· 12 min read · Features

Blurred lines and empowerment


The disruptive technologies and attitudes forcing a culture shift

The prevalence of smartphones, ubiquity of social media and desire for an ideal work-life balance are combining to force a change in how firms operate, both internally and externally, writes KATIE JACOBS

This morning, millions of people woke up thanks to the alarm on their smartphone – and not anything as archaic as a clock. They checked their emails, the news and various social media streams, all on a device that fits in the palm of their hand. Maybe they used a transport app to check the train times, or the state of the traffic on their commute. If they went to a supermarket, there’s a high chance they interacted with a self service checkout, not a human.

Then they came into the office. Was the technology they encountered there anything like as sophisticated as the technology they have in their pocket? In many organisations, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.

“It used to be that corporate technology led and consumer technology lagged, but now it’s swapped,” says Neal Bruce, director of product strategy at HR technology company Lumesse. “One of the major challenges for companies is dealing with the fact that consumer technologies are setting the standards for the experience people want. Think about consumer technology and the words that come to mind are ‘fast, engaging and empowering’. With employer technology, it’s ‘slow and boring’.”

“Employees expect systems that match their experience as a consumer,” agrees Sandy Begbie, group operations officer at Standard Life. “Before, technology at work would have been better than what people had at home. Now people have technology at their fingertips and the corporate world struggles to keep up.”

Richard Coombes, managing director of Accenture’s talent and organisation practice, believes the issue is that organisations have spent so much time and money focusing on the external – mining customer data, for example – that they have neglected the internal. “HR has taken its eye off the ball and not been allowed to look into the future,” he says. While most organisations have an external digital and social strategy, he says he hasn’t seen many “with a joined-up digital or social strategy for inside the organisation”.

Businesses need to wake up and be just as focused on how technology is changing things inside organisations. If not, they could be in trouble. Advancing technology, often called ‘disruptive technology’, is dramatically changing the ground rules for business, and has major implications for HR. And, whereas in the past, HR’s initial reaction may have been an outright ban on things such as social media and employee devices, now such draconian policies seem out of touch (with the exception of heavily regulated industries, of course). Banning Facebook at work when most people have a smartphone seems like the HR version of King Canute trying to hold back the waves.

The tide is turning

“It’s no longer realistic to tell people they can’t bring in their own device, because people’s consumer devices are better and people want to do effective work,” says Bruce. “I use my own Mac Powerbook as I prefer it to the Dell PC I was given. Those companies that want to hinder employees’ ability to be productive will lose.”

The debate needs to move on from matters such as ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) to the question of how to enable employees to work as effectively as possible, wherever they happen to be. “The whole BYOD subject is very tired,” believes Matt Peers, CIO at professional services firm Deloitte. “People want choice. If you don’t offer that choice, their choice will be to work for another organisation. We have to balance what our workforce wants along with keeping all our data safe. How do I give people the experience they have outside of work on work tools? We need to safeguard things, but my job is to make it as simple and minimal as possible. I don’t want to slow people down.”

As technology enables people to work remotely on a variety of devices, often logging in from home and even on holiday, it follows that technology is also changing people’s perceptions of work and play. Stevan Rolls, UK head of HR at Deloitte, sees it as “blurring the boundaries between the public and private space”. “The boundaries are so blurred and people are moving in and out of these worlds all the time,” he says. This can manifest itself in staff posting inappropriate things on social media or inadvertently breaking confidentiality clauses. “It was a lot easier when things around intellectual property were locked in a cabinet somewhere,” adds Rolls.

The fact that collaboration is seen as a positive in many organisations adds another tricky dimension. “Sharing stuff is the norm, but people come to work and we say ‘sharing via internal collaboration is great, but outside the firm it’s bad’,” says Peers. “It’s a hard message for people to adjust to. They think: ‘If I’ve created it, then why can’t I share it?’”


It’s behaviour, not technology

In short, it is more of a behavioural issue than a technological one, which naturally brings HR to the fore. Begbie believes “the lines between HR and technology are increasingly blurring, which is a powerful combination in enabling the success of a global business”. This blurring is explicit in his role at Standard Life, where he is accountable for both people and technology. Coombes states that “HR needs to be driving the charge”, citing the fact that, without HR’s expertise in internal communications, the technology function can find itself introducing tools that no one actually uses. And Begbie advises HR leaders to manage “technology implementations as change, not IT, projects”.

“Primarily, this is about people and education,” says Peers. “Technology provides the tools. HR and IT have to work very closely.” At Deloitte, Rolls says that while he relies on a strong code of conduct around IT, it can’t be enforced in the same way as many other policies are. “You have to rely on common sense,” he says. “You have to remind people without being draconian. We have a Deloitte code of conduct, which lays down a professional ethical code. You have to invest a lot in the ethical side of things. General emails about dos and don’ts just get deleted. It’s more about creating a culture of awareness. When it’s about the culture, it’s hard to have a policy.”

