Six ways that artificial intelligence will shape the future role of HR professionals

20 March 2024

In a time when artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform the world of work, HR professionals find themselves at the forefront of this transformation. What do HR professionals themselves think about AI’s impact on their roles?

The rapid development of AI has important implications for the work of employees and the ways in which they are managed. As a consequence, the use of AI also presents challenges for Human Resource Management (HRM).

The field of HRM is sometimes considered a late adopter of technology, however, currently, the use of (generative) AI in HRM is growing substantially, for example in supporting AI-enabled recruitment and predicting employee turnover.

Although considerable attention has been devoted to the changes in HR activities because of AI, there is a lack of understanding about how AI shapes the role of the HR function and the work of HR professionals. Therefore, to demystify how AI is (re)shaping HRM and particularly the (future) role of HR professionals, we conducted an in-depth study involving three focus groups with 51 HR professionals from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Employing the world café methodology, we identify six key ways in which AI is reshaping the HR profession, informed by those at the frontline of this (potential) transformation.

Six key insights into how AI will reshape HR

Lesson 1: HR professionals will need to develop AI literacy

There is a need for HR professionals to upgrade their skills and develop “AI literacy”. This means developing a general understanding of AI and knowing how to effectively work with AI tools. Alongside this, to support policy development and the use of AI by the whole workforce, HR professionals will need critical and ethical thinking skills. One participant highlighted this critical mindset:

“Just having a basic understanding of how it [AI] works in terms of what is AI, where does the data come from, what are the limitations associated with it? Where is there missing data? Where is there bias? And how do you understand and verify results with a critical thinking lens, to understand accuracy and bias.”

Lesson 2: Automating routine tasks will free up time

Participants expected AI to automate and streamline routine tasks, leaving more complex and strategic responsibilities for HR professionals. This suggests the most important (foreseen) benefits of AI are efficiency and time-saving through the use of AI applications that can automate and augment certain specific HR activities. This might include the use of AI for writing text and, more specifically, in the domains of recruitment and learning.

“I would suggest that they [HR] use AI for recruitment and sifting applications for certainly first sift. You know, we don’t want people who are not graduating at a certain level. Construction of job descriptions, the wording of job descriptions, terms of reference, testing… testing employees or testing applicants, aptitude tests.”

Lesson 3: AI will allow more time for strategic focus and creativity

Using AI to streamline and automate some HR processes will allow HR professionals more time to focus on human interactions, strategy & policy development, and creative tasks. Instead of more operational tasks such as responding to employee requests, HR professionals will be engaged in people management programs and strategies and thereby support the company strategy.

“…taking away some of the things that are more administrative and [will allow] people to be able to use their creative and higher level skills.”

Lesson 4: HR professionals need to get up to speed with the legal and ethical issues

HR professionals need to develop a greater understanding of legal and ethical issues, including data use and protection, privacy, and the detection of AI. Moreover, HR professionals need to be mindful of the ever-looming bias inherent in AI applications and check their outputs.

“I guess the other responsibility is around whether they’re choosing tools with AI aspects and […] having that understanding of the consequences. So it’s kind of on the ethics side of things, […] They’ve got responsibility now to make sure that they don’t introduce problems.”

Lesson 5: AI will reduce opportunities to learn in entry-level jobs

AI’s role in potentially automating (entry-level) jobs presents both challenges and opportunities for workforce management that HR professionals need to address. The challenge is how to deal with differences in required skills for entry-level jobs, as explained by one participant:

“And also, if you remove those entry-level jobs, you take away the ability for people to learn certain skills, to understand why certain things happen, in more senior positions. So if you take away one skill, does someone actually lose the ability to do that higher skill? And because they haven’t done the manual work associated with learning the skill.”

Lesson 6: Change management skills will become even more central to HR

Given the transformational nature of adopting and implementing AI and the challenges involved in implementing AI applications, HR professionals’ change management skills become more important.

“in terms of skills and competencies, […] change management was the big one for me because I think, introducing any new process, obviously you need to be able to see that through to the end in terms of kind of soft skills, adaptability, influencing, which I think ties into communication and leadership.”

If HR professionals manage to take on these (new) lessons and learn the required skills, they will be well-positioned to add value for their organisations and their employees. According to our research, the added value that participants (want to) achieve is particularly pertinent in the areas of automation of routine activities, focus on strategic tasks, ensuring the ethical and legal use of AI, and improving employees’ experiences and skills.

The implications of AI are particularly relevant and important for HR professionals because the use of AI in HR processes such as recruitment, training, and performance management involves many ethical and privacy regulations and sensitivities – as recently also outlined by the EU’s AI Act.

Overall, our research offers a nuanced perspective on how AI is poised to redefine the HR profession – from the perspective of those who are likely to be affected by AI. HR professionals should not only adapt to these changes but also take the lead in harnessing AI’s potential while ensuring ethical application in this high-stakes context.

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