Embracing AI and leading on the ‘s’ in ESG – key takeaways from the CIPD Scotland Conference

This year’s CIPD Scotland Conference was the biggest to date, with more than 600 delegates gathered at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on 30 March.  Attendees were treated to speeches and workshops hosted by HR representatives from organisations including the Weir Group, Asda, Scottish Power and The University of Edinburgh – and even a keynote session from MSP minister Richard Lochhead

People Management rounded up three key takeaways from the event.

‘Avoid the mistakes we made with social media’ – get behind AI

If there was one overarching theme throughout the conference, it would be the rapid advancement of technology and digitalisation, and how artificial intelligence (AI) will impact the HR function and the future of work. Delegates were even given some homework by CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese – to “go play with” ChatGPT.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=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%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1641362570144624640&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.peoplemanagement.co.uk%2Farticle%2F1819042%2Fembracing-ai-leading-s-esg-%25E2%2580%2593-key-takeaways-cipd-scotland-conference&sessionId=1308292766c485d85d602014035b167fe292b21c&theme=light&widgetsVersion=aaf4084522e3a%3A1674595607486&width=550px

“You will have all read about ChatGPT I’m sure; it is incredibly powerful. And it has woken up all of us in many ways to just how quickly this kind of technology is advancing,” Cheese said in his opening keynote. 

While it is important for HR professionals to understand how the technology can be used in beneficial ways and how it can help us be more productive, for example, Cheese also warned: “We have to be very aware, not just to our profession, but much more broadly, about some of the potential risks and downsides.

“But the fact is, these are very, very clear directions of travel, which is set to impact an awful lot about what we think about work, and the skills and capabilities that we need,” he added. “So, I would absolutely encourage you, in all seriousness…[to] just go play with it, and see what it can do; ask a question, because it is really important that we as a profession understand how these things are evolving.”

James Saville, HR director at the University of Edinburgh, said he wasn’t too threatened by the impact AI could have on the HR function, but said it was crucial not to ignore it.

“There will still be jobs for real people in an AI world,” he assured delegates, and went on to advise that we “put a greater premium on the interpretation of that”.

Using the example of other technological advances, such as social media, Saville suggested that the profession should learn from past mistakes and spend the time now understanding and experimenting with AI.

“In the past, we as a function have been slow adopters of some [advancements]. About 10 or 15 years ago, we were all writing policies about how you could or couldn’t use social media.” 

He suggested the profession “change the dynamic completely this time and say: ‘How is the HR function fundamentally going to embrace and put AI at the heart of what we do?’ [This includes] making sure that things like the algorithms and the underpinnings [of the technology] don’t have pitfalls and unconscious bias, for example”.

“There’s a massive opportunity for us with AI, but we need to be bold enough to step into that space,” Saville concluded.

For Rosemary McGinness, global chief people officer at the Weir Group, AI could provide HR professionals with the platform to become more data-led and evidenced based, as “it’s much easier to demonstrate the impact that some of what we’re doing is really having in the organisation; be it reducing accidents or improving engagement improving wellbeing”.

Rather than just talking about evaluating programmes, “now we can really get to the heart of what makes a difference and provide a great deal of focus on the things that make an [impact], and therefore amplify what we do”, she said.

HR defining and leading on the ‘s’ in ESG

Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) may be a relatively new term for some organisations, but the fact is, HR has been leading on much of this for a long time. Cheese plauded the fact that the idea of “responsible business” has “shifted significantly” to take into account the responsibilities businesses have to not just shareholders, but stakeholders, employees, customers and the wider communities in which organisations operate. 

And McGinness is certainly noticing this shift, she said, with investors now demanding to speak to senior HR leaders and learn about the organisation’s role in achieving the ‘s’ in ESG.

“[Investors] expect you to know about your diversity strategy; they expect you to understand the sustainability strategy, [and ask] ‘what are you doing with local communities in which you work?’,” she told the conference.

But rather than it being a “daunting” process, McGinness said “it’s really exciting that HR is now interacting with investors” and “they are expecting us to answer those questions and want to hear from us”. 

“This is where we can really influence,” she added.

Project manager, data analyst and OD expert – the HR professional of the future


HR is no stranger to dealing with geopolitical, economical and social pressures, and the profession truly “stepped up” during the Covid pandemic, all of the conference speakers acknowledged. But perhaps where HR professionals need to develop, in order to help shape the future of work, is by putting some of the “pent up need” to be more strategic and evolve to good use in organisations, Saville suggested.

“[We need to work on] our ability to think forward 10/15 years. In the past, we’ve never really had to think more than five years ahead as a function, because things evolve, things take time, we had time to put in a change. But when you think about AI…moving so quickly…we almost don’t know what the jobs are going to look like in 10 years,” he said.

Jacqui Jones, HR director at NHS Scotland, agreed that it’s important for the profession to keep up with and respond to the pace of change, and using her experience of working during the pandemic, ther is a “desire to be much more flexible, and to work within a framework rather than actually sticking to the absolute rules”, she said. 

“[We as a profession] we do need to be much more flexible within a framework and make sure we have proper processes and governance that covers that.”

Saville continued: “The challenge is for us for the future, as a profession, isn’t about our core HR skills, It’s about the project management; it’s about the ability to interpret business accounts, to do the external scanning of what good looks like across sectors and it’s the statistical understanding and analysis so that we can give the ‘so what’.”

This echoed McGinness’s call for HR to become more evidence based, using data analytics and “driving insight from information” to help map an organisation’s future.

“That doesn’t necessarily need to be your personal skill set, but you need to be able to tap into it and make sense of it,” she told attendees.

She also flagged the importance of organisational development capabilities, to determine the skills that will be needed in the future of work and whether firms will need to “buy, build, borrow or in fact digitise” those skills. But this isn’t just a job for HR teams, McGinness said. It is important to invest in managers at the heart of the business to aid this future skills mapping.

“We’re moving away from talking about talent management to the talent creators, we want leaders to actually think about how do you bring in talent?”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-2&features=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%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1641439749872427011&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.peoplemanagement.co.uk%2Farticle%2F1819042%2Fembracing-ai-leading-s-esg-%25E2%2580%2593-key-takeaways-cipd-scotland-conference&sessionId=1308292766c485d85d602014035b167fe292b21c&theme=light&widgetsVersion=aaf4084522e3a%3A1674595607486&width=550px

While developing all these skills might seem daunting for the profession, Jones reminded conference delegates to practise self-care.

“As an HR leader, you have to have great resilience, because you have to deal with some of the difficult issues within the organisation. But you have to be kind to yourself, as well. We’re not always very good at that.” 

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