Getting Practical with AI: Can It Help HR People?

Jul 21, 2021

When the words artificial intelligence or data science come up in a conversation about HR strategy, there are times’—especially if the context is a small- or medium-sized business’—when the eyerolls are almost audible. “Here comes the sales pitch,” listeners think while wondering what kinds of AI insights will be valuable enough to offset all the extra hours spent putting them into practice.

Too often when HR professionals hear about AI, the conversation focuses on the AI itself and not on how to work with it. Knowing the nuts and bolts of how this machine-learning algorithm works or how that statistical process is just so very efficient doesn’t matter to them. What they need is a clear picture of how these processes will help them help their people’—and how those processes fit in with the many responsibilities HR already has. Done right, AI can help HR professionals proactively get strategic without bogging them down.

The best AI is the kind no one talks about

The implementation of AI in HR shouldn’t become another task on the checklist. Instead, it should be something that makes HR’s other tasks easier to accomplish and gets HR to a place where it can continuously improve people processes in strategic ways. When adding value to everyday HR activities becomes the priority, HR’s relationship with technology becomes different because the outcomes are focused on people rather than on the technology itself. With a successful implementation of AI:


  • Targeted answers come to HR professionals as they’re working, so they don’t have to devote time to digging through people data to figure out what to act on;
  • There’s no more worrying about automating away jobs or losing touch with what matters to the organization’s employees;
  • Technology helps HR professionals and their people excel in their roles and adjusts to the organization’s needs; and
  • The facts and guidance needed to make informed decisions are delivered to HR right when they’re needed, so there’s no guessing about what to do to make improvements or strategic changes. An implementation of AI that ticks all those boxes may seem like a pipedream, but it’s possible. Here’s how to achieve it.


Treat using AI like hiring a strategic advisor

Anyone hiring one of those top-shelf consulting firms that most businesses can’t really afford wouldn’t expect them to come in, dump a bunch of information on a desk, and then just leave. So why is it okay for HR technology to do that? There’s already enough confusion around all the different aspects of people analytics that HR is expected to track in order to be strategic. In an ideal world, any information obtained from an HR solution should be served up with something that makes it actionable: guidance. In addition to being built into the single solution HR already uses to manage data, AI should function as an advisor that takes the company’s priorities into account and gives recommendations based on what it’s seeing so HR can spend less time analyzing data and more time making an impact.

A big part of this all comes down to timeliness and flexibility. Having to go ask an AI solution for predictions or information means putting just another item on the to-do list without getting help when it’s most needed. Instead, AI should do what any good advisor would and actively look for opportunities to help, such as:

  • sending quick heads-up alerts when it looks like employees are likely to leave the company, explaining these flight risks, and offering up possible ways to address them;
  • establishing benchmarks based on what normal activity looks like across the organization, proactively notifying HR when something falls outside that norm, and suggesting whether that change is positive or negative; and
  • stepping in to assist in HR’s regular reporting activities, giving tips on how to answer different people analytics questions, and providing quick help setting up charts or dashboards so HR can maximize its time and get answers fast.

Consultants anticipate their clients’ needs and not only help them do what’s best for their people and their organizations but also help them become better leaders. AI can do the same thing if it’s built to focus on adapting to organizations and embedded in the flow of their employees’ life cycles.

Find ways to deepen relationships with people managers

In addition to increasing HR professionals’ efficiency and strategic ability, presenting and sharing the right data at the right time to make an impact can help HR build strong, positive relationships with the people managers they work alongside. Think about it: automatically receiving insights into the people activities going on at the organization and getting time back from not having to dig through data give HR some breathing room to align strategies with managers. HR technology can help there, too. The benchmarks mentioned above help HR professionals tap into what matters to managers, help them to get out of the weeds, and do what’s best for their teams. It’s important to remember, that it’s not just a matter of mitigating risk or penalizing people. When HR has at its fingertips a constant feed of benchmark information that’s proactively pointing out where there are outliers, those outliers can also be examined as positive changes to be capitalized on. HR technology should guide HR professionals to those opportunities, in addition to showing them where they can reduce risk.

Consider this example: one shift manager is particularly skilled at setting up fair schedules, and their team is starting to recognize them for it and is becoming more engaged and productive as a result. With the right solution, HR would see the team’s change in real time and get a helpful notification about where its performance sits relative to other benchmarks (and alongside the team’s scheduling patterns). This opens the opportunity to talk with that manager, understand what it is they’re doing that’s working, and roll that process out on more broadly by finding time for them to train their peers (or collaborating with them) to draft new scheduling policies. HR forms a new alliance with a strong manager, they feel heard and recognized for their efforts, and the wider organization gets the benefit of some process optimization that will help employees succeed. It’s a win-win situation.

Remember that emotional intelligence matters as much as business intelligence

How can these hard numbers really translate into insights on how people are feeling or what they’re thinking? Good AI should go beyond just advising HR on operational metrics and should also offer sentiment analysis. By looking at people’s written responses in different activities (such as recruitment evaluations, performance reviews, and engagement or pulse surveys), AI solutions can help HR understand the feelings behind those responses.

This data gives HR a fact-based way to look at and talk about something that would otherwise be just a gut feeling in many cases. This approach has several possible valuable applications. For example, it can help HR:

  • zero in on the HR processes or initiatives that people feel particularly positive or negative about (and then either reinforce them or change course);
  • zero in on the HR processes or initiatives that people feel particularly positive or negative about (and then either reinforce them or change course);
  • process feedback from hiring teams faster by understanding their general emotions toward different applicants moving through the company’s recruitment channels; and

  • get advice on performance review trends (such as when a particular manager consistently provides overly positive or overly negative feedback to their team).

Sentiment analysis enables HR to bridge the gap between common business goals and KPIs and the employees’ well-being. Having this kind of data mix in hand on a regular basis enables HR to communicate with leadership about how overall organizational strategy should align with the needs of everyone working there and become an even more critical part of those conversations.

“Practical AI” isn’t an oxymoron after all

Conversations about AI in HR can quickly become overwhelming, and the solutions often seem like more trouble than they’re worth. But when the search for HR technology starts from the right perspective and involves asking the right questions, HR professionals will find that there are many ways AI can benefit them, their people managers, their organization, and ultimately all of their people. When evaluating the organization’s strategic HR options, focusing on the advantages can help HR have better, more productive conversations about newer technologies, such as AI solutions.

Written by: Keen Hahn

Subscribe to HR Connection

HR Connection Subscribe