HR's war against the machines!
13 years after Fast Company magazine asked "Why we hate HR", the profession is still struggling to win hearts and minds.
Questions To Ask Before Letting An Algorithm Make HR Decisions
Nearing the halfway mark in 2018 and I am ready to call it right now - the topic/trend that has and will continue to dominate the HR and HR technology discussion this year is Artificial Intelligence or AI.
I will accept my share of the responsibility and blame for this no doubt. I have hit the topic numerous times on the blog, I have programmed at least seven sessions (or more) featuring AI topics for the upcoming HR Technology Conference, and the subject comes up on just about every HR Happy Hour Podcast at one point or another. In fact, one of my favorite HR Happy Hour Shows this year was the conversation I had with author and professor Joshua Gans on his new book titled Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence.
So if you are thinking that everyone in HR and HR tech is all in on AI you'd probably be right. And yet even with all the attention and hype, at some level I still wonder if we are talking about AI in HR enough. Or more specifically, are we talking about the important issues in AI, and are we asking the right questions before we deploy AI for HR decision making?
I thought about this again after reading an excellent piece on this very topic, titled 'Math Can't Solve Everything:Questions We Need to be Asking Before Deciding an Algorithm is the Answer' on the Electronic Frontier Foundation site. In this piece, (and you really should read it all), the authors lay out five questions that organizations should consider before turning to AI and algorithms for decision support purposes.
Let's take a quick look at the five questions that HR leaders should be aware of and think about, and by way of example, examine how these questions might be assessed in the context of one common 'AI in HR' use case - applying an algorithm to rank job candidates and decide which candidates to interview and consider.
1. Will this algorithm influence—or serve as the basis of—decisions with the potential to negatively impact people’s lives?
In the piece on EFF, the main example or warning cited when AI-driven processes might negatively impact people's lives is in the use of an algorithm called Compas, which has been used to predict convicted criminals likelihood to become repeat offenders. The potential danger is when the Compas score influences a judge to issue a longer prison sentence to someone the algorithm suggests is likely to repeat offend. But what if Compas is wrong? Then the convicted offender ends up spending more time than they should have in prison. So this is a huge issue in the criminal justice system.
In our HR example, the stakes are not quite so high, but they still matter. When algorithms or AI is used to rank job candidates and select candidates for interviews, those candidates who are not selected, or are rated poorly, are certainly negatively impacted by the loss of the opportunity to be considered for employment. That does not mean the AI is 'wrong' or bad necessarily, but just that HR leaders need to be open and honest that this kind of AI will certainly impact some people in a negative manner.
With that established, we can look at the remaining questions to consider when deploying AI in HR.
2. Can the available data actually lead to a good outcome?
Any algorithm relies on input data, and the 'right' input data, in order to produce accurate predictions and outcomes. In our AI in HR example, leaders deploying these technologies need to take time to assess the kinds of input data about candidates that are available and that the algorithm is considering, when determining things like rankings and recommendations. This is when we have to ask ourselves additional questions on correlation vs. causation and whether or not one data point is a genuine and valid proxy for another outcome.
In the candidate evaluation example, if the algorithm is assessing things like educational achievement or past industry experience of a candidate, are we sure that this data is indeed predictive of success for a candidate in a specific job? Again, I am not contending that we can't know which data elements are indeed predictive and valid, but that we should know them, (or at least have really strong evidence they are likely to be valid).
3. Is the algorithm fair?
At the most basic level, and the one that has the most applicability for our AI in HR example, HR leaders deploying AI have to assess whether or not the AI is fair - and the simplest way is to review if the algorithm is treating like groups similarly or disparately? Many organizations are turning to AI-powered candidate assessment and ranking processes to try to remove human bias from the hiring process and attempt to ensure fairness. HR leaders, along with their technology and provider partners have the challenge and responsibility to validate this is actually happening. 'Fairness' is a simple concept to grasp, but can be extremely hard to prove, but one that is inherently necessary in order for AI and algorithms to drive organizational and even societal outcomes. There is a lot more we can do to break this down, but for now, let's be sure we know we have, in HR, to ask this question early and often in the AI conversation.
4. How will the results (really) be used by humans?
If you deploy AI and algorithms for the purposes of ranking candidates, how will you use the AI-generated rankings? Will they be the sole determinant of which candidates get called for interviews, advance in the hiring process, and ultimately have a chance at an offer? Or will the AI rankings be just a part of the consideration and evaluation criteria for candidates, to be supplemented by 'human' review and judgement?
One of the ways the authors of the EFF piece suggest to ensure that human judgement is still a part of the process, is to engineer the algorithms in such a manner that they don't produce a single numerical value, like a candidate ranking score, but rather a narrative report and review of the candidate that a human HR person or recruiter would have to review. In that review, they would naturally apply some of their own human judgement. Bottom line, if your AI is meant to supplement humans and not replace them, you have to take active steps to ensure that is indeed the case in the organization.
