Recap: UNLEASH 2018 – Heady Enthusiasm and Hearty Skepticism


Earlier this week I spoke at UNLEASH 2018, an HR technology show in Las Vegas run by the folks who used to be known as HR Tech World.

I enjoy shows like this because they give me a chance to check the pulse of the HR technology market. My sense after this week? The market is flooded with heady enthusiasm and has a need for hearty skepticism.

Let me explain what I mean, starting with the enthusiasm part. Everywhere on the expo floor, software vendors confidently described new offerings that feature artificial intelligence (AI), bots, natural language processing (NLP), and the like. Speakers such as Mo Gawdat talked about the vast potential of new technologies. Kathleen Hogan, the head of HR at Microsoft, painted a vision for how culture and technology can transform a company. Josh Bersin discussed the substantial venture-backed investments into HR technology over the last few years and the resulting boom in technology offerings. The Aria was positively humming with all the potential.

Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that so much of it was intellectual – or heady – enthusiasm. It was almost as if people were excited by future possibilities simply because they exist. (Over-simplified) examples of the conversations I heard included:

  • – HR buyer: “Can you analyze our data to better predict when someone might leave?” Vendor: “NO PROBLEM! Our machine learning algorithm will learn over time exactly when someone might be ready to leave.”
  • – HR buyer: “Can you use our data to tell me exactly what employees are thinking and feeling?” Vendor: “MOST DEFINITELY! We’ve got sentiment analysis that will look at all employee communications to do this!”
  • – HR buyer: “Can you help us better understand our employees?” Vendor: “Absolutely! We can compile all your data sources and give you a single score that will tell you everything you need to know about them.”

But the question that was not so clearly articulated at the show was this: should we be doing these things at all?

This gets us into the hearty skepticism bit. Under the frothy layer of enthusiasm for all the technological advancements, are questions that should exist in all of our hearts: what makes us human? And as we outsource more to machines, what are we losing? And what are the ethical, moral, and social implications of all this technological possibility?

Some hearty skepticism finally became apparent during Rachel Botsman’s keynote discussion on trust and technology, where she warned the audience of putting too much trust into algorithms, ratings, and machines at the expense of human decision-making and gut. Rachel shared that there is a pilot underway in China to create a single “Citizen Trust Score” that would allow people to rate each other in an “effort to enhance ‘trust’ nationwide and build a culture of ‘sincerity.’” As Orwellian and morally repugnant as that sounds, where, exactly, is the line between that and my third bullet point above (which, to be fair was an extrapolation of some of the conversations I overheard)?

In the onstage Q&A, I asked Rachel what she thought was the next ethical frontier with regards to technology and trust. Her answer: virtual reality. She posits that as bots are able to better imitate us – and especially our best characteristics – real questions will arise with regard to how people interact with each other – and each other’s bots. She gave the example of if her bot was able to do much of what she could do – but without any bad days or personal issues – would her employer (or even her friends!) want to keep engaging with her, or would they instead prefer her bot? In short, is what is human in her more important than what is convenient or expedient for others? She (and I!) would certainly hope so.

I heard some of this hearty skepticism expressed in the hallways and the sidebar conversations of the conference. People asking what are the implications if large percentages of jobs are outsourced to bots? Should there be an employment tax for bots? Should there be a universal basic income? How should we think about developing the skills and capabilities of people who are in the 70% of jobs that Kathleen Hogan said will disappear?

Some of this is overblown worry – I believe that most of this technology will augment people’s work, not replace it — but some of it is not, particularly as we think about the ethics of how data are used. And, to be clear, I am in no way saying that technological advancement is bad. What I am saying, though, is that in the midst of all this change, HR leaders and vendors need to remember to have a conversation about what should or should not be done to our fellow humans. We need to balance that heady technological enthusiasm with the hearts, compassion, empathy, and skepticism within each of us.