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ALGORITHMS, ETHICS, AND THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN RESOURCES

Jack RiisfeldtDecember 5, 2020

The world is undergoing a consequential paradigm shift. The primacy of climate as a mainstream socio-political and economic issue is forcing businesses to reengineer longstanding operating models in the pursuit of sustainable outcomes, while consumer-driven pressure on sustainable distribution models and events like the recent COVID-19 outbreak are a wake-up call for global enterprises to confront their own supply-chain dependencies.

Beneath these challenges is a shifting technological bedrock. We are collecting data at an unprecedented and exponential rate, mining the complexities of the world in greater depth than ever before, all the while regulatory landscapes struggle to reign in practices and protect consumers that want to participate in the world with greater privacy and security safeguards.

Employers and their employees are simultaneously grappling with the often over-dramatised rise of AI, trying to ascertain whether dystopic fears around vast job displacements will impact them before they have the time or capacity to evolve into prophetically touted roles that are yet to exist. This, then, is a small snapshot of the world we live in, and for Human Resources professionals, it is a world of immense opportunity.

Human Resources professionals have specific opportunities to empower employees with a lived purpose and to genuinely pursue business for the better; to have serious conversations around algorithmic ethics, employee privacy and wellbeing; and to train employees in analytical methodologies and explore pragmatic approaches for transitioning people into new roles. Connect Media and Australia Post gathered leading Human Resources executives from around the country to candidly confront these challenges and opportunities.

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CAPABILITIES AND COUNTERARGUMENTS

Technology is liberating Human Resources from the transactional shackles that have thus far hindered the strategic potential of the profession. The transformative integration of cloud capabilities unfolding across all sectors of the national economy is altering the fabric of relationships embedded in the core of the Human Resources function. Automation and Artificial Intelligence are elevating Human Resources into a second-line function, a transition that is empowering professionals to assume strategic business partnerships roles. This strategic revolution is however contingent on the development of technical knowledge, not just an evolution of capabilities.

Human Resources professionals must, to some extent, become technologists. This is to say that Human Resources professionals need to understand the underlying processes unfolding inside the black boxes of the cloud to the extent it enables them to have meaningful conversations at the Board level.

Particularly, Human Resources professionals must be able to understand – and effectively communicate – the profound security and risk implications arising as a direct result of collecting swathes of data on employees, including; principled questions around privacy, on correlating performance with mental health and emotional wellbeing, concerns around the fundamental biases embedded in the collection and application of this data, as well as the ever-mutating threats that can expose businesses to severe commercial and reputational harm.

Practically, Human Resources professionals must be open to consultation around the often-shrouded impacts of developments in automation and Artificial Intelligence; it is all very well to listen and engage in commentary around the efficiency gains created by automation, but there are crucial counter-arguments concerning what is compromised by these processes that the function must give voice to.

Human Resources professionals must be qualified to communicate critical questions around enterprise architecture to the Board, ensuring they are aware not only of current capabilities and the accompanying risks, but of the trajectory of those capabilities:

“You don’t get it do you. This is happening now. We can track using Microsoft 360 what people are working on in real time, okay? We can correlate that to their personal characteristics. We need to be having this conversation now about how we use this data and what data we want to analyse.”

Concerns around ethical data collection are increasingly being afforded weight in arguments around enterprise architecture design. Human Resources are grappling with the human implications of a data-oriented Catch 22, namely, that we need to collect data to determine what we don’t need. This dichotomy is prevalent when it comes to consumer data, where the religion of unrestricted collection has been allowed to run rampant under the understanding that the answer to one question poses five new questions.

This methodology is complicated in Human Resources by the deeply engrained philosophy that not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts. Human Resources have immense responsibility to safeguard information and ensure that data is directed towards appropriate ends. Increasingly, businesses are equating holding data to carrying risk, and are offloading this responsibility to third parties with greater security posture. This deflection, however, means that there is a very limited interrogation or understanding of how the relied-upon algorithms function:

“It feels like a dark heart at the moment, so we blindly hand over the power to someone else. I think we as HR professionals really need to understand it and drive it ourselves.”

To effectively give weight to these counterarguments, Human Resources leaders must forge close relationships with IT professionals. Now that digital is beginning to assume control of human elements that were so long the sole domain of Human Resources, the question becomes one of accountability – close, cross-functional dialogue is essential.

“What he [IT] needs from me is to ask the right questions. We need to work out what are the right questions we need to ask the right people in order to get the right outcomes for the right data.
You can get the data to tell the stories you want it to, so we need the skills to be actually understanding how did you come up with that data, what does it mean, how do I apply it.”

And from the perspective of an enterprise architect:

“I’m looking at these cloud platforms and could you tell me whether you want these features because I think you might not want these features, and I think you might want to say why you don’t want them.”

For employees asked to surrender personal data, the question is one of risk and reward. They’re providing data that they don’t necessarily want to provide, because not doing so would lock them out of the job. For employers, an honest response to the question ‘what are you going to do with my data’ is ‘I don’t know yet – but trust us to do good things with it’. For the moment, that remains a true, but insufficient, answer.

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CONCLUSION

Questions around algorithmic ethics, employee wellbeing and privacy are not optional conversations for HR professionals. These are consequential issues that are arising within Human Resources in the first instance.

The function has a unique window to meaningfully impact outcomes and become gatekeepers of the ethics of data. Human Resources professionals need be comfortable with technical literacy, as well as commercial and consumer literacy, to function as a bridge between The Board and enterprise architects.

They need to retain the human side of communication and empathy, to be sensitive to the lived experience of employees, but also to realise that new evidence must support experience. Most of all, Human Resources must dedicate itself to the deep interrogation of these issues – this is an opportunity that technology has provided, and the challenge that it poises.