Human Capital interacted with Bernard Marr, a futurist, bestselling author and strategic advisor to understand which technology trends will soon become core to business survival and innovation. Bernard also discusses how COVID-19 has dramatically sped up the intelligence revolution that was already underway, how data-rich HR functions can illuminate business-critical insights, and why turning every HR professional into a data analyst might not work well.
Over the last few months, what are some of the surprising changes you’ve seen in the attitude and approach of HR functions towards the uptake of technologies connected to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) or, as you aptly call it, the “Intelligence Revolution”?
We entered the fourth industrial revolution, which promised mass-scale disruption through digital technology, even before the COVID19 crisis. What we have seen following the global coronavirus pandemic is a massive acceleration in digital transformation.
Organisations across the world had to suddenly adjust by letting their employees work from home, and many had to rethink their operations to automate business processes where possible. This has fast-tracked many digital transformation projects that might have been on the horizon but suddenly, due to necessity, had to be turned into reality. This has massively changed attitudes towards digital transformation as it became clear that companies that don’t innovate and leverage the latest digital technology will simply be left behind.
HR leaders around the world are trying to make sense of the dizzying pace of today’s technological advances, as disruptions are coming from all angles. What are some of the top tech trends that will change HR forever?
I see five megatrends that will have a massive impact on how businesses and HR functions operate. These are artificial intelligence, robotic automation, cloud computing, 5G, and extended reality.
The first, and by far the most important, is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In your first question, you mentioned that I don’t like to talk about the fourth industrial revolution and instead prefer the phrase ‘intelligence revolution’. The reason for this is that I believe AI sits at the foundation of many of the other mega tech trends today. Artificial intelligence allows us to provide smarter and more personalised services, understand our customers much better, create smarter business processes, and make more use of the ever-growing volumes of data that businesses now have access to.
The second is robotic automation, which includes robotic process automation, a tool that will help transform and streamline many HR processes. We now have increasingly intelligent robots, be they physical machines or software robots, that enable machines to take on many jobs that require humans today.
The third trend is the cloud computing revolution that has given rise to the ‘as-a-service’ economy. Cloud solutions allow companies and HR teams to access AI as a service (AIaaS). Many of the leading HR applications, for example, have already integrated AI into their offerings. The as-a-service revolution also allows companies to access robots as a service (RaaS), and hire anything from physical reception robots to chatbot tools whenever they need them.
The fourth trend is the next generation of mobile internet (5G) and overall faster networks. This will enable organisations to access and process data anywhere and will give us speed and reliable connections that are superior to the fiberoptic lines we have in our offices and homes.
And finally, we have extended reality, which includes virtual, augmented and mixed reality applications. We are seeing applications from virtual job interviews to test-driving your job in VR, as well as improving virtual training.
All of these trends have been accelerated, and HR teams should get to know them and explore what these tech trends could offer to them.
What are some successful applications of technology in HR?
I have seen tools increasingly being rolled out to better measure, analyse and report HR data. Also, many existing HR applications are being upgraded with AI capabilities to help companies gain more value from their data.
The way Unilever uses AI is one of my favourite examples. The company has automated its recruitment processes and employee onboarding. AI evaluates job applications, analyses online skills assessments and even conducts video interviews.
What is interesting is that the adoption of AI has not only delivered big savings but has made the recruitment process less biased. It has created a more diverse workforce and has improved the satisfaction levels of applicants, who all now receive proper feedback on why their application was or wasn’t successful.
Today, people-related data is everywhere, and it is growing ever more enormous. As a renowned strategic advisor to governments and companies around the world, you must have witnessed cases of HR teams crunching the wrong data, which led to poor business decisions. Could you share some examples?
That is very true. I find that too many HR teams still rely on very traditional data sets collected via old-fashioned ways such as annual surveys and manual data inputs. These methods often create biased, skewed data sets that give organisations the wrong insights.
Many HR teams tend to collect data that is most easily collected instead of the things that matter the most. I see organisations measuring turnover instead of the reasons behind turnover, or measuring training hours per employee instead of the value of that training.
HR teams should define their real strategic data needs first and then look for the best ways to collect the most relevant data in the right way. So, instead of running an annual staff engagement survey, data should be collected more frequently so that HR teams and decision-makers get continuous insight into how their employees are feeling. This also allows the people in the organisation to discuss and address issues on a regular basis, rather than wait for 12 months to pass before any new insights are created.
What, then, are some of the ways in which HR can put data to good effect and extract meaningful, value-adding insights?
The best HR teams use data to inform strategic decision-making. This should start with identifying the biggest HR challenges and the biggest unanswered questions. From there, you can explore how data might help address these challenges and answer the most important questions. This varies a lot from one HR team to another, and from one organisation to another.
One HR team might want to improve its recruitment processes and, therefore, analyse which channels work best and how to make the process more efficient and effective. In another organisation, the biggest challenge might be staff engagement or identifying and closing particular skills gaps.
If skill development is the challenge, then conducting a skills gap analysis might be the starting point, followed by a training assessment to measure how well it has helped to close the skills gap.
If engagement is the issue, then maybe conducting regular pulse surveys and analysing employee sentiment might be a good starting point, followed by the analysis of the new staff engagement processes.
A recent global LinkedIn study shines a spotlight on people analytics as a major workforce trend to watch in 2020. The interesting finding is that 55 percent of surveyed HR professionals said they “still need help putting basic people analytics into practice.” What skill sets are needed in HR teams to ensure the success of people analytics within their organisations, and how can they build these skill sets?
I have worked with many HR practitioners around the globe, and my experience is that the majority of people who are interested in people management don’t share the same passion for data, analytics, and number crunching.
I think a good starting point would be to acknowledge that and then figure out the best ways to improve the people analytics skills. Simply turning every HR professional into a data analyst is not going to work.
When I work with HR teams, we often tackle it in the following ways:
♦ We improve data literacy for everyone in HR by helping them understand the increasingly important role of data in HR.
♦ We create a dedicated HR analytics team, which is often a hybrid team of HR people interested in data, as well as data scientists or data analysts. In many cases, some analytics support can also be provided by external analytics service providers or by a centralised analytics function within the organisation.
It is heartening to see many organisations deal with the challenges of a pandemic by stepping up to the plate with a change in mindset towards holistic employee well-being. How can technology help improve the effectiveness of wellness programs?
I very much agree! Technology is a powerful enabler that should help people do their jobs better.
For a start, technology is enabling more people to work from home, giving many a better worklife balance and more flexibility. On top of that, there are now many apps and tools such as wearable fitness trackers that will help individuals live a healthier, more relaxed, and balanced life. These include health management platforms, relaxation apps, employee recognition systems, and much more.
What are the factors that the HR function needs to be mindful of when trying to stay grounded on its human aspects while making the most of technology tools?
It is vital never to forget the true purpose of HR teams, which is to help and support the people in their organisations.
Technology should not be deployed for technology’s sake, and it should not be used to cut costs to the detriment of service delivery. The main purpose of technology is to make everyone’s life easier.
If we start with the core purpose of HR, and then explore how technology and data can be used to deliver that service better and more efficiently, then HR teams can’t go wrong.
Do you look forward to permanently working from home after the pandemic subsides?
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