What ‘Hidden Figures’ Can Teach Recruiters About AI

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May 5, 2017

In the recent film “Hidden Figures,” a group of women known as “computers,” help mastermind NASA’s effort to put a man into space and eventually on the moon. Without their hard work and brilliance, America’s famed “moonshot” might never have succeeded. By the end of the film, their roles have largely been replaced by a computer that is capable of making millions of calculations per second — a feat that far surpasses their abilities. Instead of despairing that they might find themselves without a job, these women adapted: they learned computer programming, thereby ensuring their ongoing relevance despite the growing role of computers at NASA.

Fast-forward to now. The advent of artificial intelligence, deep learning, and automation has everyone from Elon Musk to Stephen Hawking worried about the consequences. There’s no question that the onset of artificial intelligence will dramatically change the world, including the landscape of recruiting. But, contrary to the doom and gloom of many prognosticators, these changes will make recruiting as a whole better, not worse. And like the incredible women from “Hidden Figures,” recruiters will find ample opportunity to evolve with automation to do their jobs even better.

First, we should lay to rest the question of whether AI is coming because, frankly, it’s already here. AI and machine learning are everywhere, including in recruiting. They already power interview and events scheduling, talent sourcing, candidate outreach, and even initial candidate screens. And this is just the beginning. Any action that is repetitive, and where human insight or personality are not strictly necessary, is at risk of being co-opted by machines.

It may sound scary, but in truth it could be a good thing. Yes, in some cases the automation of tasks will eliminate certain roles and responsibilities; however, in other ways they will make recruiters more efficient and less embroiled in repetitive, routine work. Furthermore, machines are mediocre at strategy and understanding humans in real time, two fundamental aspects of recruiting and talent acquisition.

Machines have been automating tasks since the invention of the printing press some 550 years ago, but they rarely, if ever, eliminate the need of certain skillsets completely. Instead, automation opens up new possibilities for work by making it easier for people to do their jobs better. As the Economist wrote recently, “Automating a particular task, so that it can be done more quickly or cheaply, increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated.” Conclusion: recruiting itself won’t disappear, but the role that humans play in recruiting will change and potentially expand.

Here are some ways you can position yourself to lead the revolution in recruiting, rather than being sidelined by the computers.

“Skill up” in the areas where humans add value:  Yes, machines can replace specific tasks but they can’t replace humans (yet). That means any roles that require a human’s unique touch will continue to require people. Machines cannot feel compassion or empathy. They cannot mimic the complex interplay of nuanced emotions and unspoken signals that occur during every conversation between people.

In other words, machines do not possess “soft skills.” When it comes to recruiting, machines will have a hard time mastering the art of the interview. They’ll fare poorly at closing candidates. At every stage that requires rapport between company and candidate, humans will continue to outperform computers. Master the skills of creativity, empathy, strategy, and persuasion and you’ll ensure a lengthy job tenure, no matter how smart the algorithms become.

Embrace new technologies: It’s a story as old as time: those people most willing and able to use new technologies and developments will be best positioned to thrive as automation continues to grow. Above all, new technologies offer opportunities to those who learn how to leverage them first. Much the same way the women “calculators” in “Hidden Figures” learned FORTRAN, those who master new tools become the authorities on them.

So launch yourself headlong into learning and understanding automation, especially those tools that serve the recruiting function. Have you found success relying on an automated scheduler? Are you beta-testing an automated sourcing platform? Moves like these will enable you to stay ahead of the technology curve even as more innovations pop up every year. Become the person everyone trusts to explain best practices with regards to AI tools and technology, and watch your relevancy and impact grow.

Develop your data proficiency: Automation will free recruiting professionals from time consuming, repetitive tasks to focus on activities that add more value. But automation and machine learning can only be as good as the data that informs the algorithms. If recruiting teams provide bad data inputs, we won’t be able to extract valuable results. In order to get in front of AI, standardize and systematize your data, now. Make sure your various systems (e.g. sourcing platform, CRM, ATS) “talk” to each other and enable you to export raw data. Work to standardize the inputs in each of your systems to be able to derive as much value as possible. For example, do you have consistent naming conventions for the stages of your interview process, across different departments and roles? Do your systems properly attribute source of hire and cost per hire? Getting the data right now will support the successful move toward automation, freeing up recruiters’ time for more strategic projects.

No matter what happens, social interactions will remain the job of real live humans. While many tasks will go on to be automated, the core responsibilities of recruiters to persuade people to take a role at their organization will remain intact. But, as “Hidden Figures” showed, the disruption of labor markets is nothing new. The key for recruiters, just as it was back for the super mathematicians, is to develop and apply their skills in innovative new ways.


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