HR tech addiction is greater than its productivity enhancement

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne November 6, 2016
Digital technology is transforming the workplace…but is the workplace ready to change? In the first of a two part exclusive interview, Janine Milne catches up with HR guru Josh Bersin at HR Tech World to find out why a new approach is needed to work.

Josh Bersin

Why is it that tools to improve our work performance are being spewed out by vendors at an ever faster rate, yet productivity and engagement seem steadfastly immune to their charms?

The answer, according to Josh Bersin, founder and principal at analyst firm Bersin by Deloitte, is that despite the amazing things technology can do, we don’t yet know how to manage it:

I believe we are in a funny cycle where the attractiveness and the addiction of the technology is bigger than the productivity enhancement of the technology.

That’s where HR should come in, believes Bersin. It’s HR’s job to figure out what it can do to make work life better, which includes ensuring employees have the technology to help them do their jobs better. It’s also up to HR to create the kind of work environment that minimizes stress, particularly when having ‘always-on’ technology can actually cause some of that stress.

The trouble is that most organizations are simply not set up to manage the changes that digital technology has helped create. Bersin explains:

Some 92% of companies don’t think they are organized properly and that’s an unbelievable finding. We’re in this funny cycle where technology has broken down every wall we ever had between people and now we’ve got to figure how to work together in this new environment.

The answer, according to Bersin, is less technology not more. Of course, HR technology vendors are going to do their very best to persuade the opposite viewpoint. A key job for HR in the digital enterprise is to act as a curator of this technology; to be selective about the apps and tools chosen and brave enough to switch off those tools that aren’t working. As Bersin says:

HR departments have the opportunity to create chaos or reduce chaos and that’s why I talk about design thinking.

By 'design thinking' Bersin is referring to the need for HR to think like designers and create a work environment that suits employees rather than their employer.

Having a user-focused design to organizations will improve employees’ experience at work and make them more productive. But that requires an HR reboot, as HR’s experience is in designing processes such as onboarding or performance management – something that imposes order on employees and forces them to work in a particular way.

Instead, HR needs to work out how to put the employee first. According to Bersin:

You can’t buy technology solutions and inject them into your workforce any more, unless you perform design thinking. You need to study, and monitor and empathize with the behavior and activities of all your employees and learn from them what it is works, what makes them more productive, more happy, better engaged, more collaborate and of course perform better. And if you do that; if you do what we call design thinking, you can have great new solutions.

Brave companies are increasingly starting with a blank piece of paper and asking the question: how would we recruit people, pay people, measure performance if we didn’t have to follow existing processes?

Although more companies are following suit with this experimental and creative way at looking at organizational design, for many this is a giant step out of their comfort zone. And for HR that step is even more of a stretch, because the profession has generally been slow to react to the digital economy although the message is now seeping through, notes Bersin:

Last year we wrote an article on digital HR and nobody knew what we were talking about. This year people are starting to get it.

Digital technology supports this employee first way of working. Old HR was to do with compliance and rule making, in contrast, Bersin explains:

Digital doesn’t mean just building apps, but creating experiences that fit to work in a way that’s useful to the employees. If you look at Uber or Airbnb, the reason they are so exciting is they really make your life better; they make your life easier; you just do it and it works. And that’s the way HR needs to be and the big vendors are beginning to make it happen.

Increasingly, ‘making that happen’ means making it mobile first. Mobile is the new cloud – the platform that everyone wants their stuff on.

The big HR players are doing their best to make everything mobile first and that’s certainly what employees tend to want. But it’s not so easy for employers to buy into mobile first and refreshing their HR technology and their organizational design. Even if they want to change, they have too much baggage and too much investment sunk in legacy software, as Bersin points out:

The employees get it, but most companies have such a Tower of Babel of HR software. They’ve got old PeopleSoft, old Oracle, old ATS, old LMS and old payroll systems. They can’t just replace all that.

My experience is that every major technology in HR has a 7 to 10-year life. The first three years it’s great, the next three it’s OK and the last three or four it's, ‘God we’ve got to get rid of this’. Some companies keep old HR software for 20 years, they don’t want to invest in this stuff.

My take

There’s so much disruption going on in HR and technology, but for me, at the heart of the many changes going on, is this idea of an employee-driven enterprise. But it takes a bravery and courage to change entrenched views and ways of working. In part two of this interview (11/08/16), Bersin looks at how team working, culture and feedback tools will be part of HR’s future software arsenal.

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