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Equipping HR Professionals with Tech and Data Skills

Aug 29, 2023

In today's fast-paced world, the field of Human Resources (HR) is undergoing a transformation fueled by existing and emerging technologies. HR professionals are witnessing the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and other innovative tools, paving the way for more efficient processes, enhanced employee experiences, and strategic decision-making.

In this Q&A, Ashley Dugger, associate dean and director of HR and organizational psychology programs in the WGU College of Business, delves deeper into the realm of emerging technologies in HR and their impact on industry and the workplace.

Q: What are emerging technologies that HR professionals should be keeping an eye on?

A: In a prior HR management role, I was at a very small organization with limited resources, and when we started using HR information systems and payroll processing systems everything was still being done on paper. When we integrated our first applicant tracking system and HRIS, it was a huge change not only for our HR team but also for the entire workforce. HR professionals are asked to quickly adjust to utilizing the latest technologies, like Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, and have to be aware of navigating that change not only for themselves and their HR teams but also recognizing and planning for the impact to the broader workforce at their organizations as well.

Emerging technologies, like AI, are truly reshaping the way HR professionals approach their tasks. Much like the initial resistance faced during the transition from manual processes to digital HR systems, the integration of AI is being met with both curiosity and apprehension. HR professionals are being called upon to adapt to this new wave of technology and harness its potential.

Q: Could you elaborate on the role of AI in HR?

A: AI is proving to be a game-changer across multiple HR functions. One intriguing application is the use of AI-powered chatbots to enhance employee interactions and streamline communication. Open enrollment periods, for instance, can be overwhelming, with employees seeking information and assistance. AI-driven chatbots can swiftly provide responses to common queries, freeing up HR professionals to focus on more strategic tasks. Moreover, AI tools can automate email generation, customizing messages and offering relevant links. This not only reduces manual workload but also empowers HR professionals to concentrate on more critical endeavors.

Q: Are there specific areas within HR where AI is particularly beneficial?

A: AI's influence is especially pronounced in specialized HR domains like benefits administration, payroll processing, and recruitment. Take recruitment, for instance. AI is becoming instrumental in generating interview questions and initial candidate screenings. By automating these initial stages, recruiters can expedite the selection process and allocate more time to strategic decision-making.

As another example, a chat bot tool might use AI to help generate email messages more quickly. Communications that must get out around open enrollment or bigger process changes can be tailored once it's drafted initially by AI. Chat bots are also helpful to address questions on where to go on the website for specific information or where to find new insurance rates.

I think that it is going to be important to embrace AI tools as a collaborative partner rather than a threat.

Q: Beyond these functional tasks, how is AI impacting the broader aspects of employee engagement and performance management?

A: AI's impact extends to employee engagement and performance management as well. While these areas will always necessitate a personal touch, AI can play a pivotal role by offering data-driven insights. AI algorithms can quickly analyze performance data, pinpointing gaps between expected and actual outcomes. This capability proves invaluable in crafting performance improvement plans.

I think AI can also help look at predicting where people may be most successful based on their skills, but also their interests, their values, what they enjoy, and what they don't enjoy. HR professionals can then tailor training and development plans and skills pathways for career progression to enable employees and their leaders to make informed career decisions.

Q: As technology advances, what ethical and policy concerns should HR leaders be addressing?

A: The rapid integration of new technologies brings forth a host of ethical and policy concerns. People are scrambling to update their employee handbooks and their policies around AI but are also kind of hesitating to make policy changes because they know that technology is shifting so quickly.

And at the same time, HR leaders must establish guidelines on AI usage, defining tasks suitable for automation and those that require human intervention. Clear policies surrounding AI usage, data privacy, and employee consent are paramount. Ensuring equitable AI utilization and compliance with legal regulations—both state and federal—is a pressing need. HR professionals must stay vigilant in updating policies to match the dynamic nature of AI technology.

Q: How do WGU's HR programs prepare students for these technological shifts?

A: WGU's HR programs are carefully crafted to equip students with the necessary skills to thrive in the tech-driven HR landscape. Courses in HR technology and analytics ensure graduates are well-versed in using technology and data to drive HR initiatives and decision making.

One of the things that I think is so great about WGU’s new masters in human resource management is that there's a strong technology focus within the program on how HR professionals learn about applying technology and data in real-world scenarios. This allows people to be more productive and do more strategic work instead of doing things manually.

Q: What about the role data analytics plays into HR and in the courses included in the HR programs?

A: We've made it a focus that students not only understand how to use technology and what tools exist, but also how to use data that for insightful decision making. We combined a data-driven, decision-making course with a new HR technology and people analytics course in the Master of Science degree in Human Resource Management (MSHRM) to create an internal WGU certificate in HR technology and analytics for decision making. This certificate can be earned as students work through the degree program. Our students with Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a Major in HR (BSBAHR) also have a targeted focus throughout the degree in HR technology and metrics.

HR professionals tend to shy away from data analytics. I think it's because they haven't worked with data or a lot of tech and it can be scary. It can feel a little overwhelming…not only just the fear that “this technology might replace me,” but also a fear that “I don't feel confident doing this yet.” We want to give students the resources, training and support they need to feel comfortable using tech and to use data. We are helping learners look at metrics in a new way of not just reporting out on data but also being comfortable presenting the data and feeling confident in using it to tell a story and specifically using it to help make decisions for the organizations they support and not just within the HR department.

Q: What should employers know about WGU’s HR programs and why should they hire WGU employees?

A: Employers who hire WGU graduates gain professionals well-prepared to excel in diverse HR roles. WGU's HR programs provide a strong foundation in HR technology and data analysis—highly sought-after skills in today's job market. Graduates are not only adept at navigating evolving technologies but also skilled in making strategic decisions informed by data insights. The focus on certifications ensures graduates possess recognized credentials that demonstrates proficiency to potential employers. WGU graduates bring a blend of technical prowess and strategic acumen to organizations.

We really put our heart and soul into the programs. We make sure we've got the most relevant and future-focused skills in the content, and we also partner so closely with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and with the HR Certification institute (HRCI). We're meeting the standards and exceeding those standards from those two certifying bodies.

The MSHRM is a strong example because it is a compact program, and it is really nailing down what are the most critical skills for someone to be successful in HR. The degree also gives students the option to earn a third-party specialty credential in inclusive workplace culture from SHRM, the largest HR association in the world.

As we look ahead, it's evident that the intersection of HR and technology is transforming the industry landscape. HR professionals who embrace these emerging technologies will drive innovation, enhance employee experiences, and elevate the strategic value of HR within organizations. With programs like those offered by WGU, the future of HR looks bright, promising a workforce adept at harnessing technology for organizational success and for advancing WGU’s alumni.

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