The Role of HR in the Age of Digital Disruption

Soma Pandey, President & CHRO, Firstsource [NSE: FSL]

Soma Pandey, President & CHRO, Firstsource [NSE: FSL]

"Every business is a technology business or a digital business” – is an oft touted reference now. Every business leader acknowledges that technology has or will disrupt what they do and if they do not transform, they will perish.

The same is true for all functions within organizations too – technology is impacting every process in every department. And if technology is adopted strategically, it sets in motion a virtuous cycle—technology enters the picture to help make the function more productive or more impactful or more intelligent—this in itself impacts the process and there is some reengineering, then the insights generated lead to better decision making and changes to the way work is done and then better technology comes in. There is continuous evolution and process enhancement.

In HR, the landscape is no different. We began by using technology to automate processes, bring in efficiencies and free up bandwidth of HR professionals to do more value added work. And now, we are talking about predictive analytics for better job success and retention.

However, HR occupies a unique position in the organization because we have to navigate the change not just for ourselves but for the whole organization. Not only is technology changing every aspect of the HR function but the function is also responsible for helping the wider organization prepare for and deal with the technical disruption.

Technology is all pervasive and how we interact with it is changing almost by the minute - Social, Mobile, Internet of Things (IoT). With pervasiveness of technology, Big Data is being generated continuously and instead of the erstwhile model of data being extracted and analysed by experts offline—there is an expectation of insights being brought into the flow—real time Analytics.

Automation and Artificial Intelligence are reducing the human effort required to do traditional jobs. And from an enterprise perspective, instead of large specialised systems, IT is now about constellations of light weight tools that integrate and deliver business value.

Add to this the demographic changes with millennials becoming a larger proportion of the workforce and working alongside multiple other generations—the combination of all these influences is changing the way work is getting done and how learning is happening—flexi-work, free-lancing, MOOC, Learning on demand, and so on…

HR professionals have responded to these challenges with agility; now technology and analytical insights are shaping how talent is nurtured in the organization. Right from Workforce Planning – new role designs and articulation of future skills required, to Talent Acquisition - predictive assessment tools to select the right fit candidates to Employee Lifecycle - providing tailor-made employee experience and helping individuals build rewarding careers – every aspect of HR has exciting technical and digital involvement.

Interestingly, as we get more digital, I believe that we also need to get more human. The conversation in the organization has to get more strategic and more empathetic about the impact technological disruption is having on employees and how we will continue to be relevant in the immediate and midterm future.

The skills that HR should nurture in the organization are a mix of technical and soft skills.

With 90 percent of jobs now needing at least some technical expertise, there is the continuing need for Digital, SMAC, Robotics and AI skills.

However, it is important to call out that it is not just deep technical skills, but more about understanding the environment in which work is done. The industry will need workers who can “reimagine processes”—look at how work needs to be done, where, in which order, by whom and revisit assumptions.

Additionally, there will be continued requirement of employees with “Architectural” skills. The era of large scale enterprise solutions is in the past—we will need employees who can unbundle the elements and repackage the technology. This will allow for capability in technology suites to have functionalities that can be remixed.

The true potential of digital is realized only when they are combined with a robust understanding of the business. For instance, the real value of data analytics stems from an organization’s ability to operationalize these insights to solve real problems for clients and business. So “Business acumen”—the ability to understand business models and focus on client priorities with a strong service orientation would be key.

On the Behavioural Skills and traits, borrowing from the report published by the WEF, the most important skills of the future will be

Cognitive flexibility: the ability to see new patterns, and to make unique associations between ideas.

Judgement and decision-making: the ability to sift through the numbers, find actionable insights, and use big data to inform business strategy and decisions.

Emotional intelligence: adjusting our behaviour depending on the feelings of ourselves and those around us .

Negotiation and Coordinating with others: involves strong communication skills, an awareness of other people’s strengths and weaknesses, and being able to work with a range of different personalities.

Critical thinking and Complex problem-solving: being able to use logic and reasoning to interrogate an issue or problem, consider various solutions to the problem, and weigh up the pros and cons of each approach.

The HR function has to take a lead in working with leaders to clearly articulate the need for skills in the three to five years span, assess the current levels of skills and then decide whether the gap needs to be filled through recruitment, retraining or inorganic acquisition.

Without active intervention, the current workforce tends to become increasingly irrelevant to the changing environment and hence become a liability in due course. Hence organizations need to create an environment that enables and incentivizes employees to refresh their skills more frequently if they wish to stay relevant in this rapidly changing digital environment.

Organizations can develop a “new age skills inventory” and offer a self-assessment model to help employees quickly assess where they stand in their digital skills development journey.

It is essential to define a customized approach that makes the best use of available assets and resources, and leverages the most impactful methods to bridge the skills divide.

Once the expectations and gaps have been identified and understood by employees, training and learning methodologies have to evolve to allow “self-paced” learning.

Virtual and augmented reality are radically improving professional training. Big data offers the chance for more personalized education. Platforms make it easier to connect people of differing levels of knowledge, allowing peer-to-peer teaching and mentoring.

Linking successful re-skilling to all rewards and career progression can provide the incentive for employees to undertake this journey.

And the enabler for this is a leadership that can courageously deal with this disruption. As a strategic business partner in the era of disruptive technology, HR has to enable leaders who can connect the right dots and be insightful enough to leapfrog competition, creating new markets and new opportunities for the organization as well as its people.

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