Since the day Amazon.com first introduced us to online shopping, the internet has steadily been cutting out the middle man. From sales clerks to music publishers, taxi dispatchers to real estate agents – the cloud has empowered us to sidestep many once-essential intermediaries.
In truth, the human middle man is not actually being eliminated; it’s just being changed. While it is true that technology is taking over many intermediary tasks, human intermediaries do survive. But to do so, they must find new ways to add value. For instance, human travel agents still exist despite a myriad of online reservations and ticketing systems by doing more than merely book trips and sell tickets. They must bring specialized knowledge and the ability to assemble travel experiences that combine multiple product and service providers. To put it another way, to survive, they’ve had to move up the value chain.
HR professionals are in a similar situation. With self-service technology improving and broadening, HR’s intermediary role for basic information and transactions is drifting away. But, like the travel agent, stockbroker and so on, HR professionals, too, can survive the middle-man threat by moving up the value chain.
The Digitization of HR Service Delivery
In a study conducted by Aon and the HR Shared Services Institute, about 90% of respondents aggressively or moderately deploy employee self-service (ESS) compared to 80% for manager self-service (MSS). In both cases, when asked to project utilization over the next one to two years, the aggressive deployment category is expected to grow larger.
Is emerging tech paving the way for Global Business Services? The globalization of HR service delivery is already well established, with over three-fourths of global organizations operating some type of globalized HR service delivery model, according to the same Aon-HRSSI study.
The global business services (GBS) model takes the globalization concept a step further, putting multiple shared services functions, such as HR, IT, finance, and others – under a single organizational umbrella. The GBS concept has been around as long as shared services itself, but remains a fairly small subset of total shared services models in existence, comprising only about 15%.
Digitization and AI may change this narrative, though. Bots are global naturals, able to speak multiple languages, never require sleep, and handle variation in stride (subject to your configuration, of course). To be sure, developing bots into full-service global service delivery machines will take time, but the technology is already in the hands of the market.
Bots are only as good as the quantity and quality of data they can access. Bots that merely regurgitate transactional data are not nearly as powerful as those that can access knowledge content in addition to transactional data to assist employees and managers from start to finish, thus enabling true self-sufficiency.
Thinking Outside the Bots
As long as chatbots are seen just as “machines” to answer questions instead of people, presumably “tier 1” service agents, the business case will never be grand, simply because the cost savings can never exceed what can be achieved through headcount reductions in these roles.
Indeed, when asked about the perceived benefits of deploying bots, headcount cost reduction ranks lowest, while the ability to provide 24/7/365 service without adding cost ranks highest. The ability of bots to provide better and faster service than humans also ranks relatively high. Clearly, the potential for hard-dollar cost savings is not driving interest in bots, rather enhancing the employee service experience. But how does this pay for itself, much less yield a net positive ROI?
One answer is to think beyond bots doing what humans can do and instead think about what bots can do that humans cannot. Bear in mind, bots are powered by supercomputers with the power to process millions of pages of content in a mere second, speak many languages, and never make a typo. Deploying a bot to answer frequently asked questions might be the equivalent of buying a Ferrari to drive to the grocery store. To derive actual value from bots, organizations should think creatively about how to leverage not merely bots’ human-mimicking capabilities, but rather their super-human capacities.
Prepare for the “Sea Change”
The term sea change comes from the Shakespearian play, The Tempest, in which a sorcerer conjures up a terrible storm at sea to manipulate a situation in his favor, a phenomenon Shakespeare calls a “sea change.” It’s used to describe profound transformations of all sorts. Sea changes are big, but they are seldom, if ever, as sudden as they seem. Like storms at sea, sea changes start small and “brew,” fulling forming only under the right conditions.
The conditions are right for a sea change in HR service delivery, with AI poised to play a transformative role by, again, replacing the middle man. As other intermediaries have done in similar situations, HR must respond by adding value in new ways. Rather than fearing this eventuality, the HR profession should embrace the challenge and recognize that, far from threatening its existence, AI and robotics are creating the right conditions for the transformation of HR that has been a long time coming.