As the world of work navigates uncertain economic tailwinds, People Matters spoke to Brian Sommers, Founder of TechVenture, to understand the trends that leaders need to respond to, and the actions that will help them thrive and succeed.
Throughout his career, Brian has been advising the world’s largest firms on strategy, change, process and technology initiatives for over 30 years. Brian assisted over 100 of the Fortune 500 on financial software selections and continues to advise a wide array of high technology firms globally. Brian was a senior partner at Accenture with leadership roles in their Software Intelligence, Human Capital and Finance & Performance Management groups.
Here's an edited excerpt of the conversation:
Over the last several weeks, the economic outlook has changed in a number of countries. We're seeing inflationary pressures that are really changing business priorities. The impact, of course, is going to be felt in different sectors in different ways. But what are some emerging trends that you are seeing that are shaping the HR technology outlook?
On the macro level, one of the things that caught my attention is that with we're seeing layoffs now occurring in the technology sector, and that may bleed over into other sectors as well.
The focus on the great resignation may fade quickly as companies find out that they may have to just use the workforce they have right now, and scale back some of their growth plans. More than anything else, I think what we're realizing when I talk to clients, is now, they're not so much focused on growth at all costs. They're focused on having outstanding operations and delivering and satisfying customers more than anything else.
And that focus on satisfied customers clearly puts the spotlight back on finding the right people with them and training them so that they deliver outstanding outcomes for customers, as opposed to growth for growth’s sake. So, we're going to see some fundamental differences in business.
This is going to filter all the way down to hiring decisions, training decisions, workforce management, and even how people interact with employees so that they create a work environment that people want to stay in years longer than they otherwise would have.
The other thing, from a technology perspective, is the increased focus on operational excellence.
Businesses everywhere are going to be focused on the new advanced technologies, like chatbots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, algorithms, and robotic process automation, they're going to focus on those because if they're not going to hire as many people, they're going to use technologies to make everything you can imagine in HR, finance, and other areas to be as self-service as possible. Or, if not just self-service, they're going to have the machines do a whole lot of the transaction processing, a lot of the analytics and workflow handling.
We’re seeing as you observed, a shift in the waves of disruption in the wider technology ecosystem. There have been many new buzzwords including Metaverse, web3 and you mentioned AI and algorithms. What's the impact that you're seeing in the people and workspace?
When we talk about that grouping of kind of new technologies, what's going on there is they're going have a rather significant impact on the way that people get trained.
For years, we’ve talked about the need to have on-demand training for workers. Particularly service workers as they’re working on repairing or replenishing a particular piece of equipment. It's nice to have technology where you can just pull up in an instant, the most important kinds of things you need to know about working with that particular kind of item.
You're going to see people using technologies like VR to really understand how things work at your plant, your distribution facilities and so forth, like a digital twin of the shop floor. And they're going to use it to diagnose issues and problems.
I don't think we're going to see anybody build a digital twin of an HR department, but what we will see are people building self-service capabilities, so that more transactions, phone calls, inquiries, and emails, and whenever they come into HR are being automatically handled by smart chatbots.
As we zoom out and look at the future, what, according to you is the number one trend that's really going to transform the business landscape? I think we've spoken a lot about technology in our conversation so far. How do you see this trend shaping the business outlook?
I think the number one thing is the growing skills divide in the workforce. We're going to see more technologies, whether it's workflow automation, workflow handling, exception handling technologies, chatbots, RPA, and so forth.
What they're doing is they're automating the routine, the real, commonplace kind of transactions and business events, that stuff is all getting handled in a highly mechanized kind of way.
What that leaves is, that the work that must still be done is specialist work, it's where the software is encountering a kind of transaction or business event that hasn't encountered before.
We need these highly skilled, highly specialized people, though, to remain, because they're the ones who are going to provide the guidance and the intellectual horsepower that keeps tuning and adjusting everything from algorithms and workflows.
And you're going to see a shift where every function and accompany, not just HR, it will be in finance, it will be in the operational areas, everyone's going to need data scientist, we're gonna need people who know how to model things out model, also how to diagram out and design different kinds of process flows.
When you zoom into this problem, what, according to you is the number one roadblock that needs to be broken to make the most of the opportunities? When you think about the skills divide?
The roadblock would have to be I think, the lack of creativity. I was just at a software conference yesterday. And I was walking around interviewing all kinds of different users of this technology. And I asked him, What were you using before you switch to this vendor's product. And the surprise to me was how many of them almost 95% of the people I talked with were telling me that they used to use spreadsheets, and they were so happy.
So old problems don't necessarily go away. I think what we have to have is we need business leaders who are open and creative and are willing to look at some of these new kinds of advanced technologies like and what the opportunity for there if you will, exploitation of those new technologies, you know, is in their own firm.
So you see this essentially, as a leadership problem, it's something that needs to be addressed at the executive level?
There's definitely a leadership problem. And you know, I'll just speak personally on this, a client I knew was stuck and wedded to their old processes, systems, and solutions.
And their CEO had even told me that their systems were so bad that they had to pass on two large acquisitions in the prior year. Because if they had done the acquisition, their old systems would have just collapsed.
Now, that said, I told the CEO that I'm going to take their executive team with me to Silicon Valley for two or three days to visit four different software companies.
And they told me, “oh, we can't go, we've got the auditors coming in”. They gave me a million excuses as to why they did not want to do this. But in the end, I got him there. And every one of those executives came back transformed. Why? Because they got to see things that they never get to see in their everyday job.
As a closing question, I think we had one word of advice. But what is your one word of advice to help leaders look at the world through fresh eyes, and maybe what is the one thing they need to also start doing and stop doing as they venture into this new era?
Risk-taking. Rarely do you find business people who are genuinely successful and help grow their companies if they don't take risks. The better execs though, they're the ones who take smart risks, they minimize the downside risk, but they always are taking risks. They're constantly pushing the company into new space, new markets, new deals into new ways of doing things. But, they understand that change is an essential part of running a company successfully and growing it.