Finding a balance when it comes to technology


David Frost speaks of finding a happy medium between the technology of today and that of tomorrow

Over the past 12 months, I’ve noticed that colleagues, business associates and friends are increasingly talking about technology and the pace of change. The conversation often starts when someone has taken delivery of a new electric car. ‘We’ll all be driving these eventually,’ one colleague will say, and of course we all agree. The conversation usually then moves on to when this day will come, to which the response is typically: ‘When the range improves and becomes more like a ‘normal’ car.’

But perhaps this transition will be far more rapid than we first thought. The first electric mass-market cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, had a range of around 150 miles (when driven carefully). Now just eight years later we can already buy an affordable electric car with a range of around 300 miles. It seems significant progress has already been made within a short space of time.

So what does this have to do with HR technology? Well, the rapid improvements in electric vehicle technology are a good indicator of what is possible in today’s tech-driven world and points to the human response to these technological changes.

Here’s an example of the latter: I recently attended a workshop that was facilitated by a futurologist. He asked us to simply accept as a fact that no-one will own a car in the future; we will just summon an autonomous electric vehicle on our smartphone when we need to get somewhere. The silent reaction in the room was interesting; the futurologist said that our emotional reaction to his suggestion would have been just the same if he had said to a group of people 100 years earlier that their horses would be replaced with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

So when it comes to HR, how aware are we of the technology opportunities available today and the impact they could have on the organisation? How aware are we of how tech is likely to advance? How in tune are we with the cultural impact of the changes that will come?

In a recent HR magazine webinar entitled ‘Embracing a future of AI and automation: HR’s role’, over 43% of participants polled said that their organisation is not prepared for potentially dramatic technology-driven change, and over 46% responded that HR is not sophisticated at all in terms of automating processes. This suggests there is huge unlocked potential in HR for improving service, performance and productivity. It also suggests HR needs to increase its understanding of technological change if it wants to be able to influence and support the entire organisation. So how can HR do this?

During a recent visit to one of Accenture’s technology innovation centres, I was presented with the concepts of ‘Go Digital’ and ‘Be Digital’. Go Digital refers to the concept of completely redefining your business or service so that it solely resides on a digital platform. This is straightforward for a start-up but more complex and challenging to introduce in a traditional, long-established organisation. Be Digital, on the other hand, refers to the concept of embracing digital technology to improve the current business or service model.

I have taken the pragmatic view that it is unlikely that an established HR function will Go Digital. Instead, I believe the right balance is to Be Digital. The first step towards creating a Be Digital HR function is education of the team. Developing a practical understanding of AI, blockchain and analytics (among other technologies) will enable HR to grasp the technological possibilities and future trends.

Then the next step is to carefully consider what problems HR is trying to solve. Is it a better understanding of people data to support the business, in order to create a more efficient recruitment process, enable succession planning or build engagement? With a focus on specific problems, appropriate technological solutions can be considered as part of the overall solution.

Here, the HR function evolves towards Being Digital and team members learn and develop their understanding along the way. Then, as the culture of the function evolves towards embracing technology, the fear of losing the horse and adopting the engine evaporates, and HR becomes well-placed to educate and support the wider organisation.

David Frost is organisational development director at Total Produce

This piece featured in our recent Futureproofing versus present practicalities technology supplement. Read the full supplement here