Human resource (HR) executives are foremost “people persons” and traditionally behind the curve in utilising new technologies to achieve business goals. However, HR chiefs in the United States, and increasingly across Europe, are embracing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to understand and engage with their employees better.

It’s no surprise that a digitally proficient HR director is leading the charge: Google’s ex-HR chief Laszlo Bock is developing an AI-directed nudge to workers in the form of the Humu Nudge Engine. The app uses behavioural science and machine learning to deliver personalised “nudges”, reinforce particular behaviours throughout the day and keep workers engaged.

But mainstream HR chiefs are interested, too, confirms Ken Lahti, chief science and innovation officer at psychometric tests vendor SHL. “Artificial intelligence is providing the ability to profile employees more accurately and continuously,” Lahti says. “In particular, machine learning can help employers reduce staff churn and promote retention.”

Lahti cites the use of adaptive software that tailors questions to candidates in real time, depending on their responses. Training algorithms to interpret high volumes of text responses used in open-ended questions during recruitment and employee satisfaction surveys is a valuable new tool. “It accelerates feedback and makes evaluation more efficient for HR departments, improving retention,” he adds.

More radically, HR directors are experimenting with marketing concepts such as sentiment analysis, where tone of voice and facial expression are measured. Emotion and sentiment are fleeting, Lahti cautions, and at present do not yield longer-term predictive information, which might be valuable in determining the probability of employee retention.

U.S. chocolate-maker Hershey is using algorithms and data analytics to spot workers who might leave their jobs and thereby ensure continuity across the business. “We wanted to make talent planning a cyclical and predictable process,” says Sean Kirlin, director of HR operations at Hershey. The company crunched foundational employee profile data along with variable data to spot such workers.

Emilie Thomas, the then-director of advanced analytics at Hershey, built the retention model and included data on employees’ number of managers, year-on-year performance and distance of commute as indicators. “The retention model takes all these factors — and more — [into consideration] to come up with remarkably accurate predictions; it’s correct about 87 per cent of the time, which enables HR practitioners and leaders to take action on these insights,” Thomas says.

Machine learning embedded in employee interactions with work systems offers a further opportunity to continuously monitor and shape workforce behaviour. Gamification, personalised to an employee’s working style, promises to be an HR tool that could promote engagement, suggests Panos Constantinides, associate professor of digital innovation at Warwick Business School, The University of Warwick, UK.

As a guardian of principled conduct, HR could reasonably expect to be a laggard in deploying as-yet-unregulated AI applications. But continuous feedback from gaming technology, AI nudges and real-time adaptive training techniques are exciting HR executives across the globe. And, who knows, in safe hands, AI could produce a more contented and stimulated workforce.

Want to learn more about AI? Find out some of the ways HR is already using AI in the workplace. Or read another perspective about the importance of getting the balance right for personalisation.