“Tech things that sound like science fiction today are going to be at our fingertips tomorrow.” By assimilating the knowledge of latest technology with HR fundamentals we can cope in this new world of people, policies and processes.
When I joined the Human Resources function over two decades ago, I did so because I saw HR as an opportunity to serve the people. People were at the centre of HR, I thought; making people happy was my purpose. I had not read the research by Hay, McKinsey, BCG, Gallup, Deloitte, and others, that ‘proved’ a correlation between employee engagement and productivity. But, like most of you, I had a gut appreciation that happy people would be more energetic, more motivated. These outcomes were valuable in themselves but I also discerned that energy and motivation would result in more productivity at work. And so, I set out to explore ways to make people happy!
Fortunately, many HR functions provided opportunities to foster joy. As an HR Partner, I could serve my internal clients by taking time to listen – seeking to understand their needs and working with colleagues to fulfil them. In Recruitment, I got to conduct respectful interviews and even if the candidate was not the right fit, I could let him/her down gently with a personalized reject.
“Over the years, I came to realise that the People I was trying to serve had a variety of other expectations about what HR would and should deliver. Happiness and joy were apparently not quite making the grade! Policies & processes seemed to be the order of the day.”
If selected, I could focus on preparing for a smooth onboarding on Day 1 at the company. In Learning, I had the opportunity to design and deliver training programs on so! skill topics. Participants emerged with potential new insights (I hoped) and happy smiling faces that were generously shared on their feedback forms. In fact, in Learning, where I spent a bulk of my career, I saw myself as a catalyst that energized and inspired participants to be the change they wanted to see back in their workplace.
I remained steadfast in my focus on people but, I must admit, I did not always encounter smiling faces. I was forced to confront a fair share of annoyed, irritated, unhappy, sometimes angry faces too. Over the years, I came to realise that the people I was trying to serve had a variety of other expectations about what HR would and should deliver. Happiness and joy were apparently not quite making the grade!
Policies & processes seemed to be the order of the day.
A policy for an employee dress code; a process to ensure all employees receive their correct salary on time; a policy for travel reimbursement; a process to ensure a safe harassment-free workplace for each employee; a policy for equal opportunity in our hiring, promotion, compensation decisions; a process to address complaints raised by employees against their manager or a colleague; a policy for this, a process for that. As the employee strength of the organization grew, consistency and dependability to ensure fair and just policies and processes became bigger priorities than the (mere?) pursuit of happiness.
“HR Tech has also made it easier to compare and benchmark, thus raising the bar on our metrics across all the sub- functions of HR.”
So, I began to sink my teeth into this new policy and process orientation. It was evident that there were many hygiene factors that needed to be addressed before we could rise to the level of happiness. I had not read about Herzberg’s two factor theory of motivation but I began to experience it in action. It was not enough to focus on two-factor the factors (the satisfiers) that motivate and engage. I needed to address the potential dissatisfiers among employees. And spending time on reducing or eliminating the dissatisfiers was not quite as energizing as the earlier happiness goal!
When one’s work adds to people’s satisfaction, the feedback from the beneficiaries of that work tends to be positive in nature. On the other hand, when work is predominantly focused on reducing people’s dissatisfaction (which is where the bulk of policy and process work lies), feedback tends to be absent if you do the work well – the assumption being that you’re simply doing your job. Nobody thanks you for ensuring the employee receives her salary on time, for instance, it’s assumed as a given. But if – god forbid! – you happen to fall short on delivering what is deemed a ‘hygiene factor’, then your feedback comes in the form of brickbats. Maybe dealing with conflict is part of the HR experience, I told myself. And so, I developed a thicker skin.
