AI, Automation & Algorithms: shaping the future of HR

Ravi Chand, HRD at HMRC
Keynote speaker at the myHRcareers London networking party, 30th Nov 2016


The world is changing faster than ever before.

In the past two years we have experienced more technological change than in the past fifty, and the impacts are seeping into all areas of our lives, for good or for bad. The advancement of disruptive technologies such as AI and robotics are expected to increase dramatically over the next few years, as their increased capability rapidly enables the development of new segments and generations of technology. We are in a period of constant innovation, and for businesses, there is no end in sight.

As business leaders, this rate of change is both exciting and cumbersome. How do we as leaders shape our businesses around such change, some of which we know the extent of, and most of which we can only guess at?  How do you build & reshape a workforce around future trends we you can only glimpse guess at?

We are entering an age where the vast majority of jobs could be automated.

Oxford University research estimate that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades. On the one hand this could drastically improve the working lives of many who are increasingly undertaking menial and repetitive tasks.

Futurists such as Martin Ford, believe automation will bring about a utopian future of people working less hours in more meaningful roles, whilst robots, algorithms and machines undertake the mechanical and time consuming parts of our roles. Many argue the eventual take-over by the smart machine could bring about the end the wealth-equality dilemma. On the other hand, for many the very idea of automation inspires fear, threatening our place in the world and professional futures.

The rise of the machine is no longer the Silicon Valley craze. It is a very real, very important social question that affects all areas of our lives.

For HR the opportunity and challenge of automation is of the utmost importance.

Many will find themselves leading HR functions of businesses which could in 5 years’ time essentially be run by a computer, with a skeleton workforce to oversee and direct it. For HR leaders this ‘technological unemployment’ provokes the urgent question of what is to be done with all those people? Can valuable work still be found, or will thousands of people be displaced?

It is our role & responsibility to reshape the future of our workforces. We must redefine how we work, where we work and crucially, why we work. The challenge is that we are doing this with every minimal data and against speeds which we have never experienced before. Workforce planning has never needed to be so agile.

Automation offers many business advantages, cost saving and higher productivity among the most obvious. There is also potential to improve working lives, and enable your workforce to deliver more meaningful valuable work. Is there a way to harness these advancements so that everyone can benefit?

How the HMRC is responding to these changes.

Our current workforce of 58000 FTE will reduce to around 50000 by 2021.  Furthermore, we will be relocating from around 170 offices to 13 large Regional Centres, which brings additional workforce challenges.  In order to smoothly transition to new ways of working, we need different skills, such as:

  • Improved ability to exploit the latest digital technology and data
  • Less low complexity interactions with customers as new digital channels are developed and errors are designed out of systems
  • Greater agility to handle digital interactions with multiple customers at once, covering more than one type of tax
  • More analytical & cyber-security skills
  • Greater focus on dealing with complex avoidance, evasion, and fraud issues
  • More collaborative working and flexible deployment across HMRC

What does this mean for the future of Workforce Planning?

We will need to be more strategic and know the impact of change on future workforce demand at each milestone, the capability of digital systems, the impact on workload and productivity, on skills, roles, & grades required, and to understand the current profile of our workforce and project it forward using the best wastage model available.

We need to plan to deliver the right skills and capacity at the right time, including ongoing delivery of business as usual over the period of transition, and we need to ensure that short-term tactical workforce solutions align with the longer-term strategic direction, and wider cross-government initiatives.  An increased focus on shared delivery across government and common standards and a Civil Service commitment to make greater use of apprenticeships is essential.

At the end of the month, I will be speaking to HR professionals at a myHRcareers event in London on this very topic. I will discuss my experiences of the requirements and impacts of technological innovations on the workforce and share the concerns, questions and challenges that all HR leaders are facing. I invite anyone who is interested in this subject and the role they as a HR leader have to play in it to join me in this discussion (Find out more & sign up here).