Tackling Technology: HR executives discuss robotics and AI at CHRO SA Summit

HR executives shared insights on how to navigate the impact of technology on their teams and their organisations.

HR executives attended a summit at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) on how to embrace robotics and artificial intelligence. Sponsored by Workday and the GSB, the event brought some of the country's top HR heads together to share each other's thoughts on what they were currently implementing in their organisations and what frustrations they had.

Deloitte's Marienus Trouw said one of the biggest obstacles to the proper implementation of AI and robotics in organisations was a mindset problem. He said companies and the people that lead them needed to shift their collective mindsets from one that thinks about technology as a 'Human vs. Machine' concept to one that understands how machines and humans will have to complement each other in the world of work in order to create better value and increase productivity.


Andre Vermeulen, who leads the Human Capital HR Transformation practice for Africa and is the Technology services and Digital Learning leader at Deloitte, said:

"When I look at robotics from an HR perspective, I think about how machines can be used to enhance our human ability. There's a misconception in the market that robots are going to replace humans but our studies have shown that the focus is on augmenting human ability and making humans more productive through machine applications. Machines thrive on data and, given the right level of intelligence and rules, we can make them do some really phenomenal things."

He continued: "In the health sector, there are hip-adjustment devices that make it possible for nurses to lift heavy things without putting too much pressure on their backs. I have seen mine workers holding up a three-ton brick with one hand. We are also able to take away the mundane jobs and let humans do work that is more meaningful as it requires creativity and emotional intelligence."

After a brief introduction, attendees spread out into four different roundtable discussions respectively lead by Andre, Marienus, Dimension Data HR executive for the Middle East and Africa Michaela Voller, and UCT Graduate School of Business Professor, Rasoava Rija.

The discussions were centred around the following three questions:

  1. What part of your work will be positively impacted by robotics and/or AI?
  2. How are you and your team embracing these changes?; and
  3. Can you describe the practical steps that you have or will take to implement robotics and/or AI?

Here are some of the key takeaways from those discussions:

Chatbots are a godsend
Chatbots were among solutions most commonly applied within companies represented at the event, with many saying that one of the most mundane tasks for the HR teams was dealing with queries. They agreed that having dedicated HR support centres to help employees answer basic company-related information on policies and processes were a waste of resources. Rather Chatbots can serve as a mobile HR assistant that helps employees get answers to Frequent Asked Questions, allowing HR to be more productive.

Adams & Adams Head of HR Marge Mantjie said this was something that she would certainly appreciate as she is often stopped by colleagues to answer questions around company policies, to which they could easily find the answers.

Wesbank's Kelebogile Mazwai, said:

"We have automated 24 processes. it's been a very steep learning process but it has allowed us to figure out what works and what doesn't. One of the most important lessons we've learned was to ensure we employed someone to oversee the bots. We once had a situation when the bots weren't responding to queries and, only after an hour, realised that they had not been activated that morning."

Andre shared a story about a client that ran a large learning organisation, which wanted robotic/AI solutions that would enable them to assist their staff: "They would typically appoint learning experts but what happened was that they essentially became travel agents because they then had to book the flights and organise meals and accommodation for these guest lecturers while they should have been focussing on the course material and actual administering of the teaching process. "We introduced automatic flight assistants, which were essentially chat-bots that would handle all that stuff for the visiting expert and allow the organisation to focus on their core activities. The experts had no idea that they were interacting with a robot. They would still send emails to secure their bookings and flight information but that actual work was done automatically."

Justifying the expense
Regarding the fear that employees had around what robotics and AI meant for their job security, Cargo Carriers HR Director Pauline Legodi said that people simply needed to be reassured that their companies would not discard them at a moment's notice. "People want to feel will still be able to provide for their families. As long as they feel that they will be brought along in the journey, there will be less fear associated with implementing robotics and AI in the organisation," she said.

Many companies want to adopt a wait and see approach in terms of applying new technologies to improve their processes but, when it comes to timing, Pauline said it was inadvisable to only start changing because they were being forced to by their competitors as the impact would be negative.

Meanwhile, Andre said It was also important to have a corporate culture and a leadership team that embraces change and champions innovation because otherwise, things will not move quickly enough. He said: "Don't do nothing. Rather try to innovate at a pace that the organisation can handle. If there is a process that involves six different approvals, for example, it may not be a good idea to implement a solution that reduces that number to only one person. Rather reduce it three and then, in two years, reduce it further to one person. Because the last thing you want to do is destabilise the entire organisation."

One of the key challenges raised by many of the attendees was the difficulty in trying to convince their boards to make the capital investment in HR tech solutions. Mondel?z International's Cebile Xulu said the challenge was that the business case for HR tech involved long-term returns, while executive leadership teams would be more impressed with interventions that would lead to headcount reductions in the near term, for example.

Verna Robson, Director for Group Human Resources at Sun International, said the top three executives in the leadership team were all chartered accountants, which meant she had to substantiate any proposal she had with hard numbers. But this can be a challenge when it comes to robotics and AI because so much of what companies are trying is unchartered territory, which will involve a significant amount of trial and error.

Education needs to improve
The event closed with a Q&A session in which one of the main concerns that were raised was education. All the attendees recognised that the world of work was changing and that the skill requirements are evolving at a rapid pace. However, while HR leaders try to make sure their companies were keeping up with these demands, there was a greater problem with the quality of young people entering the labour market. The expressed a need to speak to universities about their curriculums to assist in preparing individuals for the world of work. Cebile said her main concern was that HR leaders tended to see their roles as being internally focused on the organisations for which they work. But, because they are the ones that are first to see the impact of the country's poor education system, they should also be playing an external in some way or other to point out to academic institutions that the skills that are coming into their organisations are not the skills that they need.

"About 90 percent of graduate programmes spend the first six months to a year teaching young employees soft skills. And that is a lot of money that is being spent. When it comes to IT graduates it is worse. Because, even with the highest university qualification, it's almost as if you have to teach them everything from scratch," said Tshidi Khunou, Head of Talent at FNB Wealth and Investments.