Can robots replace HR?

Can robots replace HR?
Posted by Michael Gretczko and Rajesh Attra on November 17, 2016.

Automation and artificial intelligence are hot topics these days, to the extent President Obama has recently started to position the future of smarter technologies as a critical topic for his successor to address.1 This transformation has broad impacts, but the changes expected in the HR function and the overall workplace are of significant interest.

According to Deloitte’s 2015 Global Shared Services Survey, leaders indicated “increasing the level of automation” as the second most important strategic priority. The appeal is easy to understand. Imagine a scenario where HR Operations is able to execute an end-to-end process with zero involvement from a human resource. Imagine pairing your HR team with a real-time analytics and modeling “bot” capable of providing the on-demand insights to address complex inquiries such as, “In five years, where will be the best place to build a 500 FTE engineering COE based on college enrollment, cost of living, and location infrastructure?” or “What talent is most vulnerable to poaching, given local economic development and the announced growth plans of our competitors?” These scenarios may sound like science fiction, but robotic and cognitive automation technologies are developing at an amazing rate, and HR should be taking notice.

The robots are coming
The future is fast approaching, and a new era of digital innovation and disruption is here. Or, more accurately, according to Josh Bersin, “The future of work is already here. So yes, the robots are coming. These robots aren’t physical machines; they’re software “bots” installed on desktop computers or in the cloud that can be configured to automate increasingly complex tasks, such as moving, manipulating, and validating data. Robotic process automation (RPA) works at the user interface level, bridges the gap between disparate technologies, and performs repetitive rules-based processes. Some progressive HR teams have already put RPA bots to use to help them with:

  • Validating internal data against external databases
  • Running, formatting, and distributing reports
  • Replacing manual and spreadsheet-based tasks

The RPA software market is stabilizing, and several vendor solutions are available for organizations to evaluate and deploy today. More-advanced cognitive automation technologies, like machine learning and natural language processing, are emerging and have the potential for even greater capabilities.

Why should HR care?
RPA and other cognitive technologies are full of potential for the HR function, especially given the relentless challenges HR often faces:

  • Constant pressures to do more with less. Lower budgets and higher expectations are the reality for HR. RPA offers a cost-effective opportunity to create more capacity without sacrificing the scope and quality of services. HR can use RPA to automate manual tasks to minimize the number of resources dedicated to these types of repeatable administrative activities. With low per-bot licensing costs, RPA can start delivering a return on investment quickly while increasing administrative capacity.
  • Need for “quick win” solutions. HR is expected to make operational improvements, but often without the capital and time to make a meaningful difference. RPA implementations are measured in weeks and can give HR organizations the means to quickly increase capacity. These technologies can scale rapidly, provide a means to capture operational expertise for broader deployment, and deliver services globally on a 24/7 schedule in multiple languages. Organizations with a fragmented technology landscape can also use bots to transmit data across systems in lieu of expensive integrations or manual processes.
  • Machines do it better. Credibility is paramount for HR, and the smallest mistakes can disrupt or distract the business. RPA can be an upgrade over humans when accuracy and speed count—not just in transaction processing but also in more complex tasks such as regulatory reporting and contract management. These advantages can reduce backlogs and processing errors while increasing HR performance and customer satisfaction.
  • Higher-impact services are waiting. RPA is an opportunity for HR teams to focus on higher-value services that are often neglected at the expense of the basics. For example, automating parts of the annual compensation process enables the redeployment of HR resources to focus on coaching managers and developing engagement action plans. RPA can also directly increase HR capability by enhancing reporting and analytic speed and maturity. Bots can perform thousands of calculations a minute and aggregate information from internal and external datasets to help HR make more informed decisions.

This is just the beginning
So will robots replace HR? Not entirely… but the inevitable adoption of these technologies should give pause to HR leaders across industries. At the same time, it should energize HR to learn about these technologies and how they could shape and improve the way work gets done. Basic RPA is not the end game, but rather the start of a massive wave of digital technological advancement that some are calling the fourth Industrial Revolution. Early adopters of RPA can create a foundation for more advanced uses in the future and could position HR as an innovation leader, but there are many other questions and issues to address as we think about the future of these smarter technologies:

  • What types of skill sets will be required to work with, configure, and maintain digital robots?
  • How do robotic and cognitive technologies change workforce planning?
  • What are the labor relations implications of replacing humans with automated systems?
  • What is the role of HR when a workforce is a blend of digital and human labor? How do we manage the transition?

These questions need answers—and HR can provide expertise in employee engagement, labor compliance, organizational design, and many other subjects to bring credibility to this dialogue as these technologies are deployed within HR and across the business.

Deloitte views robotic and cognitive technologies as both a major disruption and a substantial opportunity for HR. To demonstrate this, we are conducting an internal pilot with our own HR Operations Center. Stay tuned for more details on the results and early lessons learned in our next post on robotics.

Do you think robots will replace HR? Have a view on automation or artificial intelligence in HR? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

Michael Gretczko is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the practice leader for Digital HR & Innovation. He focuses on helping clients fundamentally change how they operate, often working with large, complex, and global organizations to guide transformation programs that enable HR organizations to reinvent the way they leverage digital to improve the employee experience and business performance.
Rajesh Attra is a managing director in the Human Capital practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP. He focuses on helping large global clients develop the operating models and delivery capabilities required for leading practice global shared services.

1Obama: My Successor Will Govern a Country Being Transformed by AI,” MIT Technology Review, (accessed November 8, 2016).

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