Saswati Sinha, Head of HR – Cheil WW India is a human resource leader with more than 20 years of experience in people, processes, and strategy. She has worked with the media, advertising and IT and ITeS industries to set benchmarks and develop HR as a 'solution provider' and 'enabler' rather than 'support'. She has also worked as a consultant and trainer for various companies to develop processes and policies conducive to organization growth and also develop talent to match the pace of growth.
Presently, she is leading the talent mandate for Cheil India - a leading advertising agency in India (a Samsung Group company), where she is managing and leading the talent interventions including upgrading talent, bringing efficiencies in structure, skill development and review. She is also responsible for envisioning the skill needs as per the organization strategy and ensuring preparedness for the future.
In a candid conversation with People Matters, Sinha shares her views on what will the new HR skillsets look like in the age of AI and automation; how AI will push HR professionals to move up the value chain and focus beyond the basics for innovation and agile solutions to talent problems impacting business; and with the workplace becoming more efficient, data-driven, and automated by AI and technology, will HR need to humanize the workplace.
What will the new HR skillsets look like in the age of AI and automation? And how will it help the organization?
The ‘newness’ of skills in HR is only in its ‘enhancement’. In the early 90s when computers came in, HR professionals stopped using pen and paper for salary computation and started using excel. Same way artificial intelligence is bringing in applications which help us in making our day-to-day life easier and more effective.
The main skills/mindset to adapt to this new technology would be:
- Basic understanding of how technology works or is applied in your work area.
- Ability to adapt to the ever-changing business and operations scenarios- AI will keep learning new ways and keep evolving- HR professionals will have to keep up and continuously upgrade their knowledge and skills to ensure they don’t become redundant.
- Comfort with numbers- traditionally HR professionals have not been very comfortable with huge data and numbers- this will have to change because AI will throw up high volume of data that we will have to work with, for talent interventions.
- One ‘hat’ will not fit all - customization is the key! One performance review process might not fit across the organization, one way of hiring might not be applicable for all skills, so even if we have AI- it might not be an answer to all our operational problems. We will have to move towards ‘solution provider’ than just ‘support’.
Artificial Intelligence is going to ensure that we are forced to bring in operational efficiencies in our deliverables by reducing turnaround time (TAT), personal biases and subjectivity in our work, accessibility of information and data-driven solutions. AI will push HR professionals to move up the value chain and focus beyond the basics for innovation and agile solutions to talent problems impacting the business. We have been trying to do this for decades. Technology will expedite it.
How can one adopt this new technology and what are the basic strategies to move forward as an organization while turning potential threats into opportunities?
Adoption for any organization has to be based on the problem identified. We should not adopt a chatbot if we already have an application which serves the same purpose. We should not be implementing VR applications for hiring if the same purpose is being served by an online test. Organizations have to start with the pain points first - it can range from query management, right screening of talent to talent development and interventions through real-time solutions using AI. Technology has to be adopted as a solution to a problem not because it is the ‘trend’ to do so.
Strategies will differ from organization to organization but the basic thumb rule would be: identify the problem ->think of solution-> map solution to the technology/App-> project ROI (man-hours saved or cost-effectiveness or man-hours deployed for more value additions etc.) -> Implement. Start will small and keep moving up.
The threat seems to be that AI will take away jobs. Yes, it will. But it will take away only those jobs which we as HR professionals anyhow have been wanting to let go - the operational part of our jobs which are repetitive and monotonous and do not add value after a point of time. The opportunity for all organizations is to now reskill and redeploy resources for better ROI.
With the workplace becoming more efficient, data-driven, and automated by AI and technology, do you think HR will need to humanize the workplace?
The belief is that workplace will always be ‘humane’ as we are dealing with people not bots. What we have to do as professionals is to ensure that we are striking a healthy balance between ‘data’ and ‘instinct’. EQ and IQ are both equally important and critical at any point in time. This is where we as the custodians of talent have to evolve up the value chain and be ‘true’ business partners and ensure the balance.
An important aspect of automation is time management. How will automation/AI help HR in time management?
At any given point in time, on an average, an HR professional spends 40-50% of their time in operational activities - may it be query management, recruitment coordination, screening of candidates, training operations, MIS, etc. AI will reduce the time for all the base level operational activities. It’s a huge time saver as it will help us to focus more on the ‘value added’ aspects of our work like talent development, retention plans, acquiring the right skills vis-a-vis the business vision and strategy, etc.
In fact, automation has been doing that for years, but AI will take it to the next level of predicting the future needs in the area it is implemented, ensuring that even our future needs are met. Imagine the operational bottlenecks of incorrect or short term data, operational hassles of managing personal data of people and updating them, following up for attending workshops, taking feedback, etc., vanishing.
What are the benefits of data-focused HR professionals?
In simple terms, data-focused HR will be able to give a better Return on Investment- ROI. HR traditionally has struggled with trying to match data to ‘instinct’. For example, we know deploying training programs to develop skills required for their growth but, even today, we have not been able to develop a robust ROI model for the same. Another example is that we know by instinct and experience that talent from smaller cities who come out to bigger cities are more ambitious and maybe more committed as compared to talent in metros, both attributes leading to higher retention and business success. This trend will be now supported with data and we will be in a better position to convince business teams about the same.
The vision of moving from ‘support’ to ‘strategic’ partner to business, as a function, will gain speed.
What is Cheil doing to enhance the skill set of employees – both in HR and other departments?
Cheil is in the unique position of being in a talent-driven industry. We believed we are the ‘Agency for Now’, where creativity is inspired technology. This uniqueness enables us to drive and enhance skillsets in a structured manner. We identify skill gaps at the start of the year and drive the deployment of skill programs through a structured training calendar. Every individual is mapped against the program required at that level for that business vertical. For example, given that digitalization is the future, our retail vertical talent will also go through basic digital marketing training besides their role or department specific requirements. Trainings are imparted on the job, classroom or online. We also rate each training through the feedback of participants and they are upgraded or dropped if the feedback demands so. The plan for the near future is to move towards more technology (for imparting training) and ROI driven programs.