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HR must improve its digital understanding


In her CIPD conference keynote Martha Lane Fox spoke on the opportunities, dangers and diversity challenges of tech

HR must improve its digital understanding to take control of technology and shape the kind of future it wants to see, according to Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com, Twitter board member, digital enfranchisement champion and cross-bench peer.

Delivering the keynote at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition 2017, Lane Fox spoke on the need for all members of society to improve their understanding of the digital world in order to ensure technology is working for them, to protect their data, and to help improve access for those still digitally disenfranchised.

She defined digital understanding as “the ability to be curious and questioning of the technology you’re using all of the time". For HR it’s about “how am I allowing my co-workers to use technology? How am I thinking about how robots might affect my industry and allow people to work more flexibly?” she said.

Technology presents a huge opportunity to improve people’s working lives, said Lane Fox. She quoted McKinsey research that found that if the average employee fully used all the tools already available to them they “would get 50% more done in their daily jobs".

“So tomorrow you could make your working life more productive, and probably more fun, if you just used the tools available right now,” she said.

Lane Fox also warned, however, of the potentially negative fallout of rapid adoption of tech and digital innovation. “It’s time we stood back and thought about this incredible force that’s been unleashed into the world,” she said. “All of these positive things have been combined with really complex challenges. Are we OK with how Amazon pays its factory workers [for example]? How do we feel about Deliveroo and how it treats cyclists? How do we feel about the high street and it being under technological threat?”

She added: “It’s a challenge and a complex issue and one we are a long way from facing, but it’s so important… I see this absolute lack of understanding about technology.”

Lane Fox urged the HR audience to realise that keeping up with technology is a never-ending task. “We have to constantly keep learning; the thing about technology is you never know it all,” she said, adding, regarding herself: “If you think you’re looking at an expert you’re wrong. I’m scrabbling like everyone to keep abreast of the changes.”

This rapid pace of change means HR directors shouldn’t necessarily be looking to hire HR staff with specific technical skills, said Lane Fox. “I wouldn’t be looking for the most technical people because the skills will be outdated within the next year,” she explained. Instead the HR skillset must evolve to focus on “resilience, entrepreneurship and curiosity about the world, because those are the characteristics I don’t think will ever be out of demand,” she said.

Lane Fox stressed the importance of HR pushing for much greater diversity in tech. “I can’t believe we have replicated the hierarchies of the old industries,” she said regarding the sector’s gender balance. “The tech sector didn’t even exist 30 years ago [but has still replicated the gender imbalance of much older sectors].

“We will develop much worse products if we don’t have a diverse workforce,” Lane Fox stated, citing the example of Apple’s health app which, when first launched, included no functionality around periods, pregnancy or the menopause for example, because it was developed by an all-male team.

Lane Fox urged HR to be constantly “in sales mode” around such issues, and in pushing the envelope around digital opportunities – and on future-gazing opportunities in general. “In life you’re always on a sales mission, especially if you’re looking to the future,” she said. “You have to be bold and bring people with you when they are not sure what the future might look like.”

She ended her keynote speech by entreating HR to realise technology doesn’t control people; rather they control technology. Humans must take control to shape the kind of future they would like to see technology deliver, she said.

“It’s happening so we need to own it and drive it in a direction we feel proud of as humans,” Lane Fox concluded.