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Artificial intelligence in HR a buzzworthy industry trend

Analysts say artificial intelligence in HR will get the biggest buzz at the HR Technology Conference and Exposition; another hot topic is HR benefits automation.

Artificial intelligence in HR.

That's mostly what you need to know about what's hot this year in HR tech. and it's expected to be the most buzzworthy topic at the 20th annual HR Technology Conference and Exposition, according to HR tech experts.

"You won't be able to walk 2 or 3 feet without someone talking about this new emerging kind of software," said John Sumser, principal analyst at the independent consulting firm HRExaminer and a speaker and panelist at the three-day conference in Las Vegas.

Of course, artificial intelligence (AI) in HR isn't the only hot topic in the business these days.

Employee engagement, learning, benefits automation, and advances in payroll and compensation management technology will likely also be bubbling up, according to Sumser and another conference speaker and panelist, Mollie Lombardi, co-founder and CEO of Aptitude Research Partners, an independent HR tech consulting firm in Boston.

SearchHRSoftware's publisher, TechTarget, is a media partner of the conference.

The meaning of AI

Sumser noted that there is some vagueness about the term AI in HR technology -- with various vendors coming up with different definitions -- and, often, a more precise term is more useful.

However, he said, "the essence is tools that reduce the amount of time the customer has to spend in the software and increase the value the customer gets out of the software."

"That's really what people mean when they say artificial intelligence," Sumser said.

So, in other words, artificial intelligence in HR and its close cousin, machine learning, really amount to further automation of HR tech processes across the continuum from core HCM to employee engagement.

Sumser recently finished research for a report on 30 leading companies that have been developing applications for artificial intelligence in HR.

Having data provides advantage for vendors

Five of the vendors Sumser looked at are large-scale HR suite providers: Ultimate Software, Ceridian, Kronos, Cornerstone and Workday. A handful were what Sumser called more niche vendors, but bigger than startups; they included IBM, which has an AI product for HR; Salary.com; SmartRecruiters; and Burning Glass.

"The rest are startups," Sumser said. "It's my view that, in this particular arena, the incumbents, the suite players and the long-term players ... have a significant advantage over startups. The reason ... is they have data."

All of the suite vendors Sumser mentioned will have a significant presence at the Oct. 10 to 13 HR technology event, as will tech giants with major HR footprints, like Oracle and SAP, and dozens of more specialized startups and smaller companies.

Also among the 421 exhibitors at the 2017 edition of the biggest U.S. HR technology show are social media powerhouses Google and LinkedIn, both of which have in a short time become strong contenders in the talent acquisition market. LinkedIn's learning division will also be there.

Finding AI use cases will be tricky

As for Lombardi, she concurred with Sumser about the fuzziness that appears to accompany so much talk about artificial intelligence in HR.

AI, machine learning and bots are sort of where social and mobile were about 10 years ago.
Mollie LombardiCEO, Aptitude Research

"AI and machine learning and bots -- a lot of people ask me, 'What's the difference between those, and what do they really mean?'" Lombardi said. "I think AI, machine learning and bots are sort of where social and mobile were about 10 years ago."

"There's going to be a lot of attention paid to it, but finding the use cases is going to be the trick," she said.

In Lombardi's view, some of the most interesting applications for AI in HR are in learning, such as intelligently guiding users to content.

Another intriguing use case might be using a chatbot or interrogatory AI tool to guide employers through pay comparison and compensation management decisions, she said.

'The war for the user experience'

Meanwhile, still another dynamic now playing out in HR tech is what Lombardi called "the war for the user experience."

"The big firms that have the data and the resources to put together a user experience platform -- and a lot of people are talking about this, including the SAPs and the Oracles -- they want to be the iPhone to your app," she said.

But while the big human capital management vendors want customers to use all their modules -- from payroll and time and attendance to talent acquisition -- many employers are looking for specialized applications to integrate with larger systems.

"I may want to plug in some of these innovative best-of-breed vendors," Lombardi said. "It will be interesting to see whether people are going to play nice or not."

Next Steps

AI in HR: Plenty of recent activity

Ceridian uses its own engagement tool

Learn some key terms with this AI-in-HR glossary

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How much of AI in HR is hype and marketing, and how much consists of real applications with measureable effectiveness?
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