Q&A: Integrating Robotics with Talent Management

Office Robotics

Before he became managing partner and principal for EY’s Northeast Region tax practice, Martin Fiore was the firm’s Americas tax talent leader, overseeing the recruitment, development and retention of 13,000 tax professionals in 30 countries. We spoke with him about his experience using robotic process automation to recruit and manage people, and get a sense of how he sees the use of robotics in HR evolving.

Let me start by asking you to sketch out your view of where robotics can play a role in managing talent and how your thinking on the subject developed.

We’re on a journey to use robotics in our HR function, and what we initially did was index and inventory all of our processes to determine where there was high volume and high touch by a human. That was category one.

Then we said, “Of those tasks and areas of focus, what are the areas that we think humans, one, don’t get any value out of working on and, two, don’t really provide any value to when they work on it?” Next we looked at it and said, “Of all of those processes, which ones could we automate using robotics?” And that’s really where we started.

Next, we began to experiment with robotics in a number of those areas. We ordered them into a few categories: the easiest to automate, the ones that were the most difficult, and finally those that were somewhere in between. We started at the bookends.

What we quickly learned that is this isn’t only about robotics, it’s also about process. We learned that just applying robotics doesn’t cure any ills, it just shines a light on the fact that there’s a lot of fragmented processes that need to be fixed, and then you overlay the robotics.

EY's Martin Fiore
EY’s Martin Fiore

So you’re saying that as you streamline processes, you uncover areas where robotics can come in and be a part of that streamlining?

Right. From my research and talking to other organizations, there’s two approaches to robotics out there. One is to go ahead and implement robotics. Don’t change the process, just implement robotics and you’ll get some uplift in automation.

The other theory is what we learned. You’re probably better off looking at the process, fixing the process and adding the robotics on top of that. That might take slightly longer, but it’s a much more sustainable, long-term process.

Can you paint me a picture of what this looks like in practice? People tend to think of robotics as being involved in production lines or what have you, but we’re talking tax talent. How does robotics fit in with that?

The first thing to understand is these are soft robots, which means they’re software and the only reason the term “bot” is used—other than to make it sound fancy—is that we’re mimicking the keystrokes of the human.

An example would be onboarding an individual into the firm. They send us their resume, and we send a response back. We’ve asked for information. That information comes into the firm and goes to three or four people. Then it goes into maybe two or three systems or an enterprise system. Then people pull that data and the person walks in the door to have an interview. Then we summarize the interviews among 10 or 12 people. Then we go back and make somebody an offer, or we don’t.

All of that is hands on the keyboard, pushing data and pulling data. It’s an easy example of how we were able to eliminate many hours of human effort and increase efficiency and quality. Most of the stuff we do in Corporate America is the same. It’s beginning-to-end processes.

You’ve given a lot of thought to transitioning this kind of technology into an operation, and you’ve previously said that it’s important for employees to lead the dialogue [about the process], even if management is the party that gets the dialogue going. Why is the employee voice so important?

For this to sustainable, you have to integrate human and what I’ll just call “the robot.” They have to learn to work together and not against each other. We found that if you engage the employee with the benefits [of using robots], a lot of positive things happen. First, the individual feels as though they’re adding value very quickly. And for the Millennial generation, that’s really important. Second, they start to see that they have more free time to do the things that they really want to do.

You know, you get a typical individual coming out of university and they’re swamped with volumes of data. They’re really almost a robot, just pushing data. This—using robotics—allows them to be more analytical much earlier in their career.

Then from a quality perspective, the results are better and that improves an individual’s performance. So their performance improves, the time allocation to spend on doing what they want work on improves, and the organization is given the benefit of a much leaner process.

The younger generations embrace this technology. They see it as an enhancement. I think more tenured individuals struggle to understand that as quickly. Click To Tweet

That’s the ideal state, and it’s not that hard to get to. The younger generations embrace this technology. They don’t see it as an elimination of their jobs. They see it as an enhancement. I think more tenured individuals struggle to understand that as quickly.

Did the introduction of robotics have any kind of impact on your tax talent group’s headcount

It alleviated an issue we faced in the midst of a talent shortage. We want exceptional people to join our organization and sometimes when they looked at and understood the work that they were going to do, it wasn’t attractive. As a result, we weren’t able to get what we were looking for. This allowed us to raise the game and attract the type of individual that we wanted.

So it’s allowed you to become more attractive as an employer, and also allows your department to function more intelligently with a combination of new technology and new talent, new skills.

Yeah. A new skill. Think of two levers on the wall. You know, you pull them up in the right direction, you find balance. What you have is automation and upskilling, and what you’re trying to find is the perfect balance where you automate enough and you upskill at a faster pace than you’re automating. That way,  as the automation comes online, your talent is upskilled to do things like analytics that provide value. It’s always about these two levers that you try to make sure you’ve got working in the right direction. It’s something like sailing a boat.

We’ve got a lot of focus on AI today, as well as robotics. Do you feel like they’re merging?

I have this visual that I use sometimes when I give presentations, a bar chart across the bottom that’s for robotics and artificial intelligence. Then I have blockchain and I have quantum computing. And I show that we’re at the beginning of the journey. RPA is the first step and there’s so much more to come. I think natural language generation is something we’re going to exploit in the very near future, as opposed to just natural language processing and understanding commands.

I saw an article recently about how far Alexa, Siri and other voice-activated assistants can go in developing relationships with their users. If you talk to the people that build these things, that’s almost what they want, for there to be a real conversation of sorts, or at least for the interaction to be more conversation-like.

That’s more sophisticated. I mean there’s some great examples out there now, right where you can actually have a conversation with your persona and it will know the tone in your voice. That’s another example of the direction we’re moving in. But even what you do on a daily basis requires you to be very creative, to find a lot of information.

And then there’s other types of content where we’ll just pull data and with natural-language generation, we’ll write it as if a human wrote it. I see that as something that we’ll use in a business environment. We pull data in, we sort it, we accumulate it using RPA and AI, and then we produce reports using natural language generation. I think that sits well in financial services. I mean we’re a high volume of data type organization: financial statements and tax returns, reports.

How do you see this all playing out within the HR and talent acquisition function? Will robotics require recruiters to develop a whole new set of skills besides the core talents they already depend on?

Yeah, I think that we’ll attract different competencies in the future. I think we’ll attract people that are going to find the work more rewarding at times. There’s a huge change that’s happening and it’s not happening quickly enough. And so I think that as the universities need to produce different competencies for the employers to choose from, employers are going to have to help universities to train them differently because they won’t get the talent [they want] quickly enough. And then there’s going to be some type of open loop back where either the university or the organization is going to have to keep upskilling their employees.

All of those points are in their infancy. I’ve spoken to universities, corporation, government officials, regulators. Everybody’s trying to figure it out. What I think is fascinating and amazing and interesting is that you’ve got a university system generally that’s not as agile as the rest of the world. So how do you make all this work together? I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out in the future.

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