5. Will people affected by these decisions have any influence over the system?
This final question is perhaps the trickiest one to answer for our AI in HR example. Job candidates who are not selected for interviews as a result of a poor or lower relative AI-driven ranking, will almost always have very little ability to influence the system or process. But rejected candidates often have valid questions as to why they were not considered for interviews and seek advice on how they could work to strengthen their skills and experiences in order to improve their chances for future opportunities. In this case, it would be important for HR leaders to have enough trust and visibility into the workings of the algorithm in order to precisely understand where any given candidate was ranked poorly. This ability to see the levers of the algorithm at work, and be able to share them in a clear and understandable manner is what HR leaders have to push their technology partners on, and be able to provide when needed.
As we continue to discuss and deploy AI in HR processes, we have to also continue to evaluate these systems and ask these and other important questions. HR decisions are big decisions. They impact people's lives in important and profound ways. They are not to be taken lightly. And if some level of these decisions are to be trusted to an algorithm, then HR leaders have to hold that algorithm (and themselves), accountable.
Auditing the Effectiveness of your HR Department: Part One
For the last 30 years, the RBL Group has been on the forefront of HR transformation. We believe that HR is not about HR, but HR begins and ends with business. We find that many who focus on HR transformation are focused almost exclusively on how to organise the HR department. We believe in designing the right HR department, but focusing ONLY on the HR department is a narrow focus of the overall effectiveness of HR.
As we have done empirical research with over 100,000 respondents and advisory services with dozens and dozens of HR leaders, we have distilled nine dimensions of an effective HR department.
These nine criteria for an HR department may be seen as delivering value at four stages:
- Foundational/Administrative: HR focuses on efficiency
- Functional: HR focuses on best practices
- Strategic: HR focuses on delivering strategy
- Outside in: HR focuses on stakeholders outside the organisation
This results in a matrix that can be used to audit the overall effectiveness of an HR department. Here we look at the first four of the nine domains: reputation, definition of success, strategy and design.
Review the domains by the four stages of HR departments and assess where your HR department is today. Use a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being ‘low’ and 10 being ‘high', to assess your HR department in each domain and stage.
The challenge is that you can’t do everything well, so if you’ve already addressed the low hanging fruit, think about what you can decide to stop doing. You may be doing work in HR that the business loves you for that isn’t in line with where the business is going. How do you manage that? It’s about being aggressive with priorities.
Next week we will look at the remaining five criteria: organisation capability, analytics, practices, HR professionals and work style.
The nine criteria for an effective HR department build upon, and extend, the RBL Group’s empirical research and books in a number of areas, such as our 13 milestones of HR transformation (HR Transformation), the research results from round seven of the HR Competency Study (HRCS), research from Leadership Brand – RBL’s organisation capability audit tool, RBL’s four practices of an HR department, RBL’s work on HR value creation and HR from the Outside I’, and HR department questions from the book ‘Victory through Organization’.
How Design Thinking Is Disrupting HR
How can HR design employee experiences that empower critical thinking, teamwork, and innovation?
Design Thinking is an approach that will change HR in its core. It will develop a human-centric mindset that focuses beyond designing programs or processes to create meaningful experiences.
In one sentence: design thinking is a process for creative “problem solving”
Design Thinking brings an innovate approach that will change the way HR teams deliver value, organize work and find solutions. As Josh Bersin, from Bersin Associates, put it: “Design Thinking casts HR in a new role. It transforms HR from a “process developer” into an “experience architect.” It empowers HR to reimagine every aspect of work: the physical environment; how people meet and interact; how managers spend their time; and how companies select, train, engage, and evaluate people.”
Design Thinking brings a “Human-Centric Approach” that is present in every single step of the design process. Teams are empowered and accountable to gather user insights that start with the question: “How might we”. Understanding that “how” represents a solution-oriented approach, “might” encourages optimism and “we” represents collaboration.
Teams are encouraged to inspire new thinking by discovering what people need.
In some ways, Design Thinking leaves the traditional “waterfall” project management approach behind. In the waterfall approach, projects are divided into different stages. Each stage has to be completed before the project can move on to the next one. Projects are championed by a senior executive and hierarchy is king. Teams are not autonomous and need senior management approval to move forward in every single stage of the project. The results: when projects are finally ready to be launched, competition has designed something new first, customers need change, or the solution has become obsolete.
Furthermore, a Design Thinking framework is not correlative. This means that teams can check with clients or customers and come back to the project to make adjustments to potential prototypes and tests. The initial message here is: to create meaningful innovations, teams need to know their customers – or internal clients – very well. They need to care about the needs and expectations of their customers and/or clients.
Understanding Design Thinking
Let’s take a look at the opinion of Tim Brown – CEO and president of IDEO – in the article “Design Thinking” published by HBR: “A methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this, I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.” This core concept is transformational for HR. It will involve leaving behind annual processes and approach-based planning for a simpler, more innovative and faster model driven by human-centered principles.
