machine learning sometimes perpetuates bias”.

According to Hua, companies’ reluctance to explore the possibilities of digital is often due to ignorance and scepticism over the cost/benefit ratio, which leads management to doubt the effectiveness of HR technology.

Given the speed with which digitisation is happening “I haven’t seen a lot of real preparation for this disruption inside companies,” said Aubrey, who called for HR professionals to show leadership in driving the issue.

Asia especially can be a challenging place for transformation. “Some places in Asia are still rooted in traditional practices such as not leaving before the boss leaves, or refusing to let staff work from home because there isn’t any way to check if they are ‘really’ working,” Van Dale said. As organisations become more concerned with output, they will need to move away from presenteeism and towards flatter structures to stay ahead of the game, she added. “A digitised HR function can help an enterprise move away from these traditions and into the future of work.”

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