This is a new area for litigation (see box, left), but most experts believe it should come down to common sense and balance. “You can’t govern in the same way, with HR issuing rules and policy,” says Lawrence Knowles, vice chairman of technology at MidlandHR. Lumesse’s Bruce agrees that companies have to “balance their efforts” and “be more agile than ever, but also need governance and to control their values”. He likens this to holding an egg: “Too tight and you break it; too loose and you drop it.”

At Standard Life, security and collaboration teams report within the same area. “This provides a combined priority for both teams, focusing efforts on how to enable the business,” explains Begbie. And, rather than fear the disruption new technologies could bring, Standard Life enlists its younger, tech-savvy employees to help it understand them. “They are actively engaged in embedding new technologies and techniques,” says Begbie. “Our IT graduates present to our IT executive team on how emerging technologies can be used.” 

Automation revolution

Social media and BYOD are easy enough to understand – after all, most people use these tools every day. But beyond those, there are other developments that have the potential to disrupt the core of the HR function. Take automation, something Knowles believes people “are not getting their heads around”, with potentially dangerous consequences. Where many blue-collar jobs have been automated, hollowing out the workforce, knowledge-based jobs will surely follow.

“In white-collar roles, there is going to be a massive displacement of jobs,” he warns. “Technology is changing the business models and the requirements of jobs. Policy, procedure and practice roles will be decimated in HR. Analysts are starting to talk about this, but mainstream workers aren’t, and they need to be. There’s a huge reskilling element.”

The advance of self-service is already putting much in the hands of managers and employees, changing the role of the HR department. “We are moving to having much more empowered organisations because people are much more empowered at home,” says Toby Peyton-Jones, HR director for Siemens UK & Northern Europe. “HR has been the middle man, but we have to get out of that role and empower managers, not be the decision-point police. People are doing HR admin anywhere and anytime.”

“The job for HR is becoming a lot less about running processes and a lot more about creating the culture and environment for people to use these processes themselves,” adds Coombes. “With [real-time performance tools in place], the annual performance cycle goes away. There’s the liberation of talent management into the organisation.”

However, Rolls says his experience and conversations with his peers means he isn’t getting too carried away with the possibilities yet. “The disruptive impact of technology on HR so far is less than you might imagine,” he says. “When I talk to other HRDs, we discuss the struggles we have with out-of-date legacy systems. We can see the potential of cloud and self-service, but I don’t think they are yet having a significant impact on HR.” But looking forward, he concedes: “The experience of HR might really change and become more fluid and less about following process.”

Gerry Griffin, director of mobile learning provider Skill Pill, says the growing trend of people taking responsibility for their own administration and learning means HR’s role must change from being the “broker” to being a “sherpa”. “We are moving to a world of self service, but you wouldn’t go anywhere somewhere uncharted without a guide,” he says. “You need to turn to someone and say: ‘What’s the best way of doing this?’ HR can be that person.”

He uses the analogy of recent Tube strikes in London over the fact that ticket offices are being removed. Although staff won’t be manning ticket offices, they will still be present as guides. “That’s changing the role and is an example of this shift,” he explains. “[Transport staff] are going from being the broker to being the guide.” The role might be changing but, crucially, the human element remains. Knowles says: “There’s a huge trust element to this: who wants to get into a self-driving car and call it a taxi?”


Forecasting even further into the future, Rolls believes technology will fundamentally “blur the boundaries between the organisation and the labour market”. He claims that we will see more contingent workers, enabled by technology, with work being bid on by project teams rather than allocated.

Bruce agrees that technology is going to force organisations to change their definition of an employee. “You’ll see more and more contingent workers, with people coming together for projects, dispersing and coming back together again,” he predicts. And HR has to learn to speak the language of younger job-seekers. “Digital natives grow up with text and mobile; they have a preferred digital language that many HR people don’t speak,” Bruce adds. Companies that speak that language, for example in the way they communicate with staff and consumers and by having mobile optimised websites, will win those jobseekers.

Coombes reckons the concept of fixed jobs is already starting to go away, adding: “It’s more about recruiting people into a profile and moving them as needed.” He predicts that work will involve “extended workforces”, allowing HR teams to plan using just-in-time skills capability.

“HR needs to become more sophisticated at looking at talent pools,” he says. “How do businesses make sure these people tie up with their culture and protect the brand?” Almost 100 years ago, Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize for physics, said: “Technology has advanced more in the last 30 years than in the previous two thousand.” Today, you could probably change 30 to three. The smartphones we carry in our pockets are more powerful than the computer mainframes used in offices in the 1970s and 80s. And the pace of change isn’t likely to slow down any time soon.

“HR needs to look at itself,” concludes Coombes. “Does the function have the digital skills and understanding it needs to work in this digital reality?”

Welcome to the new normal.


Technology and the law

The great pace of change and lack of precedence mean the legal risks around new technologies, particularly in social media, are a “complete minefield”, according to Adam Hartley, partner at DLA Piper. However, case law connected to social media and the workplace is starting to offer some clues about how best to manage risk in this area.

“It doesn’t matter whether people are at home or at work, or what their privacy settings are,” says Hartley. “If someone posts something, as soon as they press send, they have lost control. The employer is then able to take action.” Examples of cases he has seen include bullying and harassment via social media, and support for inappropriate political parties.

