Simon Fowler 27 February 2019

How digitisation will put the human into HR

In our new on-demand world, where people expect to be the centre of their own employee experience and they’re not shy about jumping ship, it’s technology that offers the best prospects for delivering the human touch they need to feel special.

Our current state of low unemployment has intensified the already ferocious competition for talent. In this environment, employee engagement has become a key differentiator.

Last year’s Engage for Success report from the Cabinet Office offered 14 case studies where public sector organisations have boosted employee engagement, and while the route each took was unique, some themes emerged.

Each incorporated clear organisational vision and values and demonstrated an effective way for these to be communicated. They nurtured trust by ensuring that people were well managed, and their needs were met. And perhaps most crucially, they made sure their people understood they had a voice in the organisation, that their suggestions were valued, listened to and acted upon.

Everyone knows engaged employees are more productive, more innovative, and less likely to leave. But precisely what engages people is more nuanced and complex than it’s ever been. Our current workforce comprises three different generations, each with its own priorities, uncertainties and motivators.

An increasing majority of our employees have grown up in a digital environment and their expectations are benchmarked by the platforms they interact with in everyday consumer life, Amazon, Apple, Netflix; services with highly personalised user experiences.

So these employees come pre-packaged with high levels of expectation. And what’s more, they are more than willing to call employers out publicly when they feel standards are falling short.

And as they enter work in ever greater numbers, the traditional one-size-fits all approach to engagement becomes less well suited to the modern workforce. But a personalised employee experience is a huge challenge for most people management and HR teams. Not because the will doesn’t exist; not because practitioners don’t recognise the need, but because the traditional way public sector people management operates means many practitioners spend most of their time on a perpetual hamster wheel of administration.

For HR teams already on their digitisation journey, technology has alleviated much of the administrative burden, automating the repetitive tasks that have characterised the job for so long; recruitment, expenses, absence and leave, all taken care of automatically. These teams have finally found the time to let go of the wheel and address the more strategic workforce management issues.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. With the systems we’re building today, HR will become a genuine driver of human capital potential. The fuel for this revolution? Data.

The amount of data HR holds about its people is the envy of marketers. Analytics tools have enabled forward-thinking HR leaders to harness the insights it holds. But really, we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. Major digital platforms like Google and Facebook controversially monitor behaviour and collect data to better predict users’ reactions to certain types of content and serve them more relevant ads.

With machine learning and AI, sentiment analysis and third-party data, we can build HR systems that attend to employee needs with the same diligence, and without the morally ambiguous intent.

It’s personalisation on a scale that’s currently impossible for most organisations to achieve. For instance, the system could generate individual CPD plans for every employee, accounting for a multitude of factors like learning styles, career goals and long-term organisational talent requirements.

It could monitor performance and behaviour on an individual level and take the constant temperature of wellbeing and engagement through sentiment analysis, identifying potential leadership candidates, flagging anomalous behaviours and spotting workforce trends.

The end game is an employer relationship with a level of personal attention that’s currently impossible for HR to provide. It doesn’t replace HR professionals, it augments them, providing a window onto the kind of insights that allow them to do what many practitioners get into the industry for in the first place, helping people maximise their potential.

It seems counterintuitive that data and technology will enhance HR’s human side. But professionals who care about making a difference should be very excited.

Simon Fowler is CEO at XCD

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