January 25, 2018

How New Technology Is Bringing HR ’Full Circle’


Technology drives constant change in human resources, so much so that it can be hard to figure out what’s coming next. That’s why Recruiter Today contributing writer Jason McDowell recently sat down with Christa Manning, vice president and HR solution provider research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP, to discuss the future of HR technology.

The transcript that follows has been minimally edited for style and clarity.

Recruiter.com: HR technology traditionally focused on automation and the integration of HR practices, but solutions developers have begun to expand their purviews. What are they focusing on now? Why the change?

Christa Manning: It’s all about enablement and productivity. Labor productivity has been largely flat in most developed economies for the last decade, notably the world’s largest economy, the US.

While many believe advances in business technologies and internet applications were behind the more typical productivity growth rates we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s, one could argue it is the proliferation of too many different employee self-services, best of breed technologies, niche apps, new areas of innovations, and information overload that have sapped productivity in recent years.

As a result, human resources information technology (HRIT) is increasingly focusing on designing simplified digital employee experiences that meet workers’ individual needs and preferences to find information, complete transactions, and connect the dots between different systems and sources of data so they can get back to the work that is most meaningful – meaningful to the business in terms of employee productivity, and meaningful to workers for their career development, work balance, whatever.

This includes the HR functions and operations themselves. How can HR adopt newer technologies like artificial intelligence in all its forms? Robotic process automation, natural language processing, machine learning, and predictive analytics will enable more compelling and modern digital employee experiences, as well as make HR staff more productive and impactful on business strategy and outcomes, too.

RC: We write a lot about how the “way we work” is in flux. How will these new technologies drive change in the way HR professionals work?

CM: As others in the industry have said, “AI” should really stand for “augmented intelligence.” How can we use these newer technologies that can take in information and inquiries in ways people are familiar with – by speaking or texting in chat? We need to process quantities of data and information on the back end that a human mind never could to free up and enable individual people to more efficiently and effectively do uniquely human things only people can do, such as empathize, build trust, negotiate, and innovate. HRIT or workforce enablement systems should make people better at being creative, collaborating, and communicating, not doing HR stuff or processes for HR’s sake.

markersThis means HR departments can evolve from being in-the-office generalists to operating more strategically and virtually, like all workers are being asked to do, enabled by broader platforms that deliver consistent, intuitive user experiences and backed by large sets of data that can be used for better decision-making. This means all people working in HR are going to have some level of tech-savviness and comfort with data analysis. In fact, recent Bersin research showed that those companies that have broader data fluency amongst all HR professionals tend to outperform other firms in business and talent outcomes.

RC: Many companies are restructuring into smaller teams to tackle more focused projects one by one. What is the benefit of this model, and what more traditional methods does it replace?

CM: Companies have always worked in teams, but they are typically governed or managed in hierarchical ways with top-down decision-making taking precedence. One could argue that this is behind the notorious lack of engagement we hear exists in business today. People may give up caring about their work if there are too many levels of bureaucracy and politics to get anything done.

How many times may one have heard someone opt out of accountability by saying, “That’s above my pay grade”? How many times has someone simply given up on a project or initiative, a new innovation or market idea, because they were not empowered to make a decision?

Now, every industry is moving so fast. Innovation is so critical. Literally and figuratively “engaging” with employees and connecting colleagues to collaborate and create is what organizations have to do. So many companies are waking up and recognizing that teams are where work actually gets done. People want to make an impact – they just have to be enabled.

To help in this regard, companies are doing things like organizational network analysis on emails and social media to understand who is most productive or seen as a key resource or subject matter expert. These tools are relatively new, and lots of issues may crop up that organizations will have to solve for, like data privacy and security and building cultures of trust. The ability to process massive amounts of data and understand how work is getting done has driven the appreciation of needing to better support the teams that are already there.

RC: What HR technologies will be the most disruptive in the near future?

CM: I am going to make a bold statement: Pulse survey and feedback capabilities and apps are the most disruptive. They are cropping up everywhere, and I think they are ultimately what is disrupting the old siloed functional process-automation world. Why should someone wait until the end of the year to share what they think? Ask someone to change? Offer advice or the opportunity to take a course, prepare for a promotion, join a new innovation group or new tiger team working on a critical timely business issue or change?

roadYet, these types of tools could become the next area to contribute to the overwhelmed employee. They need to be used judiciously, or they will likely be just one more source of interruption and information overload that will disrupt people in the flow of work and disturb their interactions with colleagues and customers.

And too many HR departments might default to compliance mode. We have to make sure people are doing their pulse surveys and their feedback requests. Organizations and HR leaders must make sure that type of disruption does not happen.

RC: Performance management structures are changing. Many experts are saying the annual performance review should be put to rest. In what new ways are companies communicating with their employees?

CM: We have just wrapped up research in this area. To the last point on feedback, continuous feedback is the major trend in communicating with employees. That goes both ways: Workers being able to solicit and get feedback on what they are doing, what they are working on, the challenges they are facing to make progress in their roles and in their careers; and managers are also being held more accountable. Are they providing the enablement, the support, or the advocacy that their reports or team members need to be successful?

Many companies are moving away from annual reviews and one numerical score to judge a person that feeds into a compensation algorithm. They are starting to focus more on development conversations and actions to take to make breakthroughs and get things done. So, we may have come full circle. The proliferation of HR process automation went so far that managers and workers stopped talking to each other – they focused on checking the mid-year and the end-of-year boxes. It’s time to use technology to tap into what makes us more human again: empathizing, innovating, and driving positive change.

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Jason McDowell holds a BS in English from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. By day, he works as a mild-mannered freelance writer and business journalist. By night, he spends time with his wife and dogs, writes novels and short stories, and tries in vain to catch up on all of those superhero television shows.