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Seven ways HR can drive the automation agenda

Advantage Digital: HR driving automation

How can we ensure developments in artificial intelligence and robotics make our organisations more productive rather than slaves to technology?

Robert Bolton

Partner, Global People and Change Centre of Excellence

KPMG in the UK


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‘Automation anxiety’ is on the rise as headlines strike fear into employees that robots will replace their jobs. This hyped-up scenario is unlikely, but many roles will be reconfigured in some way. So how can we ensure developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics make our organisations more productive rather than slaves to technology? We believe the rise of AI is an opportunity for HR to drive rather than react to the automation agenda.

Get in the driving seat

HR must lead the conversation on automation and get ahead of what employees are saying. It’s time to have an honest dialogue about how jobs will change, what training will be provided and how the shape of the business will shift. Look at organisational processes and only automate where it will augment what your people do already – going too far could negatively impact your brand.

Start with the end user

AI is no longer the domain of lab researchers with supercomputers; it can now be put in the hands of every employee. Approaching the automation of a process from the end-user’s perspective ensures that they are more engaged with it and the process improvements you’re looking for are realised. Work back from the end user, redesign processes if necessary, and then apply the technology.


Start small, but start now. Consider aspects of the business that could benefit from being automated. HR may be a good place to start – companies such as Unilever have benefitted from introducing chat bots to deal with basic HR queries, freeing up the rest of the team to deal with more complex queries or work on more strategic projects.

Become a shaper, not a planner

Automation is not an end state; the goalposts move all the time. This means that HR’s primary function moves from strategic workforce planning to workforce shaping. As technology is rolled out to different parts of the business, the needs of the workforce will change continuously. Have an eye on the horizon: do employees need to build their skills or is there a need to attract skills from outside the organisation?

Think ‘digitization’ not digital

Put people at the heart of your digital transformation journey rather than technology. Consider the ‘persona’ of your end user: are they a line manager or senior executive? Do they prefer to consume data on their phone or desktop? If you’re introducing chat bots, for example, some employees might be more comfortable talking to a human about a sensitive issue, so think carefully about how much you automate and the handover between the two.

HR has to change, too

Traditional boundaries in HR operating models, such as between business partners and centres of excellence, will also break down as more aspects of the business are automated. As with the wider organisation, HR must think about the areas of the function that will benefit from automation, and how this will impact the skills base of its existing teams. HR will be pushed to transform as employees from inside and outside the function want to learn more.

Listen and lead

Constantly listen to how the organisation reacts to digital transformation and adapt accordingly. In one oil and gas company's upstream operations, for example, HR uses a pulse survey tool to gather constant feedback from employees, so it can “course-correct” as it goes. It is this appreciation that the journey to digital transformation is not a straight line and responding to concerns that helps to engage employees with the process and creates a more collective mindset. Leadership approaches must adapt to this environment, too – leaders need to bring their teams to the front end of the change curve, rather than react to it, and that way others will embrace the transformation as well.

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