I also upgraded my skills in myriad ways as I explored the multiple dimensions of policy and process orientation. I began to document precedents to help shape the policies. I benchmarked against other companies, other countries, to compare and learn from their experience. I learned to write with clarity to communicate in an unambiguous way. I became better acquainted with the legal side of HR case management. I studied Company Law, Labour Law, Government policies, and more. I developed negotiation skills to better deal with multiple vendors, contractors, and service providers. I thought I had it figured out: instead of shining the spotlight on People alone, I must focus on two smaller but still important Ps in the service of people, namely, policies and processes. These were the core HR Fundamentals. In fact, collectively, they seemed to provide a balance in addressing an organization’s HR needs. But then I noticed that there was another factor that was very closely tied to these HR Fundamentals. That factor was Technology!
In retrospect, it was evident that Technology had always been present on my HR journey. In the early days, HR Tech was mostly aimed at automating the repetitive components of the function, enabling us to complete large volumes of work in a faster, more efficient manner. Technology took care of the boring administrative transactional stuff. It helped li! the quality of work HR professionals did to a higher strategic level. The automation of routine work by HR Tech was basic at first – mostly visible in the improvements in speed and accuracy in our back offices. But before long, HR Tech had manifested itself in our front offices as well. Tech helped HR position itself to its clients with websites describing services, FAQs, personalized chatbots, and remote chats to address client queries.
HR Tech enabled us to significantly improve the quality and quantity of our measurements. The measurements extended across our policies and processes, providing feedback on the quantity and quality of our interventions, enabling speedy course corrections where needed. HR Tech has also made it easier to compare and benchmark, thus raising the bar on our metrics across all the sub- functions of HR.
The earlier people focus led us toward a rather inchoate goal of happiness at work. With HR Tech, we could measure that happiness through not just annual satisfaction surveys but monthly, even weekly pulse checks that encouraged quick agile course corrections with the potential for a long term positive impact. And leveraging technology to solicit feedback also enabled company-wide polling on issues close to employees’ hearts – for instance, the performance appraisal system – through online ‘jamming’ events that could be data-mined for inclusive gold nuggets that discerned the voice of the People. HR Tech thus, sometimes unwittingly, had a transformational an end in itself. It is here in the service of our People, in the service of improving our policies and processes. It’s easy to get carried away by the latest hi-tech gizmo but if we can keep an open mind to the fads while staying true to our People purpose, then we have a chance of making the best of technology. Finally, we need to seriously anticipate the security, privacy and ethical concerns that HR organizations must deal with now that we are the guardians of so much personal data. Demonstrating responsibility and dependability in integrating our People, policy, process needs with the relentless march of Technology is going to be essential to success in the HR journey ahead!
HR Tech was also pivotal in enhancing the quality of our management information systems. Technology enabled the storage and retrieval of data on People – their education, tenure, skills, assessments, compensation, rewards, health, and more – at a moment’s notice. And as we stored more data, we began to analyze that data in myriad ways, to perceive patterns that were invisible before the data became digital. It was in this area of digital data that the impact of technology has changed from incremental to exponential.
Digital data has set in motion a range of ways in which we can leverage data for decision making, support people in career development, and assess value by translating the intangible into the more tangible. Translating the data into information intelligently is also opening up a whole new area of predictive analytics, cognitive and artificial intelligence, to guide our actions. HR Tech used to be a choice but like most technologies (think of the telephone and television!) what was a desirable option yesterday has become an essential necessity today. And tech things that sound like science fiction today are going to be at our fingertips tomorrow. So how do we cope in this new world of People, policies & processes, enhanced by Technology? For starters, we learn. We keep an open mind to HR Technology, become familiar with it, and push ourselves out of our comfort zones to cultivate the habit of experimenting and exploring new technologies.
Secondly, we anchor ourselves in the HR Fundamentals. Technology may be ubiquitous but it is not an end in itself. It is here in the service of our People, in the service of improving our policies and processes. It’s easy to get carried away by the latest hi-tech gizmo but if we can keep an open mind to the fads while staying true to our People purpose, then we have a chance of making the best of technology.
Finally, we need to seriously anticipate the security, privacy and ethical concerns that HR organizations must deal with now that we are the guardians of so much personal data. Demonstrating responsibility and dependability in integrating our People, policy, process needs with the relentless march of Technology is going to be essential to success in the HR journey ahead!