The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Human Resources: An age of Experimentation

“Land was the raw material of the agricultural age. Iron was the raw material of the industrial age. Data is the raw material of the information age.”

- Alec Ross, futurist and bestselling author


Kevin Wheeler, founder and Chairman of the Future of Talent Institute, shared Alec Ross’ quote with a riveted audience during our leadership breakfast event on 27th June 2017. This event was part of our commitment to bringing global thought-leadership to New Zealand, and helping transform the leadership landscape. We explored one of the most fraught topics in Human Resources (HR) today – the impact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having across the discipline and wider sector.

Kevin, a well-known futurist, speaker, author, teacher and consultant in talent acquisition and development, shared his insights on how AI is redefining HR globally. He suggested solutions that were provocative and thoughtful in equal measure, by considering how we can adapt to this new era of volatility, complexity, change and digital disruption. In a nutshell, Kevin recommends embracing an age of experimentation within HR where we are courageous enough to try and fail by using AI in different ways. We connected Kevin’s insights to local issues through a panel discussion featuring Dr Claire Barber (Chief Digital Officer – Spark), Andrew Norton (Chief People Officer – KiwiRail) and Richard Gill (CEO – Blerter and entrepreneur). This article shares reflections on the event, including highlights from poignant questions raised, and hard-hitting statistics that pinch us back to reality regarding the power of AI.

Rise of the Planet of AI

We are living in a VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – this is creating an age of experimentation in HR. On the one hand, there is a technological revolution whereby talent technology disruption is enabling people to track candidate profiles using data analysis from online content and complex algorithms. Software already exists to track a candidate’s online footprint, including tapping into their personal email network to track who they email most frequently and chart their connections. Such tools are easily accessed through simple LinkedIn plug-in applications. On the other hand, there is a growing advancement of AI and automation. Kevin shared research from McKinsey noting 45% of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated – the dramatic impact this has on HR and the workforce is a topic for further debate, as there isn’t consensus on how soon AI will affect the planet. For instance, a study of 352 researchers globally[1] found that American researchers feel it would be over 200 years before we see a full automation of labour (all human jobs) in the world, whereas Asian researchers thought this could be a reality in a mere 60 years. Research has shown that within 11 years, automated machines will be capable of assembling LEGO – traditionally a difficult task requiring hand-eye coordination and dexterity. One need only look at existing evidence of retail automation all around us, from self-serve supermarket checkout kiosks to the world’s first Duty Free Automated Collection Experience (ACE)[2] at the Auckland Airport Click & Collect service, featuring a robot that delivers your shopping using the ID barcode scanner. The fact that this robot is kept safely away from the public, encased behind 18mm reinforced glass, only raises further questions about machine learning and its inherent risks. Specifically, for HR, Kevin shared research that believes by 2020, 100% of payroll and benefits admin can be automated, while 80% of performance management and 90% of recruiting can be automated. In just three years from now. Other key areas of career development, coaching, employee engagement and employee relations are at least 50% automatable.

However, putting aside the risk analysis, the potential is ripe for AI to make waves in productivity and profitability. Kevin’s insights identified how to work with AI to deliver top results. Jobs that entail a lot of routine work or predictable behaviours are far more likely to become fully automated. There are camps of thought that propagate the use of automated medical surgery or financial accounting because the rate of mistakes is far lower. However, Kevin addressed the skills that will become more valuable in an era of automation – creativity, collaboration, cognitive critical thinking, empathy and other inherently human capabilities. While AI is accelerating the transition away from traditional jobs, there is an emergent network of skills, relationships and ideas - not jobs. Kevin notes we need to shift from thinking about jobs and careers to think about solving challenges and problems with creativity – and in partnership with AI. As HR practitioners, we need to focus on internal mobility and cataloging of skills and capabilities, with less interest in deep expertise and career progression. Cisco and financial services firm MasterCard are testing so-called “internal mobility platforms” that allow employees to cherry-pick projects to fill specific gaps for the company rather than staying in a more structured role. This may well be the future, especially considering how synergistic this flexible approach is to the wider culture of the millennial workforce who would welcome a climate of micro-jobs.

Leadership lessons learned

From a leadership perspective, we need to acknowledge the importance of learning how to un-learn and being open to agility, flexibility and adaptability to new systems. Change is the only constant in a VUCA world. We need to be brave enough to experiment with HR and AI, as there will be plenty of trial and error moments in this journey. Kevin notes HR needs to be more comfortable with AI and learn to use it to make better decisions, better predictions, and to become more effective.


Renisa Maki


Kerridge & Partners


[1] Study in response to a survey from Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University

The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Human Resources: An age of Experimentation