Richard Hanson is the Global Head of Data Science in the Talent & Rewards business at Willis Towers Watson. He is responsible for data science and solutions, and oversees delivery of data-driven insights for WTW’s clients, and explores opportunities for innovative software design and development to bring these insights to life. With more than 15 years of experience in Human Capital consultancy across Europe and Asia, Richard has acted as a trusted advisor to MNCs, progressive SMEs, and government agencies, covering a breadth of subject matters with a focus on Talent Analytics, Skills Development, and the Future of Work and Rewards. He is currently based in Hong Kong.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
What do you see in the world of work in 2021? What do you expect to change this year?
So much is going on in the world of work in 2021. To a certain extent, the magnitude of change this year will depend on how quickly the world can emerge from the pandemic. Certain changes over the past year have undoubtedly been driven by the pandemic. For example, we are all now experts at virtual meetings and less familiar with business travel. It will be interesting to see whether these changes will continue or revert to normal as the crisis subsides. The outcomes may be mixed and changes in the workplace are likely to stay, adapting to the needs of the organizations.
Some of these changes have been underway for some time, but the pandemic has been an accelerator. Well-being would be one area that will likely see continued investment after the pandemic and throughout 2021, with a specific focus on personalization of well-being to better address individual needs where possible.
Many key strategic priorities have been part of the HR agenda long before the pandemic. These will need to be re-evaluated in the light of any learnings from the past year but will almost certainly be back at the forefront of HR thinking. Inclusion and diversity, as well as employee experience, are also two priorities that will progress further throughout 2021 and beyond.
Digital agendas of several organizations now reflect ''purpose'' which connects with quantifiable goals and objectives that can be measured. How can business leaders embed purpose into their business strategy?
The digital agenda of an organization forms a crucial aspect of the business strategy, both as an individual business objective, but also as an enabler for achieving other objectives. In addition, organizations are looking for a level of stability at a time of continuous change - a ‘North Star’ so to speak.
This can be provided by an organization’s purpose stating why an organization exists and what it aims to deliver to stakeholders and society as a whole. Obviously, ‘purpose’ is something aspirational - it should, by its very nature, provide perspective and generate energy. This is why companies are focusing on ‘purpose’, to provide a sense of direction, cohesion, and alignment of all talent within their organizations.
Today, it is more possible than ever before, to measure how an organization is performing in achieving its purpose. This can be done by actively measuring against the organization’s values and assessing its current and aspired culture. Providing insights on progress towards achieving its purpose, allows a company to take targeted actions to improve and accelerate towards its goals. This is where digital can play a decisive role, and we can see this happening with the vast array of new digital solutions used for collaboration, customer engagement and to promote better employee experience.
Nevertheless, organizations need to be cautious not to try and reverse ‘purpose’ into the organization in a disjointed manner. The ideal scenario would be to have your ‘purpose’ in place and articulate this clearly, which in turn drives the business strategy and objectives. It should answer the questions of – Why do we exist? What do we want to achieve and in what way? How do we do this? ‘Purpose’, therefore, should be at the root of an organization’s existence and starting point in its strategic thinking. Digital and technology can be key enablers in achieving that ‘purpose’, which is why they must go hand-in-hand.
What's fueling hybrid-work strategies in 2021? How will work culture evolve in line with hybrid working this year?
COVID-19 is absolutely an accelerator towards hybrid-work strategies in 2021. However, the desire for hybrid working already existed pre-pandemic for some organizations.
From an employee point of view, the main drivers behind hybrid working remain relatively consistent. These include the need for flexibility and improved work-life balance. The movement that we will be seeing in the post-Covid world will be the number of organizations being comfortable with the concept of hybrid work given the potential to use technology in optimizing communication and tracking productivity. They are also increasingly cognizant of the benefits which hybrid work can have on inclusion and diversity. This, in turn, can generate workplace benefits to organizations, and shape the company culture to be more inclusive. A hybrid-work strategy also tends to lend itself well to project-based collaboration, so we may start to see this impact culture in the future - possibly around the different cultural considerations regarding small team or project work.
According to Mckinsey, companies that invest in innovation through a crisis outperform peers during the recovery. Do you see the focus on innovation is accelerating?
In general, innovation has always been among the major priorities for most large organizations. The COVID-19 crisis is different from past crises, in the sense that the impact has been first and foremost on human health and safety. Although there have been financial effects, this pandemic wasn’t directly a financial crisis. I see ''investment in innovation'' through the pandemic being more around enabling the continued operation of existing innovation structures and initiatives, rather than about the choice to continue financial investment. So, organizations that had Centers of Excellence, R&D Hubs, Innovation Labs, and so on, have been challenged to keep those productive during the crisis given the operational difficulties presented. Those that succeed, will thrive.
