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Is HR ready to carry the burden of digital transformation?

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 23, 2017
At HR Tech London, the keynotes emphasize the world is changing but I wonder is the HR function ready for the burden of digital transformation?

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Pressure is building on the HR profession. Millennials, mobile apps, digital disruption, the gig economy, cross-functional teamwork and AI — all these trends are transforming the enterprise and it's up to HR to make sure it all goes smoothly.

That's the unrelenting message from keynote after keynote at the HR Tech World conference, which closed yesterday in London. I always feel sorry for the many HR professionals who attend this event. They must leave with such a burden of expectation weighing on their shoulders, but so little sound advice how on earth to get started.

The conference opened Tuesday with a keynote from much-viewed TED speaker Sir Ken Robinson. Asserting that "Innovation is the lifeblood of organisations — if you don't innovate you won't survive,", he emphasized HR's role in fostering innovation and creativity across the enterprise:

Most of what we do learn is cultural. The role of HR is to understand how deeply your talent runs and how it's inhibited or nurtured ...

Human resources are like natural resources. They're very diverse, they're often buried deep and you have to refine them.

Robinson advised attendees to find ways to foster diversity, facilitate creativity and encourage cross-functional collaboration.

Wednesday brought more keynotes, with Pat Pettiti, co-founder and CEO of on-demand consultancy marketplace Catalant, exploring the rise of the flexible workforce, where talent is sourced short-term rather than recruited for life. Business leaders agree that "It is HR that is at the epicenter of this change," he told his audience.

The HR skill set goes from talent acquisition to talent access. How do we access the very best people when we need those people to get stuff done? ...

A strategic imperative for big companies will be how to be the best at accessing external talent.

His talk was preceded by HR expert Jason Averbook, now CEO of recently founded consultancy LeapGen. He advised attendees to summon up the courage to be agents of change:

We have to think like the crazy ones to drive change ... How do I take my processes and truly reimagine them?

Going beyond technology

Fired up by these exhortations each year, delegates file out to explore the show floor, where vendors offer a multitude of technology solutions that ought to help out. But as I first wrote after attending the same event three years ago, all too often these technologies are employed merely to automate existing processes that were themselves designed for an earlier era, providing no solution to today's challenges:

More adaptable software can’t save HR that’s no longer fit for purpose. Much of the administrative burden that weighs down HR is a hangover from an era when paper dominated enterprise processes. Digitizing the paper as a self-service web form isn’t progress, not even on an iPad; it’s stagnation dressed up in a pretty outfit.

In the three years since I wrote those words, the gap has grown even wider between the old processes and what today's technology can enable. The pace of change never slows down so you can catch up — on the contrary, the technology continues to accelerate, and the latest developments in AI will drive even more dramatic changes in the next few years.

At least Averbook had some advice on how to triage priorities in order to start making progress:

Have you consumerized your workforce experience? If you haven't, that's where we're going to focus on. Guess what? An experience is 90% not technology.

In other words, consumerization isn't about building glamorous apps, it's about making it easy for people to get stuff done. While some functions need to look great, others just need to perform.

It was never about the technology, it was about the process. How do I take my processes and truly reimagine them?

My take

HR really ought to be at the heart of digital transformation in the enterprise, but it's difficult to take a lead when there's so much conflicting advice on what direction to take. Even worse, most vendors will happily help you automate what you're already doing, even if some of their other customers are making much more radical changes. They're not going to encourage you down a riskier path against your will.

Trouble is, if you don't start taking risks soon, you'll fall so far behind there'll be no more chance of catching up to where modern HR is headed:

  • Standardized processes where most transactions are either lightweight mobile apps or stripped down even further to bare messaging and notifications.
  • Data converged into a single dataset that makes it easy for machine learning to analyze, find patterns and make recommendations.
  • A diverse workforce where creativity feeds continuous innovation and adaptation.
  • Multiple patterns of employment to access the appropriate talent where and when it's needed.
  • A flatter hierarchy in which people routinely collaborate in autonomous, cross-functional teams towards shared goals.
  • Managers and staff interacting continuously to monitor and finetune performance against goals.

To get from here to there will mean reinventing every aspect of your current HR processes and technology platforms — and if you want your enterprise to stay competitive, you probably only have two to three years to complete the journey. Here's how to do it:

  • Get started with self-contained projects that can deliver quick wins. The only way you're going to get the business on your side is by showing meaningful, impactful outcomes without spending lots of money and resources. Find a broken process that you can rapidly fix by going cloud or mobile or by converging data. Then find another, and another, and again.
  • Work fast. Keep a sense of urgency and plan your projects to deliver results in weeks not months. Your long-term goal may be two to three years away but your objectives will have changed by then. The only way you'll stay sane is by delivering concrete outcomes as you go.
  • Keep a strong focus on converging data as rapidly as you can. Every separate dataset stands in the way of delivering the analytics insight that lifts HR out of a transactional compliance activity into a strategic contributor to the business. Transformation can't happen without data.
  • Put your short-term objectives within the context of a long-term vision. Keep up a sense of urgency as you drive towards that vision. Think of each individual project as a milestone achieved on a longer journey.
  • I think Averbook has it right when he says "be brave, be bold, be smart." This isn't going to be easy — you will be venturing outside of your comfort zone and taking others there too. You have to believe in what you're doing and make astute, pragmatic choices along the way. But only by doing all of that are you going to ensure the survival and prosperity of the business.

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