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HR technology: It's not about people versus machines

Technology and HR shouldn't be viewed as a binary war between two worlds; rather technology is about enhancing our lives

Most people would agree that HR technologies will have an increasingly significant role in people management. New tools are helping with, for example, managing employee communication, engagement, recognition, work wellness, online learning, time and attendance, goal setting and management, employee communication, feedback and engagement, crowd sourcing and gamification.

Data analytics is becoming more prevalent, and it includes analytics driven science-based solutions, talent analytics, data-driven people decisions, candidate sourcing, leadership assessment tools, managing customer expectations... and the list goes on.

Having shifted some years ago from being a computer scientist to behavioural scientist, I keep wondering why we keep seeing headlines such as 'People vs machines,' 'The War Against Humans and Technology Rages On' or 'Humans vs Machines: Match Made in Heaven or Oil and Water.' I have seen many debates at conferences where it was discussed who will win, people or robots?

The future is not about people vs machines, it is about people and machines collaborating in harmony, with complementary strengths and weaknesses in the context of intelligent organisational design. This is not about the war between two worlds; technology was created by people to enhance their lives.

Computers are not good at asking the right questions, they cannot explain why they made a certain decision, they cannot make sense of unstructured data, they do not have intuition, they cannot grasp the concept of paradox and they cannot leverage the benefits of team work. Overall, they can augment human intelligence by processing a large quantity of interpretable data and improving decision making. Or they can make some tasks easier and more convenient. The technology is no more than a facilitator.

Assuming it is used correctly, technology should not be feared. The right tools should become part of high performing organisational cultures. However, just tools are not enough. The mindset of leaders and employees and organisational context will impact the motivation to use tools and reap their benefits.

For some progressive workplaces, using technology resembles an experimental laboratory. For others, there might be a need for a more stable and reliable way of delivering an existing product or service to the desired standard. In any case, the health of the human community is just as important.

So while the non-scientifically trained population does need to stay abreast of all technological developments,and that includes employees using HR systems, it is at least as important that the technology developers stay in touch with research on organisations and society. The breakthrough findings on social neuroscience and the nature of high-performing organisations should impact how we approach implementing technology.

The old, static, formal office is disappearing in many sectors, to be replaced with more mobile teams of people. Managers will have to be much better communicators and motivators, unable to rely on implicit fear and ‘command and control.' The workplace will become more diverse in every sense, whether it's gender, age or ethnic diversity.

There is a discrepancy between what technology can do and what mindset, organisational culture and organisational design the majority of organisations have. To get the most out of technology, we need a mindset focused on collaboration, purpose, transparency, openness, people development, communities, interaction, ubiquitous communication, distribution of power and decision-making. Companies that get this will get the most out of technology too.

In traditionally managed organisations, based on hierarchical command and control and top down communication and decision making, technology will not be fully utilised. People will use it as they are told by their managers to use it, communication will be mainly top down, trust and transparency will be low, and the full potential of technology will not be fully utilised.

The answer to getting the best out of technology is, first and foremost, about getting the best out of people. The reason new technological tools sometimes frustrate is that we haven’t always modernised our management approaches in line with advances in technology, leading to intelligent IT, but unintelligent organisational design and outdated management practices. If management is poor, and system developers are not communicating well with product designers and the marketing team, the atmosphere in the workplace will be tense and customers dissatisfied.

As I have been writing extensively in the last few years, organisational design and management approaches need a major shift, away from a narrow focus on the bottom line, transactions, costs and resources and short-term profit maximisation, towards strategic alignment of all stakeholders' needs, encompassing an understanding of an organisation as a living community, that operates best when people are empowered.

This new philosophy based on humanising organisations will get the best out of people. It will then also get the best out of technology. Using the right tools should become part of high performing organisational cultures. But tools are not enough.

Vlatka Hlupic is professor of business and management at Westminster Business School and CEO of The Management Shift Consulting