So, what’s the early message for HR?
HR needs to embed the “user or employee” at the center of the experience in its delivery model.
Design Thinking is a creative approach to problem-solving. As such, it leads to gathering inspiration, ideas, making ideas tangible and share the “story” to create innovative solutions. The design starts with:
- Empathizing with customers first (understanding their needs and frustrations);
- then moving to define the problem, and;
- then brainstorming to identify and choose the best ideas and solutions, and then;
- building prototypes to test what works and what doesn’t.
If it doesn’t, solutions are redefined by learning about users through testing in order to finally find a solution that meets customer needs. The graphic below describes the various stages:
The human-centric design is focused on the user experience instead of the process “itself”. It’s about creating sparks of ideas to launch products and services that deeply resonate with customers or internal clients. However, the human-centric design involves a cultural “shift” and creating experiences that empower innovation, creativity, incentivize failure to learn and team-collaboration. Design Thinking has a strong success story in product design, technology, and marketing and is now being applied more broadly in various functions and businesses.
The message here is: It’s time for HR to adapt to an agile environment to create an employee experience using Design Thinking principles to deliver talent capabilities linked to strategy.
Design Thinking Framework
- Empathize: learn about your audience, what problems do the users face?
- Define: construct a point of view based on user needs, define the main problem you want to solve.
- Brainstorm: brainstorm and come up with creative solutions, choose the best ideas.
- Prototype: build a representation of your ideas and a prototype design.
- Test: test ideas and prototypes with actual users.
HR empowered by Design Thinking
Design thinking starts with “the problem statement” which is the core of the design. Participants need to be related to the problem that design teams want to fix. Directed storytelling allows designers to easily gather rich stories of real-life experiences from participants using thoughtful prompts and guiding and framing questions in conversations. Then the design team finds solutions based on the problem statement. Brainstorming is a part of this process and all ideas are accepted. Then the ideas are organized into categories (affinity diagram) and data from information-gathering activities is analyzed.
Innovation is a capability that HR needs to develop to adapt in a fast-paced environment where solutions need to be designed from the outside-in understanding the needs of customers and internal clients. For example, Cisco’s HR teams were trained to use Design Thinking. They looked at areas where HR could change drastically in tangible, practical ways, such as recruiting, onboarding, learning and development, and workplace design. Cisco was using Design Thinking to re-design the organization with a focus on “people experiences” instead of processes.
Design Thinking can be applied to every aspect of HR, for example, it can be applied to the candidate experience. The application journey can bring different expectations from the candidate perspective. Candidates are looking for an enjoyable application and interviewing process, an opportunity to learn about the company and to be informed about their current status and potential next steps.
If hired, the onboarding process, instead of providing general information about the company in 1 or 2 days, should focus on creating an experience where technology (artificial intelligence is bringing a whole set of tools for HR) leverages onboarding activities to make sure the candidate has access to agendas, responsibilities, and process-guidance.
In Design Thinking, we explore the actual needs of end-users through interviews, focus groups and informal interactions. This is called “empathize”. Throughout the design process, teams test what works and what doesn’t so that they can make sure they are building experiences that meet people’s needs. One key aspect that Design Thinking brings to organizations and HR is a “collaborative design approach”. Having people involved in the design process across different business units and functions brings a new perspective to problem-solving.
Dianne Gherson, IBM’S head of HR, interviewed by Harvard Business Review, led the employee experience overhaul using Design Thinking and mentioned “We have found that employee engagement explains two-thirds of our client scores. And if we are able to increase client satisfaction by 5 points, we see an extra 20% in revenue, on average”.
What was the message here? There was a direct impact between employee experience and customer experience but where – and how – to start?
IBM brought people from different functions into the design process and teams were accountable to co-create a brand-new employee onboarding process. Everything started with an initial assessment to understand the new hire’s point of view and realize that the onboarding experience involved working with a broader set of players to make it happen.
Performance management is another process that has been disrupted. The traditional performance management with 2 or 3 stages has not been creating a direct impact on the business. Organizations were measuring individual results when in reality, objectives were accomplished by teams.
IBM approached this case as well, deciding to work with employee groups instead of bringing in a bunch of field experts. They used Design Thinking and after 5 months of hard work, the brand-new performance model was implemented across the company. According to Dianne, “The power of engaging the whole workforce lies in the fact that they are much less likely to resist change when they have had a hand in shaping it”.
To sum up, HR can leverage this Design Thinking approach creating cross-functional task-force teams to design experiences related to onboarding, learning, candidate experience, performance management, recruiting and in general to every single HR practice.
Final Thoughts – Questions for HR designers:
- How can HR re-set its mindset to use Design Thinking?
- Would Design Thinking work in all HR functions?
- How do we know if our prototype is worth iterating on?
- How do we know which customers we should talk to first?
- How can HR use the human-centric design to design employee experiences?
- What does a great employee experience look like from the moment someone is hired until the moment they leave the company?