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Cognitive computing is a game changer for HR

August 28, 2019

Part 1: RPA offers a good way to get in the game

The use of highly innovative and powerful technologies in HR is rapidly expanding, but embracing this new way of working can seem daunting. Where does one begin, and which technology is right for your organization? In this 2-part series we’ll discuss how cognitive computing comes into play, and how it directly impacts the development of these incredibly powerful technologies used in HR, like chatbots.

What is cognitive computing? Cognitive computing encompasses a range of technologies that are being used to amplify human skills or change task requirements. Having access to large amounts of structured and unstructured data (both from within the organization and externally) paired with the ability to process data quickly and inexpensively is what makes cognitive computing a game changer. One type of cognitive, robotic process automation (RPA), is a common first step because it can be implemented relatively quickly, frees up time for HR professionals to focus on more value-added, strategic work, and paves the way for more advanced types of cognitive technologies, like chatbots.

To understand why cognitive computing is so important for HR, we have to take a step back to see the big picture of what’s going on in three key areas: talent, workplaces, and technology.

First, talent.
Talent is, of course, HR’s bread and butter, and it’s changing rapidly. The growth of the alternative workforce and its shift into the mainstream is a top trend identified in this year’s Global Human Capital Trends report. But our Trends research shows that organizations are still thinking tactically rather than strategically about alternative workers, using them selectively as needed rather than as long-term solution for meeting workforce needs. Only 8 percent of survey respondents, for instance, said that they had established processes to manage and develop alternative workforce sources; more than half (54 percent) said they either managed alternative workers inconsistently or had few or no processes for managing them at all.

Second, workplaces.
As the “who” of work is changing, so is the “where.” Thanks to today’s communication and collaboration tools, the notion of work as “a place to go” is shifting. Individuals and teams don’t necessarily have to be in close proximity to get work done, which has implications for workforce planning as well as facilities planning.

And finally, technology.
As we all know, machines have been steadily progressing in their capabilities, in some cases outthinking humans in games of skill, strategy, and knowledge (e.g., chess, Go, Jeopardy). In a workplace context, machines can replace some human jobs, but more often the result is “augmented work”—work that is actually designed to take advantage of machines and people working together. By taking on routine or repetitive transactional work, machines create more capacity for humans to do what machines can’t, including:

  • Essential human skills, such as curiosity and social and emotional intelligence
  • Cognitive abilities, such as creativity and problem solving
  • Complex problem-solving skills, such as the capacity to solve ill-defined problems
  • System skills, such as decision-making and system analysis
  • Technical skills, such as programming & user experience design

This changing and augmenting of work to harness what machines and people do best is what’s leading to new opportunities for HR to reimagine how work gets done. And this is where cognitive computing can help.

Source: Deloitte Consulting LLP

Cognitive computing, which encompasses RPA, machine learning, natural language processing, intelligent automation, and analytics, can help answer critical questions:1

  • Attraction: What are the characteristics of high-performing leaders and how can we hire/promote people like them?
  • Engagement: How does engagement correlate with business metrics?
  • Productivity: What are the characteristics of our most productive employees?
  • Retention: How can we retain top performers?
  • Organizational design: How will redesigning the organizational structure help achieve strategic objectives?
  • Interaction: How effective (e.g., easy, two-way, timely, digital) are interactions between the organization and employees?
  • Development: How effective are our training programs?
  • Location:How can we inform and engage with employees, regardless of their physical location?
  • Roles: How can we support effective use of human capital by shifting effort away from routine tasks?

Ready to start?
These are the kinds of questions that HR must be able to answer to be a valued, strategic partner to the business and a driver of organizational success. Given the complexity of today’s organizations, finding the answers without the help of cognitive technologies may not be feasible or even possible. HR organizations really do need to enter the world of cognitive technologies, and RPA can be a good first step.

In our 2019 Global Human Capital Trends research, RPA was the cognitive technology most in use by our survey respondents, with more than one-third (36 percent) of organizations reporting RPA in use in select functions or extensively across the organization. With RPA, the bots—which are really bits of software—can gather and collate information, analyze and record data, communicate with users, even anticipate outcomes, interacting with applications just as humans would. And RPA can be implemented relatively easily via a desktop or in a virtual environment.

What about fears that bots will take over too many jobs? Our research doesn’t bear out those fears, instead finding that organizations are looking to cognitive to reinforce, not replace, human workers, for things like enhancing existing technologies/processes, helping humans make better decisions, and taking on tedious tasks.2

This short perspective from some of my Deloitte colleagues, available here, gives more insight into how RPA can itself be a game changer by giving HR organizations the capacity to do more with less. And, perhaps even more importantly, RPA can help HR move toward an augmented workforce and build capabilities required to manage other “smart” technologies effectively, including the chatbots we’ll talk about in Part 2 of this series. These enablers are an essential element not only for the future of HR but for the future of the enterprise, the workforce, and how work gets done.

Bryan Coleis vice president, Human Capital as a Service, Deloitte Consulting LLP.


1David Fineman, Marc Solow, “How predictive people analytics are revolutionizing human resources,” Deloitte, 2018, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/consulting/articles/how-predictive-people-analytics-are-revolutionizing-human-resources.html
2Deloitte State of Cognitive Survey. “Bullish on the business value of cognitive.” Deloitte LLP 2017. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/deloitte-analytics/articles/cognitive-technology-adoption-survey.html.

Originally published at Capital H blog