He adds that LinkedIn, which he refers to as the modern-day version of the Rolodex, can lead to tricky situations. “If someone changes their profile to say they’ve got a new job, could they be seen to be soliciting clients? Is it confidential information? When people leave, could they be taking contacts they shouldn’t?”

Overall, companies need to be “realistic”, he says, recommending a “grown-up approach” and discussing expected behaviour. And, as things are changing all the time, policies need to be annually updated and reinforced. Acas gives the following advice on implementing rules for social media:


  • Develop a policy: Employers should include what is and what is not acceptable for general behaviour in the use at work of the internet, emails, smartphones and social media, such as networking websites, blogs and tweets. However, it might prove impractical to have an overly formal policy.
  • Screening job candidates: In particular when recruiting, employers should be careful if assessing applicants by looking at their social networking pages – this can be discriminatory and unfair.
  • Who can see your profile? Employees should regularly check the privacy settings on their social networking pages, as they can change. Also, they should consider whether they want or need co-workers to see those profiles.
  • Talk to your staff: Employers should inform and consult with their employees if planning to monitor social media activity affecting the workplace.
  • Update other policies: Policies on bullying should include references to ‘cyber bullying’.
  • Be sensitive: Employers should promote a work-life balance – the line between work and home is becoming increasingly blurred by the use of modern technology. 

Disruptive technology: an HRD view

Tim Scott, head of HR at charity Brook Young People, considers how technology is changing how he thinks about the world of work.

“Recently, I was talking to a graduate interested in a career in HR. I told him the first time I ever saw the internet was when I arrived at university, 20 years ago. It made me realise how differently the next generation of HR professionals is going to regard technology. Think about when an internet connection fails: people sit back and say they can’t do anything. Technology is part of the DNA of most people’s work and it has to be part of the HR professional’s expertise. “I have a virtual office in my mini iPad that allows me to work anywhere. Work-life balance is becoming work-life integration. People are so used to their tech that they want to use it in their work as well as their social lives, leading to BYOD.

“An organisation I worked for several years ago was horrified to see that its bandwidth was being used to access Facebook rather than work-related sites. The reaction was to ban access from work PCs. Companies don’t really have that option now, with smartphones. The really smart companies are harnessing that desire to network socially and using platforms like Yammer that allow employees to network to the benefit of the organisation.

“The democratisation of video calling means the possibilities for improving communication and reducing the amount of time and money spent travelling are endless. When I started at Brook, which runs services from Inverness to Jersey, I knew I couldn’t possibly get round every service and meet everyone. I recorded a ‘hello’ video that went on the intranet.

“There are a host of reasons some organisations aren’t engaging with new technology. Cost is always an issue, and there will always be people who are not interested in technology. I hear a lot of people say they ‘just don’t get social media’, or they don’t have time. Perhaps high-profile social media failures are putting some organisations off.

“You need a few evangelists who are keen to make the case for investment. The higher up the chain they are, the more impact they have; the braver senior management are, the more gains there are to be had. By its very nature, technology can be scary because it aims to disrupt. But the sheer pace of change around technology these days means that the head-in-the-sand approach isn’t going to cut it much longer.”

Four disruptive trends HR needs to be aware of


“We started talking about mobile a couple of years ago, but now it’s gaining massive traction,” says MidlandHR’s Lawrence Knowles. “It’s going to be extremely disruptive when applied to other technology.” According to 2013 figures, which may even now be out of date, 72% of people in the UK, and 89% of those in Generation Y, own a smartphone. Some experts predict all computing will be done on personal smart devices in future. HR needs to make sure every employee interface with HR is mobile-enabled.


Social media is so common now, it seems normal rather than disruptive, but businesses are still struggling to find real value in using it for collaboration and learning. Facebook has 1.23 billion users worldwide and Twitter has 645 million, so HR needs to engage with these tools. “Social media is pervading the workplace and making it easier for employees to exchange information and ideas online. HR will need to play a vital role in helping build organisational cultures that support this, as well as incentives and proper processes for knowledge sharing, innovation and engagement,” says Accenture’s Richard Coombes.

The cloud

Despite some scepticism, the cloud is here to stay. By 2015, end-user spending on cloud services could be more than $180 billion, according to research by Gartner. The rise of cloud technology enables more flexible working patterns and can enable entirely new business models, such as pay-as-you-go service models. “My job is to make sure IT can support HR policy,” says Deloitte’s CIO Matt Peers. “We will end up with people working for more than one organisation and having more flexibility. We will allow people to access any device, but I don’t think they’ll have anything related to the company stored on them; it will all be virtual.”


According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, automation and robotics are gathering pace. It predicts the automation of knowledge work, with computers able to understand ‘unstructured’ questions. “This opens up possibilities for sweeping change in how knowledge work is organised and performed,” it states. “Sophisticated analytics tools can be used to augment the talents of highly skilled employees and, as more knowledge-worker tasks can be done by machine, it is also possible that some jobs could become fully automated.” It cites the ‘internet of things’ (where machines can ‘talk’ to each other), advanced robotics, which could allow robots to take on service jobs, and autonomous vehicles. Which jobs could be replaced in your organisation?