Robots, AI, And Intelligent Services: Are Humans Already Obsolete?

Mike Ettling

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote to leave, one of the Tweets that caught my eye was from founder and CEO of analyst firm HfS Research Phil Fersht (@pfersht), which simply said, “at least the British can stop worrying about robots taking their jobs. Just get rid of the jobs altogether…” While that may not be amusing as it plays out against our globalized economy, it demonstrates how this topic has taken hold of so many of us.

About a year ago, I was asked to sit on a panel at the annual Constellation Research Connected Enterprise called “The Robots Are Here! The Future of HR Tech,” to debate whether we’re entering a dystopian existence where humans are the bottleneck to productivity and innovation or a world of augmented humanity and digital humanization.

It’s a fact that major economic shifts have led to both marginalization, the downside, and great opportunity, clearly the upside. And yet, people have been rather resilient, especially during times of significant business model disruption like the one we are experiencing now. We find new things to do with our brains and new ways to innovate.

With several different companies, I’ve had a front-row seat in the arena of workplace trends and innovation. As technology becomes more and more capable of taking on the “work” in our “jobs,” we’re freed to do more interesting things and focus on the activities that energize us and contribute to the value of our businesses.

This isn’t new; for decades, we have seen the impact of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning on the shop floor. What is newer is how AI and machine learning are being applied to activities that we think require human interaction and decision making. Does that scare you? Are robots taking over? Will our jobs disappear? 

Intelligent services: The beginning of a new revolution for HR

Very rarely does what impacts people in a company not impact other areas of the business. In fact, the only constant when it comes to the workforce is that it’s always changing. Workforce changes create ripple effects across the organization – some much bigger than others – requiring manual self-services or shared-services centers to manage the downstream effects. Worse, neither path is triggered and the business stands to be disrupted by not addressing the consequences of a change. It doesn’t need to be that way. Today we can mitigate these effects without disrupting business.

We see intelligent services (a form of machine learning) as the answer. Intelligent services are transactions built into our software, connecting and predicting transactions and events that may be triggered by any HR event. Thanks to machine learning, in time the applications across the entire business learn to make adjustments automatically – without human interaction.

What do intelligent services look like?

Consider an employee’s request for an immediate leave of absence. Most HR systems incorporate self-services that enable employees to make the request (ripple one), and then the manager to approve it (ripple two), and then that information can be submitted to pay and benefits adjustments (ripples three and four). These are essential processes, and just about any HR software can address them, but they’re just the start of addressing any type of leave.

Let’s say our employee taking leave is a recruiting manager overseeing 10 requisitions. She’s also responsible for five recruiters on her team who are due their performance appraisals. And she booked a mandatory training program that she’ll miss while out – and the program is in another city, meaning someone needs to cancel her travel arrangements and registration. The costs are high to her team and the business if this is all ignored.

With intelligent services, the system knows how to react to this chain of events and can even “recommend” other actions to take before the leave starts. HR is notified when the recruiting manager submits the leave request. With intelligent services, the system will automatically reschedule the learning course after the recruiting manager returns, suggest that she update her team’s appraisals and goals, and reroute any pending job candidates to other members of the team. This is not just a win for the manager, her team, and the candidates, it’s a chance for HR to get out of the administrative and spend more time focused on the strategic.

What makes intelligent services even more powerful is that they are not limited to human capital management solutions like SAP’s SuccessFactors. We can extend this technology across other cloud solutions to bring an automated workflow that removes the guesswork from more than HR processes. Based on our research, we plan ultimately to address around 400 HR processes through the application of intelligent services. These will go beyond predefined workforce events and expand to non-HR SAP and third-party applications. 

Bring on the machines – we can take it from here 

We’re on the edge of our next revolution – the digital revolution. If you look back just 16 years to the year 2000, the start of our new century, you’ll see that 50% of the companies which were listed in the Fortune 500 are no longer around. Research out of the Olin Business School at Washington University from 2014 states that 40% of the S&P 500 won’t exist in the next 10 years if they can’t keep up with digitalization. That’s quite a wake-up call for us in business.

What will people do when freed up from “work?” Finally cure all cancers? Develop a true fuel alternative? Change the world in significant ways we can’t yet conceive of?

At the end of the day, humans will drive such success – technology will simply enable it. It’s up to us to decide what’s next and reinvent our own definition of “work” to make it happen. 

Learn more about intelligent services:

Join Ed Cone, deputy director of thought leadership and technology practice lead at Oxford Economics, for a webinar on November 2, where he will reveal more findings from the Leaders 2020 study. Register here.


Mike Ettling

About Mike Ettling

Mike Ettling is the President of SAP SuccessFactors. He is an inspirational, visionary and highly dynamic leader with a wealth of leadership expertise, genuine business acumen, and an exemplary record driving multi-million dollar sales, marketing initiatives and transformation in a global context.