Written by Michael Sippitt and

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It is not protests in the streets and the overturning of our Government by violence we fear, at least not yet anyway. However, there is a quiet and transformational revolution going on that will deeply affect just about everyone over time.

It is the big data revolution and its effects on people as citizens, consumers and workers.

As big data increasingly intrudes and controls our lives, extending to potential artificial intelligence applications that will decide if we get loans or job interviews, perhaps without much assurance of fairness in the algorithms which determine our suitability, so the march of technology will impact all current processes and decision making. The technology will as ever go faster than our ability to work out what it is really doing, and Human Resource professionals may be left behind as the technology experts design systems to reduce cost, drive extra efficiency, and improve selection/promotion/termination criteria.

Most enterprises, like governments, tend to work in silos. Collaborative working between key teams is not as common as it should be. Yet right now the HR Directors of most companies need good understanding what technologies will impact their responsibilities very soon. Moreover, they need to shape the systems to accord with corporate values and legal obligations.

It looks to be only a matter of time before a mix of future legal cases about discrimination in automatic decision making and public dissatisfaction with the problem that “the computer says no!” drives businesses to introduce ways of proving their fundamental fairness as well as efficiency. It is foreseeable that independent audits of alogirithms to test and remove any elements of bias will become part of corporate governance obligations, alongside demonstrating corporate environmental and social responsibilities.

As we now see Modern Slavery Act statements published by larger companies operating in the UK, so we can anticipate before long investor pressure to check that companies are resilient against accusations of recruitment and promotion bias. It is all part of the strong human rights agenda that is acknowledged as vital by most large corporates.

In essence, computers and those who use them can never be above the law. Yet the law moves much slower than the technology it tries to regulate. Thank goodness the EU years ago began its mission to try and safeguard individual data, in line with the EU generally offering more protection to individuals than they can usually hope for from national governments, and this very month the GDPR is about to move everything up a gear on data protection.

Yet the technology being introduced may have more impact than people have realised or agree to. What does consent mean when a person just agrees whatever is on screen to enable them to access for a few seconds or so the information they are seeking? No one reads the terms, nor could they, so where is the genuine consent?

If the matter is about job applications it is to be hoped people would actually think what they are agreeing to, but if the chance of work requires on online application and the only way to go forward is to agree anything requested, then surely most will just consent to the process.

There is going to be a lot more heard about the use of AI in recruitment and other decisions impacting individuals, and HR professionals will be in the middle of this without being the architects of the system they are obliged to use.

The use of AI has the potential to be better than totally human decision making as some degree of bias is hard to prevent in any traditional decision making, and in theory audited AI should be safer than reliance on human agents, in the way the driverless cars of the future will be safer than human drivers, but there are some big steps to be taken in both cases and damage will be done along the way.

The main thing is to understand and contribute on the major technology changes that now seem unavoidable and will shape business processes in totally innovative ways.

8th May 2018