Yet human curiosity continues to accelerate the speed of technological change, and HR is one of the business areas experiencing some of the most rapid advances.
Deployment of new technology has gone through three phases: automate what you currently do; do what the technologists think is 'cool'; and identify the core power of the new technology and make it work for you. Although different organisations are in different phases of deployment, there are some general patterns.
Phase one: automation
The year 2000 saw the major adoption of web technology to automate HR processes like performance management. That continues with over 75% of all new people management implementations still automating pre-existing manual processes such as goal cascading and episodic narrative performance appraisals. Those manual processes are based largely on 1950s' theories of human interactions and are compromises reflecting the limitations of manual tools. So, it is almost inevitable that automation fails to produce hoped for benefits; they merely speed up or simplify inadequate processes.
Phase two: follow the 'experts'
Organisations soon realise these shortcomings and look for something better; they look to capitalise on the new technology but often don't know how. So, they look to the 'experts', the technologists. Unfortunately, most technologists are not psychologists, behaviourists or HR professionals. Organisations become overwhelmed by demonstrations that are truly awesome. However, that does not mean that the tools are effective, efficient, add value or further the cause of HR.
During phase two, many initially 'cool' features rapidly become tiresome and eventually kill repeat-usage. This can lead to unskilled users misunderstanding data and making invalid and irreversible decisions. The failure list is endless but we all seem to have to go through this painful learning. HR is currently in the thick of phase two; HR technologists are in the driving seat.
Phase three: making it work for you
But phase three has already started for some organisations where HR has invested time and learnt the two real powers of contemporary technology: data management and behaviour engineering. Those organisations are regaining control and, over the next few years, more HR professionals will become tech-savvy adding value to their employers.
Phase three will see technology used to increase the quality of data at source ensuring that it is comprehensive, valid, reliable, differentiating, useful and defensible. For example, using adaptive data collection tools, providing real-time feedback to users on data entry and applying post-collection standardisation to reduce bias.
We will see technology used to enhance intelligence, not merely the quantity of data. For example, integration of datasets such as competency assessments and objective operational measures of performance will enable validation of competency model hypotheses, predictive analytics will foretell attrition, assessment of potential will become a reality and we may even be able to collect more intelligence on our competitors' talent than they do.
We will also see widespread behaviour engineering. Data will be used, via the many different human-technology interfaces (mobile, social media etc), to trigger, reinforce, apply consequences to, record and analyse human behaviour. If you don't believe that technology can engineer behaviour, try to put down your smartphone and the TV remote tonight.
New technologies will throw us back into phase one or two multiple times. Tools that may do this include the likes of location awareness (knowing where employees are, who they are with and what they are doing), gamification and augmented reality (gaming tools to engage people in otherwise uninteresting or complex processes), visualisation (to bring data and processes to life visually), user controlled experience design (to enable users to design their own interfaces and experiences), adaptive interfaces (recognising the user, understanding their skills and preferences and adapting their experiences accordingly), and true predictive analytics (alerting the user to things about themselves or others that they may not even be consciously aware of).
True HR professionals are going to educate themselves in three critically important areas. Firstly, technology tools, knowing what they are and the underlying power that they bring so that they can better understand how to use them. Secondly, data analysis and interpretation tools so that they can draw valid intelligence from the morass of data. And, thirdly, the three phases through which each technology goes so that they can minimise the cost and/or damage associated with phases one and two.
Clinton Wingrove is executive VP at Pilat HR Solutions