11 June 2024

Lora Murphy MCIPPdip, CIPP editor, caught up with a host of industry experts on a roundtable session which focussed on the impacts artificial intelligence (AI) will have on payroll, pensions and reward


Lora Murphy MCIPPdip, CIPP editor

Roundtable attendees

Lisa Batty MCIPPdip, principal human capital management solution engineer, Oracle

Abu Choudhury ACIPP, director UK and EMEA, JGA Recruitment Group

Andrew Coles MCIPPdip, pension manager, Dorset HealthCare

Daniel Cull ACIPP, CIPP business development executive

Sirsha Haldar, general manager, UK, Ireland and South Africa, ADP

Jaspal Randhawa ChMCIPPdip, director of product, Ciphr

Lisa Thomas MCIPPdip, payroll manager, SUEZ

Sarah Winnett MCIM ACIPP, CIPP marketing manager

David Yewdall, partner, BDO.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have noticed that recently there’s been heightened interest in AI within the payroll, pensions and reward industries. We’re now beginning to consider more and more how it could help with the roles we play and the potential changes it could bring.

To explore this further and to gather the views of experts from varying backgrounds with different experiences and perspectives, the CIPP hosted a roundtable on this exact topic, to get a feel for how AI is going to impact us all going forward.


Cutting through the jargon

Following introductions, the group discussed the number of terms there are which relate to AI. We all love an acronym in the payroll industry but there are many, many more which have been introduced in the technological space.

Everyone agreed that we need to ensure we can clearly differentiate between the types of technology. We discussed the differences between robotic process automation (RPA), AI and generative AI, as they can each be used in different scenarios. RPA was memorably referred to as ‘dumb automation’, as you give it a set of commands, which it subsequently follows. However, it doesn’t think for itself, and this is where AI is different. It was agreed that RPA could be used to perform those repetitive, laborious payroll tasks no payroll professional really wants to complete, and which take up so much time. For example, checking thousands of lines on an exception report or entering hundreds of new starters into the payroll system. This would allow more space for the payroll department to look at more valuable tasks, such as wider employee financial well-being or assisting with new benefit package rollouts.

Whatever the technology being used, the consensus was that it would only be as good as the person who created it, so there still needs to be payroll professionals understanding the ‘why’ behind certain payroll processes to properly build correct software for use in the industry that organisations and payroll departments can rely on. Additionally, although technology can handle the payroll process to a point, there will always be steps where human intervention is required, whether that be to check software is working correctly (technology isn’t 100% reliable and we need payroll to be 100% correct) or for an individual to speak to someone who wants interaction with a human rather than a machine.


Changing roles but not displacing them

A key point we wanted to touch upon, as the CIPP, was that the profession shouldn’t fear AI. We don’t believe the developments are going to replace jobs but instead that they will change and enhance the roles available. It’s an exciting time to be involved in the industry.

One roundtable attendee even commented how, a couple of years ago, everyone was discussing how automation was going to steal all our jobs, yet we’re still here.

A recurring theme already briefly noted here was that AI can perform certain tasks, but it isn’t a substitute for true human interaction. Pay is a highly emotive subject, and many people will want to speak to another human and would be frustrated by having to speak to a chatbot, for example. Chatbots are beneficial for assisting with generic queries, but realistically, how many generic queries are posed to the payroll department? The CIPP’s Advisory Service, for example, reports receiving questions with ever-increasing complexity and sophistication. It’s also often the case that people can be asking the wrong questions, which won’t provide the answers they actually need. As professionals with experience, we have the skills to identify where this is happening and to change the course of the question being asked, but would a chatbot? These are all things to consider when we look at the role AI currently plays in our industries, and how it will evolve in the future.

We also had representation from the public sector, where it was felt that there just wouldn’t be the budget for funding for AI within the payroll, pensions and reward departments. This would mean there’s certainly no reason for people processing pay in the public sector setting to fear losing their jobs at present. But on the flipside, it also means the public sector can’t be as innovative and forward thinking when handling pay, pensions and reward. This is particularly pertinent when you consider that public sector pay and pensions can be very complicated.


Limitations to AI

The group felt there were still currently limitations to AI. A big discussion point was payroll and the need for ‘control’. Because payroll professionals are acutely aware of the consequences of incorrect pay for workers, there’s always this fear of letting go and the need to check things ourselves. It’s going to be a big culture change for the industry to attempt to alter this way of thinking. There will also be individuals in the industry who are fearful of change and the technology, so it will be imperative to ensure we get their buy-in and include them on the journey.

This circles back to the topic raised earlier regarding the technology only being as good as the people who create it. It will be crucial that sufficient and in-depth training is given to the people operating the technology too, so upskilling payroll departments on how AI is used and how it will impact them is key.

There’s also acknowledgement that there are certain issues with AI at present, including ‘hallucinations’. This is where false or misleading information can be generated by AI. Obviously, this could be catastrophic in our industries because any incorrect guidance / data could have detrimental impacts on our employees / our clients’ employees. It’s true that once someone has a negative experience regarding their pay, it massively impacts their morale and dents their trust in their payroll department.


Closing thoughts

To summarise, everyone who attended the roundtable seemed to agree on the role AI is currently playing, and will play in the future, within the payroll, pensions and reward industries. It’s definitely coming, and it’s hurtling towards us a lot quicker than we maybe initially thought. We need to accept and embrace it, or risk getting left behind. We can prepare for it now by training ourselves up in several areas, particularly those that fall outside of repetitive administrative tasks. This could include sharpening up skills associated with the more strategic elements to payroll and the legislative and technical skills required to ensure compliant payroll processing for our organisations. 


This article featured in the July - August 2024 issue of Professional.