Six Blind Men Discover Digitization

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Six Blind Men and the Elephant

Describing the state of HR Digitization is akin to the proverbial six blind men describing an elephant. Each of the blind men have starkly different opinions of the subject based on their respective vantage point.

The Big Picture

The world has been in a constant state of flux and a couple of key components related to Digitization of HR, in particular, have changed at a much more rapid pace in the last few decades.

Firstly, the contribution and centrality of people has increased massively since the Industrial Revolution and consequently there has been a crying need for HR to re-invent itself.

Secondly, and more recently, there has been a digital tsunami aided by technological advances and information explosion that has transformed our lives in innumerable ways.

However, not all constituents of the ecosystem, organizations or industries, have moved at the same pace. We all are at different points on the evolution path and maybe even on different paths altogether. Consequently, the perceived reality is different for each and yet, none of the blind men are incorrect in their respective observations.

Continuing the analogy, let us walk through six different dimensions and sets of world views on the state of HR Digitization and reconstruct the big picture.

The Six Blind Men

1. Getting Under the Skin – Cost Centre or Business Partner

The first step in understanding the elephant is to get under its skin, and in more ways than one. The digital strategy for HR is predicated upon such exploration and some of these questions that may merit introspection:
• How is the role of HR perceived in the organization – a cost centre or a business partner?
• How central are people to the business model of the organization – e.g. a people / knowledge centric business or one that leverages tangible assets?
• What is the cultural context and what is the gap between desired behaviours and observed behaviours?

The strategy for digital transformation may be starkly different in such cases; each being appropriate in their respective context. Some of the strategic choices may include trade-offs between efficiency, utilization, user experience and employee engagement.

For instance, a business model with low people centrality but high volumes may want to optimize efficiency and utilization. The focus may be on initiatives such as workflows, intranet portals and automation.

On the other hand, a business model with dynamic team structures and high people centrality may focus on leveraging technology to increase collaboration for knowledge sharing and building expertise.

2. My Gut vs Data Glut – Objective or Subjective

Soft skills have traditionally dominated the perceived pecking order of HR skills. Whether it is recruitment or training or performance management, it has always been about the ‘people touch’ and gut feel. Few people with a quantitative orientation have been considered to be natural fits as HR professionals.

The digitization of the organization’s operations implies that more information is available about people than ever before. While the focus of the Analytics world is on Big Data, there is invaluable information, implicit and explicit, that is tucked away in various operational systems in most organizations. The challenge for HR professionals is to understand the dynamic landscape and evolve measurement systems accordingly.

We have a common performance management framework across our organization, but one of our business units is high volume and another one provides more bespoke services that are relatively low volume and very high value.

The former business unit relies completely on quantitative operational and financial metrics that feed into the performance model. The data is drawn from myriad systems including client responsiveness, growth in operations, client satisfaction levels, etc. Manual inputs have a role and a certain weightage, but cannot over-ride the data driven components.

The latter low volume business unit provides supervisors with rich data but the evaluation process is more traditional with metrics that are measured by ‘gut’.

Information can be your fuel as well your driver and both models can co-exist in the same organization, while still maintaining homogeneity of the underlying parameters.

3. Is Artificial for Real?

The information explosion coupled with computational and analytical advances have started robbing cars of their drivers. These advances in Artificial Intelligence can certainly be applied to HR functions. The power of People Analytics is being explored by few organizations.

The question is whether the metaphorical blind man is ready to cede control and allow the magic of artificial intelligence that can drive cars and beat world champions in strategy games, to be unleashed in running HR functions. The answer to this question should determine the trajectory of your technology interventions.

We have used machine learning algorithms for various HR functions by leveraging tools such as clustering or predictive analytics. For instance, while running a recruitment event where our thin HR team was inundated with thousands of applications, we used machine learning algorithms to identify clusters of similar documents and also identified outliers. This was efficient and quicker, and also returned interesting insights that supplemented, but did not replace, the traditional human efforts.

4. As You “Like” It – Going Social

Social media and related tools have unequivocally modified the manner in which humans interact with each other.

Most of the world as I know it, has embraced these tools in their personal and social lives, although with significant variations in the level of adoption, reliance and usage. However, the same cannot be said of social tools within the organizational or professional context.

We were ourselves surprised with the results when we used social media channels and concepts to run a contest for college students to intern with our firm. The thousands of students that participated in the contest outnumbered the cumulative internship applications that we received during the year!

5. Are You Game – Using Gamification Techniques

Employee engagement has always been an enigma for HR professionals. Enter the Millennials and a difficult problem just became a virtually impossible one.

Gamification techniques provide an interesting dimension that can be leveraged, depending on the culture, nature of the workforce and the organizational context. It is a discipline in itself and one has to be careful while implementing such techniques at the workplace. We were thrilled with the response to a gamified exercise that helped increase employee engagement, especially across business units and also enhanced the level of awareness about the organization.

You can start with the awesome Gamification course by Kevin Werbach on Coursera, if you are game!

6. A Tale of Two Screens – What’s the dominant platform

The primary user interface has moved from desktops, laptops and tablets to the mobile phone.

Most companies have a ‘responsive’ interface that is optimized for mobile devices, since they care about user experience of customers. They must re-design applications and interfaces in accordance with ‘user experience’, as employees are key stakeholders.

Organizations must take steps to overcome security concerns relating to the cloud for the employee interface, if the same has been done for clients as well.

Eating The Elephant

Hopefully, the contours of the elephant are coming together and additional dimensions are cropping up in your bag of ideas. Once we get into implementation mode, the challenge is not merely to reconstruct the elephant but to eat the elephant. The only trick is to eat the elephant one bite at a time!

The only caveat is that you should carefully chose which part of the elephant you want to eat first. The strategy and cultural context of your organization will determine the priorities and initiatives in moving to a digital-leveraged HR function that powers your crown jewels – your organizational talent.

This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of the Human Capital Magazine.

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