No matter how any organization might evolve in the future, it is difficult to envisage an evolution that is not, at least in part, driven by both its people and its technology. Furthermore, the HR function will be the driving force for many of these initiatives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown in numerous ways how technology and the HR function can enjoy an extremely positive relationship. Virtual meeting platforms and the capability of collaboration tools have enabled us to shift to remote working arrangements while minimizing lost productivity.
Perhaps even more so post-pandemic, we will be looking towards technology to support organizations in changing and adapting to the fabled “new normal”. Trends such as moving to the cloud and wider digitization of processes are generally accepted to be inevitable. However, the impact of technology will stretch well beyond specific HR technologies when it comes to building safer workplaces and adopting new working models. Technology presents opportunities for efficient and accurate health screening at work, the sanitization of workstations, not to mention the management of all the additional data generated by these new processes.
Whilst COVID-19 has showcased the relationship between technology and the HR function at its best, it’s only fair to observe that this positive interaction started a long time ago. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) for sourcing and screening talent, as well as video platforms for conducting interviews, are recognized examples that promote the benefits of adopting technology within the HR function.
A complicated relationship
With all that said, it would be tempting to consider the relationship between technology and the HR function as somewhat of a love affair. For certain, during the pandemic, technology has been a major catalyst in empowering CHROs and their teams to accelerate the shift of the HR function from a service to a strategic function. However, the truth is that things can be a little more complicated.
For instance, the application of technology (often in the form of AI or Robotics) in automating tasks previously undertaken by humans will undoubtedly eventuate in job losses within certain organizations. This drives the need for reskilling or upskilling programs even more. These programs are likely to sit largely within the HR function. Given the scale and strategic efforts required for the transformation to succeed, this would certainly present multi-faceted logistical, financial, and people issues. Here then, technology is directly creating a change, which may not be understood immediately as a positive one as far as human capital is concerned. At the same time, this change generates complex new challenges for the HR function.
Having outlined scenarios where technology is directly solving a critical challenge for HR, and also instances where technology is directly causing new challenges, do we have to accept that technology drives binary outcomes for human capital - either positive or negative change?
On the one hand, if we recognize technology as the driving force behind the impact of automation on the workforce, we must also recognize its role in enabling organizations to implement the different types of reskilling and upskilling programs that are needed to adapt to the changes caused by automation. Paradoxically, the same machine learning technology powering software to augment or substitute human tasks can also be found in powering algorithms which help to personalize the most effective learning and development programs. These paradoxes do not reside within the HR function alone. The highest levels of business management, as well as the boardroom, are also grappling with the similar paradox of technology putting pressure on certain business models and revenue streams, whilst at the same time creating new ones.
We are left with somewhat of a virtuous circle then. Technology is either creating positive or negative outcomes for human capital, yet is noble enough to provide the HR function and business leaders with opportunities to successfully adapt to change. The key thing to understand here is exactly how noble technology really is.
Technology not only facilitates a reactive approach to change but can also drive a proactive response if leveraged in the correct manner. Consider the opportunities to leverage analytics in predicting the success of new hires; predicting and preventing turnover; modeling future demographic shifts, as well as the impact of automation on the workforce.
With the foresight of potential changes, the HR function can engage with key stakeholders well in advance, armed with new data-driven visibility on incoming challenges. This will lead to more comprehensive strategic planning and optimized execution blueprints for the response to change. This benefits not only the organization’s human capital but the HR function itself.
Advanced knowledge of future challenges enables HR to transform itself accordingly. This could mean upskilling the HR function with more agile and tech-savvy capabilities, or transforming the work done by the HR function in testing new working models. There would be advanced planning capacity for developing reskilling and upskilling programs and deploying new HR technologies, or creating a better employee experience as the expectation for purposeful work increases. The latter should not be underestimated given that companies demonstrating a strong employee experience (EX) consistently beat their sector on average by a clear margin of two to four percentage points across key performance metrics, including return on assets and equity, one-year change in profitability, and three-year changes in revenue and profitability.
Ultimately, if the relationship between technology and the HR function truly flourishes to its maximum potential, we may no longer even be looking for technology to empower “change” at all. We might instead be pursuing a state of “consistency”, in which best-in-class EX is delivered in each and every moment that matters between an employer and employee. The HR function will play a major role in creating a compelling and meaningful EX and we should expect technology to be a critical ally in its delivery. Even now, EX platforms are emerging as a key component of the HR technology ecosystem.
Technology can create positive and negative situations, drive solutions, provide opportunities and inspire entirely new ways of thinking and doing. While technology can empower change, it can also support consistency. The best outcome is likely to be one where HR leverages technology for both reactive and proactive solutioning.
Appreciating the nuanced relationship between technology and the HR function is an important step for HR professionals and business leaders in crafting the organizations of the future. This will deliver meaningful outcomes not only for the bottom line but for their people and society as a whole.