Human resources in the age of digital revolution


With the digital revolution in overdrive, everything is changing, and fast. Nowhere is this change more obvious, nay significant, than in the workplace. So much so, that Deloitte, one of the world’s leading professional services network and a major authority on human capital trends, has called for a complete overhaul of the rules of Human Resources Management (HRM) “Organizations face a radically shifting context for the workforce, the workplace, and the world of work, Deloitte argued in its 2017 report on HRM, aptly titled Rewriting the rules for the digital age. “These shifts have changed the rules for nearly every organizational people practice, from learning to management to the definition of work itself,” it added. However, it is one thing to appreciate that the digital revolution has fundamentally changed HRM, it is another to understand what exactly that change means. 

To understand the impact of the digital revolution on HRM, it is imperative to, first of all, contextualize the fundamentals of HRM. Ultimately, it comes down to two main parts: Personnel and Organizational goals. Traditionally, the marriage of these two parts have been officiated by a group of human resource managers whose size and skill sets were often limited, largely inadequate and too slow in responding to internal and external dynamics. Now, with virtually every organization’s workforce becoming more digital, more global, automation-savvy and social media proficient, only a digitized HRM can keep up with the pace of radically changing personnel expectations. The same goes for driving organizational goals in an age where companies are evolving faster than ever and becoming more nimble in their strategy and operations. 

The next big challenge that the digital revolution throws up for HR Managers is its gradual obliteration of the so-called work structure. Now, more than ever, communication happens in real time, talent pool has become highly mobile and the flow of ideas, freed up by technology, is no longer linear. This has not only transformed lifestyle, it has also turned the approach to work on its head. As leading HR company, Morgan Phillips, notes; “Working environments have moved on from a time when work was performed according to a fixed schedule and always in an office. More often than laptops, it is tablets and smartphones which accompany us everywhere and offer us an increased and previously unheard of level of control and autonomy in the way we organize work.” This, surely, makes on-the-desk and by-the-counter HR Management obsolete. 

There is also the challenge of talent acquisition, which is being exacerbated by the fact that as jobs and skills change, driven by the digital revolution, finding and recruiting the right people has become more difficult than ever for HR as is. According to Deloitte, talent acquisition is now the third-most-important challenge companies face, with 81 percent of respondents calling it important or very important. Closely related to this is the challenge of talent retention, which has become one of the biggest headaches of HR managers who, lacking the tools for effective people analytics cannot fully understand staff talent factors nor leverage the requisite tools for employee engagement.

However, the biggest challenge thrown up by the digital revolution on HRM is an existential one. As Enrique Rubio, an HR Specialist at Inter-American Development Bank, rightly notes; “HR has been historically slow to understand and respond to business demands. And, although the digital transformation of everything in the world is unstoppable and obvious, HR is not waking up and getting on the bandwagon as quickly as it needs to.” Thus, with apps and automation now with the potential to keep employees engaged and efficient better than HR ever did, and artificial intelligence and social media optimization becoming increasingly effective at headhunting personnel for the 21st century workforce, more than a few have posited that some HR Managers might need to try new professions. Yet, in all the areas where the digital revolution has thrown up challenges for HRM, it’s also birthed even more opportunities even though the digital revolution had torn up the old rule book of HRM, seemingly threatening its very existence, the latter has a massive role to play in designing the new rule of work: from eschewing aged linear organization structures to creating empowered networks, coordinated through culture, information systems, and talent mobility; from bringing down organizational silos to redesigning for speed, agility, and adaptability; and from withdrawing the traditional question “For whom do you work?” to driving a new question  “With whom do you work?”

“The attitude toward human resources, once considered a necessary administrative evil and a cost center, is shifting toward a more strategic, advisory oriented role. The new focus ison managing talent, delivering services efficiently, and positioning companies to succeed in the digital environment, Rebecca writes in an article on how the digital revolution is Impacting Human Resources. She puts a particular emphasis on “people analytics,” arguing that data about employees has become more important than ever. “People analytics is now a discipline that supports everything from operations and management to recruiting (talent acquisition) and financial performance.

Despite the emphasis on this type of analytical process, very few organizations have the usable data they need, and even fewer have a good understanding of the talent factors that drive performance. With this need for data, human resources will have even greater opportunities to assist businesses in aggregating, analyzing and leveraging the data they need to succeed.”  

Beyond the challenges and opportunities that it has thrown up, the biggest impact of the digital revolution will be its syntheses of both reactions to inform us of what the workforce of the future will look like. Such radical evolution of work and the workplace may seem to increase the complexity of HR, but essentially, with new technology, it actually enables a better and more strategic HRM. SAP’s Lennart Keil SAP addresses this in his article, A Different Kind of Work, outlining six digital competencies for the future workforce. They are reproduced below as a guide to how HR Managers, and Business Leaders, can leverage the digital revolution of HRM to create sustainable organizations of the futures: 

Use technology as an enabler: Just as smart phones revolutionized us as people and employees, we must realize that new products will continue to change how we do almost everything, at work as well as at home. When virtual-reality wearable glasses, avatars and self-driving cars begin to sneak into the workplace, embrace it sooner rather than later.

Embrace disruption: The old quote “change is the only constant” is truer today than ever. Expect change. The nature of change is different now than in the past, and the speed of change is faster than ever. This causes greater lack of predictability, introduces us to new variables that we do not readily understand, and causes unclear cause-and-effect relationships as many things are less linear than in the past. Things are messier. Embrace the mess and sort it out.

Leverage information technology: Use social media often and always for better and faster results. HR must find new ways to achieve business goals with more simplicity and global relevance that appeal to a workforce diverse in culture, age and skills.

Become excellent at iteration: It used to be that most HR projects were slow to develop, created at the top of the organization and eventually “rolled out” to employees. This was the norm. The new norm is that projects are built along the way with constant input from others and move quickly through the stages of development. Good project management is still very much needed, but iterating toward an acceptable launch is the new norm rather than waiting for the 100% perfect solution and then determining a rollout plan, which can take too much time in this fast-moving business era. Learn how to iterate and get comfortable with small steps and incremental change.

Use the crowd wisely: For leaders, don’t think you must do it all. As Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Go beneath the surface: There has always been a delicate balance between data and intuition, and that has not and will not change. The new challenge in the digital age is determining how to use the science, the data, in tandem with the art—the human element. We will continue to be asked to balance these two elements in our daily work and to look deeper to make good decisions, given that we will have more data at our fingertips to analyze and yet still need to make decisions that affect employees.
Tunde Oyadiran is a Human Resources Practitioner. 

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