On a related topic, last week, a colleague shared an interesting quote with me, from Klaus Schwab, the Founder of the World Economic Forum. Schwab said that “Capital is being superseded by creativity and the ability to innovate — and therefore by human talents — as the most important factors of production. If talent is becoming the decisive competitive factor, we can be confident that capitalism is being replaced by ''talentism''. In my view that is a very insightful perspective and tends to agree. Whilst I think it is a fair statement to say that a focus on innovation is accelerating, what that really means is that competition for talent is accelerating too.
The pandemic offered an opportunity for organizations to revisit policies and practices to get work done more efficiently. This makes the role of HR even more strategic in today’s time. What’s your take on this?
I do not think that the pandemic has automatically made the role of HR to be more strategic, but it certainly has provided the opportunity for them to be.
With the pandemic affecting business operations and profitability, more organizations are beginning to adopt technology to reinvent jobs and tasks, as well as use a wider talent ecosystem to deliver work cost-effectively. Jobs are being redesigned to deliver higher value-add to manage economic pressures, demographic shifts, and workforce expectation for purposeful work. To deliver on these expectations, the HR function in an organization plays an important role and will need to embrace technology on a large scale to enable businesses to transform.
In a study that Willis Towers Watson has conducted last year on the impact of technology on HR jobs and skills, we found that as technology trends become more prevalent, the HR function across industries and organizations of different sizes and stages of growth will be impacted. However, the magnitude and pace of change depending on the complexity of each organization’s operations including, the size, the number of countries that the organization operates in, and so on, as well as the maturity of its HR function. At the same time, the adoption of HR technology will also enable the HR function to deliver more seamless and cutting-edge employee-centric services and experiences, as well as provide high strategic value to businesses.
What do you expect this year in people analytics? Is it more important than ever?
As Head of Data Science, people analytics is definitely more important than ever. Depending on where the organizations are positioned along their analytics journey, there will be a difference in the various aspects of people analytics.
For instance, most organizations are now using people analytics with the benefits of mining data to yield insights that can support decision-making. I still see the main application of people analytics to be within talent acquisition and retention. For most organizations then, the important thing is to build on a solid foundation and start applying people analytics for decision making in other areas.
For the early adopters, who are already applying analytics to a broader range of people aspects such as performance management, learning and development, and employee experience, there is an increased opportunity to leverage new analytics capabilities such as predictive analytics. The important thing for them is to continue investing in technology and capability.
Lastly, for those organizations where people analytics has not yet made the agenda, the important thing would be for them to start their journey. That might simply mean – thinking about the types of data within the organization that could be leveraged or the questions that can be answered with data insights. I’m confident we will see even more organizations use people analytics and that data-driven decision-making within HR will become standard. 2021 will be another milestone on the way to that outcome.
Is workforce learning and skilling undergoing a reset? How are organizations improvising their workplace learning strategies this year?
I see developments within workforce learning and skilling as something opposite to ‘reset’ - more like rapid evolution and acceleration. Although COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of many learning and development initiatives due to a combination of financial and logistical reasons, the desire for advancement within learning and skilling will not fade away. Organizations have both the duty and desire to adapt their approaches to workforce learning and skilling, and we can already see clear evidence of this.
Virtual learning has been adopted and this may indeed become the norm. Certainly, there will be greater reliance on technology as an enabler for learning and skilling going forward. This trend dovetails nicely with an increase in remote working. Since many organizations are not planning to return to their office until 2021 or later, having the ability to participate in eLearning will be crucial in meeting development goals. So, this is an area that is sure to see continued investment.
Any cogent discussion around the ‘Future of Work’ should also include considerations of upskilling and reskilling. It is well recognized that as technology increasingly enables the automation or augmentation of human work, the traditional designs and structures of work may need to undergo a reinvention of sorts. Ultimately, no matter which organizations choose to approach this challenge, a greater reliance on technologies means that employees must be trained to work with them effectively and efficiently. Then optimal human-machine interaction is a goal worth aiming for.
What are the keys to reinventing your organization and building a sustainable future? How ready is your organization to reinvent? Can you share the top three priorities for the company?
Some of the areas we are advising clients to consider are also essential elements for our own advancement at Willis Towers Watson. To my mind, three pertinent ones which build towards a ‘sustainable future’ would be Inclusion and Diversity, Innovation, and Employee Experience.
Aside from strategic priorities, it will be difficult for any organization to build a sustainable future without some form of stable foundation in the first place. At WTW, we actively consider our core values such as client focus, teamwork, integrity, respect, and excellence as our foundation. When faced with such a fast-changing and increasingly complex world of work, these values provide essential anchors around which we can create and deliver our solutions and services. They also aid internal stability and alignment, which in turn leaves our organization to be battle-ready to help our clients meet their own challenges head-on. This is something I know my colleagues and I are excited to be doing as we progress through 2021 and beyond.