Dealing with digital: Age, hierarchical mindsets are a key challenge for HR

AI. Robotics. Analytics. Deep data. Big data. Machine learning. Digital. Virtual assistants. IoT. Self-driving vehicles. Every day, we are bombarded with these terms, some of us have some understanding of them, a few are even implementing a few. But we are all unanimous that we are going through an inflection point where digital has the power to disrupt how we work and live.

Organisations are responding to the advent of digital in a world that is experiencing change at an exponential speed; which demands that organisations develop the ability to embrace digital change in a manner that they can transform not just once, but over and over again. In this scenario, are HR strategies within organisations evolving in a way that can embrace the various stages of digital transformation and those that are yet to unfold?

As we set out to discover this, the golden question we asked ourselves is, how do you define “digital”? We then decided to speak to a set of organisations across industries, to understand how they are being affected by the advent of digital. Here’s what we learned.

Every organisation we spoke to indicated everyone has a perspective about “digital” but there is no concrete framework of what it really looks like. There are various concepts and suggestions on what constitute digital. However, since no organisation has yet implemented these end to end, opinions continue to outweigh reality and businesses continue to face the challenge of acquiring a holistic picture of their “digital journey”. Some firms seem to be repeating the errors of the “IT automation days” by trying to transform existing processes into digitally enabled ones. At the core, organisations need to revisit their digital strategies and identify means to redesign the digital framework from scratch. However, many are embracing the uncertainty and taking it one day at a time.

We are seeing the greatest adoption of digital by B2C companies where the frontline sales force is being equipped with tablets or phablets. This enables journey tracking, providing sales intelligence and support in a real-time, on-demand basis and generates tremendous data that can be analysed for impact. Some organisations we spoke to are already able to identify what the top 20 per cent sales-professionals do that is different from the others. This insight is then being used to help others to raise performance resulting in a net increase in revenue. This also has tremendous impact on transparency and objectivity of performance management and balances intuition with information.

Another area of rapid adoption is in talent acquisition where deep analytics are resulting in insights that are helping organisations predict who is more likely to succeed in their culture, thereby enabling greater prediction and accuracy of hiring. As organisations embrace digital, analytics and AI will play a leading role.

One of the key challenges for leaders and HR, as they strive to adopt digital, is age and hierarchical mindsets. Most people who “get” digital are 25-32 years of age. Culturally it is not easy for senior veterans to acquire “wisdom” from their younger counterparts or even to understand their perspectives.

They need to step back from leading to being led. They are also hampered as they look at digital as yet another IT service they will deploy within the context of old-world organisational designs and systems. When digital professionals attempt to redesign or rewire the organisation that has delivered success, this causes resistance and conflict. Getting “digital right” requires a radical shift in mindset and being able to view it from the lens of a 30-year-old “digital native” will not come easy.

This has ramifications for organisational culture. Going “digital” will require a fresh way of looking at things and new ways of working. It will require leaders to be self-aware, humble and inclusive. Driving this culture shift is going to be key to how well organisations adopt and implement digital across their business. HR professionals, across the board, cite this as one of the key challenges to overcome.

Within HR, there is a sense of excitement and eagerness to adopt and drive digital both for HR and across the organisation. HR practitioners are keenly aware that they will have to be aligned with the right set of digital stakeholders and play a decisive role in supporting the business to design and deliver a fit-for-purpose digital framework. The present-day HR professional is energised by the prospect of improved employee experience via the deployment of AI and chatbots which will provide greater intelligence and a balance between tech and touch for the employee. The radical impact of predictive analytics will enable HR to be truly business partnering and will also lead to greater accountability and measurement of the impact of HR and leadership. While forward-looking organisations are already adopting these, much of this has yet to be experienced by the large majority.

In the medium-term future almost every HR function spanning across Compensation and benefits, Performance & Talent Management Systems etc.will be automated and AI-based. An employee will be able to engage with an AI to redistribute their salary break-up to either optimise for taxes or savings/investments, with virtually no interface with an HR professional. These advances will further reduce the operational and process management role of HR. The HR Business Partner (HRBP) role will gain increased salience and will transform into a more strategic, advisory, interventional and business-oriented than ever before.

Developing consultative skills, driving change, integrating M&As, redesigning organisation structures, resolving conflict and enabling high-performing teams will become critical skills. HR professionals will need to be more numerate, have a working understanding of data sciences, data modelling and statistics than ever before. Designing predictive models, developing and coaching AIs will be a new area of competence, more so in HR since chatbots will provide the bulk of employee services.

In conclusion, it is clear that digital is here to stay and will have a significant impact on the way we do business and how workforces are managed. It is equally evident that as yet, no one has a clear framework for what digital will look like; much of the current rhetoric is speculative and “predictive”. Hence this is an evolutionary phase which will go through a set of iterations before models are tested and fully implemented.

HR will need to transform itself, develop a renewed set of competencies and reskill HRBP’s to be ready for newer and more challenging roles. We are all building this airplane mid-flight and the journey is both exhilarating and unnerving.

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