Humans put the "H" in HR - and that will never change 

With the threat of machines replacing humans and the increase in automation, what role will HR practitioners play?

What does the future hold for the HR industry? This was a topic covered in many sessions at the HR Indaba in Sandton on 3 October. During the session titled “Building future proof HR teams”, Sungeetha Sewpersad, head of HR: group technology at Absa, pointed out that on the lists experts compile about the jobs that will no longer be relevant in 10 years, you’ll find professions such as doctors, lawyers, bankers and others that futurists believe will become automated. HR, however, is not on those lists. “There will always be a need for humans to deal with humans. That is the job we as HR practitioners do,” she said.

While the HR professional will continue to play a role in organisations of the future, one thing the speakers agreed on is that that role will – and has already started to – change. Alice Bhebhe, executive director human resources at Pearson, said:

“As HR we need to stop seeing ourselves as a function; we are business people. People deliver two-and-a-half times more value than technology. We have to think to ourselves: ‘What can I do better than machines?’ but at the same time we must embrace technology to make our lives easier.” 

Identifying what makes you superior to a machine, said Alice, presents an opportunity for HR professionals to be more strategic. Shirley Joscelyne, HR director at Takeda, echoed Alice’s insights, adding that understanding your organisation’s business strategy is of utmost importance. “Irrespective of the level of automation or AI that’s coming on, you’re going to have a people element. Yes, the roles might change and some roles might be made redundant, but you are going to need new roles and new capabilities, so it’s very important to keep in tune and understand all aspects of the business. Remember, automation is affecting all the departments in a business. Future proofing HR also requires that agility to be able to support and help the functions as they navigate the waters in terms of new systems they have to manage,” said Shirley. Looking ahead, Shirley added that HR needed to be very strong on workforce planning and talent strategies. 

Alice emphasised the importance of learning and unlearning:

“All of us have to understand which matrix are most important to the business. All of us talk about how much pressure there is to demonstrate what value we bring to the business, but more importantly we must show what we are doing to help the business make the right decisions so the business can prosper."

According to Alice, training was required on how to use the data collected by HR in a meaningful way that helps others in the company carry out their work, be it launching new products or even taking advantage of new trends. “As HR it never came to us naturally because we were always told we are ‘just personnel,’ we need to stop seeing ourselves as just an HR function that’s there to support, we are part of the business. Being able to get the right data and package it in a way that’s really, truly meaningful is one of the capabilities we need to learn,” she added.