Playing HR catch-up with the technology


Part two of our interview with Josh Bersin discusses how digital technology is forcing us rethink our ideas about work and productivity.

workThe idea of a job for life has gone the way of the dodo, but is the idea of a job altogether going the same way? Josh Bersin, principal and founder of analyst firm Bersin by Deloitte, believes so:

The concept of a job is kind of going away. Everything we’ve done in HR and everything we’ve done in recruiting is based around the idea that we define a job on a piece of paper with responsibilities and roles and reporting structure.

Then we hire someone who fits that job, we train that person to do that job and they do the job. Unfortunately, the day they start, the job has changed and they while they get involved in some of the stuff that was written down they then do a project here and a project there and help someone else and then they join another team.

This idea of a static job description and a clearly defined job is simply going away. People will be hired with initial responsibilities but moved around into different roles as needed. HR needs to acknowledge and incorporate the trend to work in teams and networks rather than in hierarchies and layers of management into its organizational design thinking, says Bersin:

If HR doesn’t do that, then it happens on a random basis or in dysfunctional way. So, HR this year has to come to grips with what is our job model and how do we move people role to role as technology comes in.

In many ways, businesses are beginning to copy the way software developers have been operating for years. They work in small teams on individual projects that contribute to a greater whole and have specific short-term targets to meet. But while all job roles are tending to work in a network of teams, often the official structure, rewards or job titles have not kept pace with those changes.

Naturally, the effect of digital technology is also changing HR roles too, which Bersin describes as a move away from personnel to becoming a consultant in high performance:

The idea that HR is going to design some sort of a new process and roll it out and teach people how to do it has come and gone. That’s way HR was set up, but no one has time for that. So if isn’t a process that actually makes work better and employees don’t see it as valuable to them they won’t do it.

That means HR has to be a performance consultant first and an HR administrator second. If you know what’s going on in the workplace that you support and you know what the issues are, you can design things that can help them and then you can add value. So it’s design thinking and doing a better job of getting closer to the actual work that’s going on rather than HR ‘stuff’.


One area that has received a lot of airtime (much of it blue) over the last few years is performance management, an area which Bersin by Deloitte’s Predictions for 2017: Everything is Becoming Digital report identifies as a key over the coming year.

Performance ratings have come in for a slating from many quarters, but Bersin believes that this may actually be a bit of distraction from the main issue:

The original story on performance management four or five years ago was doing away with ratings, but that actually was a little bit of red herring. If we are going to be working more in projects and less in organizations, then the way we should be measuring performance is by continually talking to people about the work and how well we are doing and what are our goals and what are our skill.

This new approach to performance management is actually not really new at all: it’s having regular conversations and giving regular feedback to workers. Bersin says:

I’ve talked to about 30 different companies about performance practices and all are moving towards continuous feedback model or conversations and they are not really get rid of ratings. 

The problem is that most of the HR software is not designed for this, so people are waiting for software to come out that facilitates this. So in some ways, the redesign of jobs in organizations is the core of everything that’s going in in digital.

While engagement and productivity are regular faces on HR priority lists, research by Bersin at Deloitte and others reveal that companies are not getting any better at either, despite many initiatives and a lot of lip service.

In fact, US workers are taking about four days less vacation a year than 15 years ago and are working more hours. While this is clearly a multifaceted, complex issue, Bersin believes that technology plays a major role in causing productivity problems:

I think one of the reasons productivity isn’t going up is that technology is ahead of the human brain and we’re getting more information than we can process.

Here again, software developers have hit upon a non-tech answer to deal with the noise of tech input. They often have stand-up meetings daily – ‘stand-up’ because they are so brief you don’t need to sit down – where everyone talks about they are going to do that day.  As Bersin points out:

It’s a way of simplifying and clarifying what’s important that day.

Without that sanity check, the tendency is to spend the first hour (or considerably longer) going through scores of emails and not getting any work done. We haven’t worked out a way of dealing with all this extra technology and information, says Bersin:

We as humans are very adaptable – almost too adaptable. We’ve adapted to Facebook and now we check it all the time. So now we have to adapt to the fact that we have too many things to check.

Tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are going in the right direction for dealing with this modern way of team working, but we don’t have the software to fill the gap as yet. 

HR has been going through a period of tremendous disruption and transformation encouraged by digital technology. In 2017, it’s time for HR to look beyond the working of digitization: cloud-technology and integrating systems and data analysis and to start to look at the broader issues on how this affects the way people and businesses work and the nature of jobs.  Bersin concludes:

The digital organization is here and HR has to make sure they are maintaining their relevance… I think HR has the opportunity to be a leader in the digital organization and rethink a lot of the traditional practices.

My take

There’s so much disruption and change going on in every nook and crevice of HR and this two-part interview with Josh Bersin – part one here – only scrapes the surface of those changes. But the over-riding message seems to be that it’s time to look beyond the technology of digitization and to start really looking at the longer term effects implications of how this affects the who (or what), how, where and why we work.

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