Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dreams (and nightmares) of an HR leader

HR Officers need to jump on the driving seat (or committee) of major technology projects (HRIS ones, but also social business, big data, mobility and even BI). Otherwise, they might loose their influence or even worse, their soul, in the next few years.

The social technologies revolution is not what you think

HR Technology continues its revolution. Solutions are becoming more sophisticated by the day, adopting major trends like social features, mobile interfaces or customer-centric design. And yet, beyond this improvement in HR technology, it is the slow, quiet, pervasive, integration of HR technology (systems and data alike) in the overall enterprise architecture of the company that constitutes the main revolution. And also, that main threat and opportunity for HR as a corporate institution.

There are two main drivers to this integration : social technology and big data. Social technologies, in the first place, have at least three types of impacts,
  • The production of massive amounts of people data; and not only employee data (the one HR has historically concentrated on) but also professional and social data (meaning business, functional data that is linked to an individual, regardless of his organizational position). This is a growing trend (see how Michael Fauscette describes applications that are social);
  • The breaking of existing organizational silos and functional silos, and therefore the questioning of some dimensions of the added value of central support functions - say, for instance, do we really need HR for mobility management ? 
  • The possibility for the individual employee to take charge of her own development, of her own "employee experience" within the company, as she gains easier access to its people, knowledge, tools and other ressources, and is able at the same time to better assert (based on data) her own, specific talent.
There is a huge potential for productivity gains in this revolution. A seminal report on the social economy by McKinsey Global Institute points to a 25% productivity growth opportunity for interactions workers.

Social technologies, though, are not the whole story, and would be less interesting, from a business perspective, without the technological innovations that big data ("growing volume, variety and velocity of information" - David Corrigan quoted by IBM), and the need to store, analyze and act on this data, are driving. When data produced by social technologies, and by "technologies that are social" can be acted upon by these new technologies, whole new perspectives will open for businesses. Read, for instance, this article of the WSJ, that contends that Big Data is becoming the new boss, as recruitment is concerned. Using big data analysis can indeed help better assess candidates for a number of positions (mainly production or transaction positions). And other uses, internal and external alike, will help increase worker productivity or HR process performance.

In a global economy, though, my description of the revolution would not be complete if I did not consider the wider economic environment. To do so, I can use two concepts that I think describe well the economic and social risks and opportunities of this technological revolution:
  • First, the integration of HR technology into the wider enterprise architecture is part of a slow and silent transformation, that has been dubbed The Second Economy by researcher W Brian Arthur, who writes that "underneath the physical economy, with its physical people and physical tasks, lies a second economy that is automatic and neurally intelligent, with no upper limit to its buildout". This Second Economy has brought us "prosperity and difficulties with jobs"; a similar argument has been developed by Andy McAffee in his book Race Against the Machine;
  • Dominique Turcq, from the Boostzone Institute, continuing with this line of thought argues that "a number of middle managers jobs will disappear, a number of intermediaries’ jobs will disappear, and a number of paid jobs will disappear because of the collaborative dimension of our society and of corporations". He call this the Third Economy.
For HR, then, the social technologies revolution is not a simple opportunity. It holds the potential to build a dream or a nightmare. And, in my opinion, at least in the short term, the odds are pointing towards the nightmare as the most likely (because the most profitable on the short term) outcome. As Dominique argues once again, "good management can generate unemployment".

Become a different kind of HR leader

What can you do to master these technologies in a way that spurs innovation and manages productivity gains without incurring into huge employee casualties ? What can you do to expand your influence in the boardroom, by truly contributing to making your business a social business ?

There is probably no other way out that becoming the social technology champion, and I can measure how difficult this is for HR. And yet, in social technologies, the key term is social. For that reason, HR, if it develops a real intimacy with this technology, if it works on its own technology skills (using, understanding, forecasting), is uniquely positioned to avoid that these technologies are only used for productivity. That would be short-sighted from a value-creation point of view, and very damaging from an employee well-being point of view.

This is no easy task, and there are no short-cuts available. I have been experimenting these past few years with some initiatives that HR leaders can undertake in their quest to become Social Technology champions:

  • Improve your existing people development processes by leveraging social technologies;
  • Transform talent management into a strategy development engine;
  • Reinvent L&D and forget about training;
  • Think again about leadership ! Next generation leaders are not where you thought they were.
  • Master your technology vendors - meaning, be in charge and change the technology if it does not suit you.

And to do this, collaborate with all the departments that have the same issues as your own HR department. Start, for instance, by co-designing the future learning environment of your corporation with your IT and Communications peers. That should move you in the right direction.

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