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Can Artificial Intelligence Be HR's New Matchmaker?

Amy Lui Abel, Ph.D., Managing Director of Human Capital, The Conference Board

Amy Lui Abel, Ph.D., Managing Director of Human Capital, The Conference Board

The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been growing in all sorts of businesses: GE, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Deloitte, NASA –the list goes on. AI helps companies like these to manipulate and search vast amounts of data, often culled from multiple sources, to extract insights and find solutions at a speed that humans simply cannot match. 

At this point of time, AI applications have mostly focused on the operations side of the business, but there is no need for them to remain siloed there forever. In fact, AI could help HR departments in a host of ways. From talent acquisition to career development to succession planning, AI can bring new approaches to finding and matching prospective employees with business demands and perform this task in a more precise and efficient way.

For instance, today almost seven million U.S. jobs remain unfilled. With growing labor shortages and employers expressing difficulty in finding workers with relevant skills, AI can assist in sourcing and identifying candidates from a variety of places, both internal and external to the organization. This can be particularly useful when trying to find employees with complex skills, such as data scientists or production machinists who require years to become proficient. One global manufacturing firm is currently using AI to mine vast amounts of publicly available information such as job boards, social media, company website job postings, and salary ranges to locate critical skills and assess candidates.

Succession planning, the identification of future leaders, and career development within an organization, is another area in which AI can prove beneficial. Many organizations create high-potential programs to support talent development, retention, and succession planning efforts. However, the identification of high-potentials in an unbiased and objective manner remains a challenge for many HR organizations, yet one that AI can improve. Providing engaging and unique learning opportunities to enhance their careers is another challenge.

“From talent acquisition to career development to succession planning, AI can bring new approaches to finding and matching prospective employees with business demands”

Here’s one example of how it works: A large, global technology firm uses AI to support internal employee career development by matching current job openings to individual skills and experiences, and actively presenting a list to the employee. These opportunities may not be the same function or business area, so internal candidates may not have considered them, or even been aware they were an option. The AI system can synthesize data that can highlight skills and experiences that could apply to multiple job functions, even ones of which the employees themselves have not thought. This job matching also broadens an employee’s career and learning experiences, hopefully leading them to stay with the organization longer, rather than leaving for new growth opportunities elsewhere. Thus, the leaders of tomorrow do not depart and take their potential to another company – and in many cases, a competitor company – especially when opportunities exist internally.

Another example is a large, global professional services firm using AI to create matches between leaders and executive coaches. This new approach supports leaders asking for development in a personalized and efficient manner. These are not long-term coaching assignments; they are in the moment, targeting an issue or a struggle so a leader can receive support at the time of need.

While the possible uses of AI are building, many HR executives also express concern, and for good reasons. The topic raises several difficult and even philosophical issues – among them, the potential biases in the algorithms used. As just one example, if HR is teaching the AI system to learn about high-potential selection using data from past successful candidates, there can be issues if the company’s successful employees of the past were only from a specific group, such as successful CEOs in the Fortune 500. Machine learning is still only as good as the people that build it.

Moreover, there are questions about the ethical use of data in selecting or managing people, and whether AI can truly appreciate a holistic view of a candidate. AI can be used inappropriately to create population groups that are skewed and less diverse in thinking. And, as revealed by recent initiatives like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enactment, there are also significant privacy concerns surrounding the use of individual data within AI systems and whether individuals are fully informed enough to consent to the use of their data. Public education and acceptance are critical to widespread adoption of such systems.

These are intimidating issues with no simple solutions. However, the fact remains that AI can be useful in any HR processes that would benefit from more analytics and insights to enhance performance and effectiveness. Learning about AI and greater use of machine learning in business appears to be a daunting effort for most people. Partnering with operational and technology functions with experience in AI could be one way to start the journey. Experimentation is already occurring in many HR teams. Connecting with other HR and IT executives that have been experimenting with AI to exchange knowledge is another approach to gain insight. More HR departments should take a look at and brainstorm about what AI can do for them.