China's Burgeoning EdTech Industry: Will it disrupt corporate HR?

China's Burgeoning EdTech Industry: Will it disrupt corporate HR?

In the HR space, tech advancements have been promising to disrupt the field since cloud-based systems took off in the 1990's. We've seen enough disruption in other fields like hospitality, transportation, and finance, to believe that a major transformation is possible. However, in the average organisation only a few developments in areas like applicant CV screening, digital learning, and cloud HRIS are present. So, what's next for HR and should we brace for imminent and radical disruption?

In previous articles we've made a strong case for why China's Ed Tech industry is the place to watch for innovations that will transform HR. The Chinese government's funding and support, along with an intense demand among parents to improve their children's education are reasons enough to support the conjecture. But perhaps an even more critical factor is the lack of regulation and general acceptance of the capture and use of personal information regardless of participant consent.

In the field of AI, Algorithms, the building blocks of "machine learning" are freely available to all. However the data required to "train" these to produce useful outcomes is largely proprietary. Thus access to numerous data points housed in "big" data systems provide a competitive advantage. This practice certainly has led to controversial programs such as China's Social Credit System, where a variety of behavioural data is used by AI systems to assign scores to individuals that can restrict them from flying, riding high speed rail and accessing certain financial services. Despite the moral repugnance such activities evoke and our political concerns, the fact remains that these policies provide an advantage and incentive for Chinese firms to develop AI.

For these reasons we've paid close attention to China's Global Education Technology Summit and the advancements several Chinese firms have made in the education space. Based on their efforts, we've identified three areas where the systems and practices of HR are likely to transform in the coming years.

Enhanced Virtual Learning Environments

A number of Chinese firms have already implemented enhancements to virtual learning environments. Our previous article in this series highlighted: Empower Education Online, TAL Education Group, and YouDao, as firms who are steadily advancing a variety of features for interpreting and sensing student and teacher classroom behaviours. Facial recognition, real time language translation , non-verbal behaviours, and even the emotional states of distant learners can now be identified by AI. Additionally they are pioneering use of VR-AR environments that enable the manipulation of 3-D virtual objects and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to predict the type of learning content that will be most beneficial to an individual.

In a corporate learning environment, these features would enable the on-going collection of unprecedented amounts of data relating to employee demographics, emotional engagement, and potential career interests. AI could then be used to predict the most beneficial learning content to "serve up" to learners. By feeding learning outcomes into the algorithms, the quality of learning content would gradually and automatically improve over time. Additionally, millennials and others would be better able to explore their career options and aptitudes through the AI recommendations without requiring focused attention from managers or HR. Finally, the new modes of virtual learning interactions (for example, VR 3D object manipulation, speech and gesture recognition will expand interest in many virtual courses and increase the learnability and speed to understanding of more difficult content.

As these applications become more prevalent, HR professionals will be responsible for tweaking their learning eco-systems rather than designing wholly new programs. They will be called upon to enhance "content areas" or "learning tracks" containing a variety of programs. Then the AI will be trusted to "learn" which courses are most effective within the business context and learner base. Learning professionals therefore will need to be skilled at interpreting the vast troves of data collected by the system into intelligible and actionable insights.

Predicting Performance and Potential

Algorithms utilised by companies like TAL, YouDao and others can now better predict at which courses learners will excel. Talent management systems will also improve their predicting in which roles specific individuals will succeed. These advances will result not only in individuals benefiting from exploring more personally fulfilling career paths, but also in HR gaining a valuable new talent management tool.

Consider the standard 9 Box performance/potential matrix in which talent is categorised in one of nine boxes based on the collective, mostly subjective, opinions of senior leaders. This in turn influences development opportunities and promotions. Soon, AI will be capable of generating its own version of the 9 Box matrix by processing tens of thousands of data points which will be less influenced by leadership biases, favouritism and political prejudices.

HR professionals working with these systems must then be careful to utilise these insights but not be ruled by them. One of the downsides of AI is that, just like humans, it can generate its own biases and errors. The upside is that in virtually all cases what's called a "distributed intelligence" system, which integrates both AI and human judgement, will lead to improved outcomes and less risk. Future talent management professionals will therefore be responsible for applying AI recommendations appropriately and mediating the decision-making process with senior leaders. This will require an ability to interpret AI recommendations into common sense language and the ability to challenge leadership opinions while driving consensus.

Strategic Workforce Planning

Thus far we have discussed how these tech advancements influence individual employee outcomes. One of the most interesting transformations will be how these tools influence overall HR planning. As more data is collected and AI is trained on predicting career, learning and performance outcomes, the door will open for AI to add value to HR's strategic workforce development and planning initiatives.

A talent manager may soon use an AI driven SWP platform to enter the people requirements of new business strategies and product rollouts and receive strategic recommendations to be tested. Such applications may include: an estimated number of current employees who can grow to meet future needs; the capabilities that must be externally hired, estimated required head counts; and, finally, recommended demographics and channels for recruiting this talent.

As with Talent Management, AI output should be interpreted by skilled HR professionals and used as supportive input; not final plans. Given the intense efforts required to collect and analyse data for SWP initiatives, AI generated support in this area would be a most welcome addition.

Conclusion

Advancements in HR technology, particularly in AI, will continue to evolve our discipline. Tremendous benefits from these developments are possible. People will be able to learn faster, choose better career paths, and be more confident in their eventual success when taking on new positions. However as with most tech breakthroughs there is, of course, a potential dark side. Companies could succumb to the temptation to use AI predictions as their sole criteria for decisions, ignoring common sense arguments and beginning to limit employee potential based solely upon AI generated scores. Obviously, this would result in huge ethical and efficacy concerns. Therefore, HR's role will be to serve as the strategic conscience of the organisation. Future professionals will need to understand the workings and benefits of the tools they use as well as their potential dangers and steer the organisation wisely.


Authors: Ronald Kantor and Justin Paul, are Talent Management Consultants at Latchmere Performance Solutions Co. Ltd. Ronald Kantor (Ron@LatchmereSolutions.com) is a Senior Solutions Architect Ph.D. in Education & Human Development, Justin Paul (Justin@Latchmereconsulting.com) has helped executives in over 30 countries improve leadership capability.

Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton is Executive Director at Dataconsult Ltd, chris@dataconsult.co.th. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to guide business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.


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