Talent Management

Has Technology Weakened HR?

Picture: 周小逸 Ian : Flickr
12 May 2016

This seems somewhat of an odd statement to make in todays technology obsessed world – surely HR technology has allowed People practitioners to greatly improve efficiency by reducing manual and paper-based activities, improving data access & reporting, reducing errors, helping employees make better decisions and ensuring compliance to policy and procedure.

This is of course true at a transaction level, but herein lies the problem. The way vendors have generally designed HR technology is not an accurate reflection of how professional HR and Talent managers think, nor does it signal an understanding of the complexities in Professional HR Management. In fact the slicing-up of HR into different software modules along ‘logic’ and ‘transaction’ lines of thinking has created and perpetuates the view that HR is simply a set of somewhat loosely interrelated basic transactions.

And surely that can’t be too difficult to get right! ah, yeah!  But yet time and time again we see HR functions under attack for poor performance and low value contribution. With these perceptions abound, no wonder there is doubt among some C-levels that HR is needed.

If only HR Management was so simple and logical. But it isn’t. There are a significant amount of people dimensions used by HR professionals which are not logically inclined or lend themselves to be developed into a ‘transaction’, let alone a software module. Think about important people management facets such as ‘Ethics’ , ‘Style’, ‘Diversity’ and ‘Values’ – these are key HR influences in achieving particular strategic business outcomes, and they are fundamentally intertwined into such things as learning, performance, development, communication and knowledge sharing. But they are ‘non-existing pieces’ in the HR software puzzle.

This is not a jibe at HR Software vendors. In fact some vendors clearly understand the impact of these gaps and are working hard to address them. Particularly those vendors who are focused on superior technical integration between modules.

They realize that while they have in many cases reduced HR to modular transactions to make it easy for end users, they also understand that the all-important ‘HR complexity value factor’ is partly resolved when effective and seamless integration across these modules occurs. The combination of modular interaction offers some support in achieving strategic HR objectives. Keep going vendors, there is lots more to do in this space!

HR Technology has inadvertently contributed to a weakening of professional HR outputs, but the finger should however point directly at the HR leader who has allowed the function to be reduced to a set of modules and transactions.

It’s an easy way out for poor performing HR leaders, and provides an opportunity to shift the blame onto technology. Professional HR management is not an easy job, in fact it is highly complex, with over 40 major elements or activities being continuously juggled to produce desired business outputs. Those that are successful also understand how HR technology should be used and positioned to enable people to achieve great things.

Do you have an opinion on this?

Is your HR Technology adding value?

Most of the time, if you ask any HR leader to explain how HR technology is contributing to the achievement of business goals you get a somewhat perplexed expression, supported by an eloquent explanation which suggests it’s being conveniently ignored because it’s too difficult or not practical. Alternatively they reference the vendors marketing rhetoric which promise share-price improvements that would get Warren Buffett excited!

But HR is changing

It’s moving out of the administrative and transactional mould that has defined it for decades, and whilst the transition is often very slow and painful to watch, there are many organisations whose executives are maturing in their understanding of the unique value that HR functions can offer, and their direct contribution to business goals and strategy achievement. HR professionals can’t hide behind the mystique of psychology anymore; they need to show direct linkage from what they do and the outcomes it creates, including the role of HR Technology.

HR leaders are far more business savvy too, they will rattle off their business goals, they are succinct in articulating the meaning of value for their organisations, they understand cost, growth, quality and risk drivers, and they are familiar with industry and global issues, opportunities and constraints.  So what’s the problem – why are so many HR leaders resistant to show how the performance of HR Technology has or could advance the business objectives and strategies?

Addressing the problem

Some of the answer to this question may lie in previous bad experiences with “template” measurement frameworks such as the Balanced Scorecard. These tools are often introduced as off-the-shelf “best practice” which generally lead to disappointing outcomes. It’s the one reason that I loathe HRM software vendors pushing a “best practice” mantra. HR leaders wrongly believe the hard work related to measuring their HR Tech value contribution has been done for them. It can never be true – your objectives, environment and how you want to achieve your business outcomes using HR Technology are absolutely unique. You need to do the hard, detailed work yourself.

Another reason is simply lack of know-how and practice. Most HR professionals have a social science background which engenders greater qualitative rather than quantitative focus. That’s not an excuse of course, learning how to build a causal-effect model which shows where HR Technology is leveraged, is not difficult~ it just takes some practice and adherence to some basic principles such as:

  • Making sure your selected measures are strategic and aligned to company goals
  • Not making assumptions about the cause-effect relationships. You need to test it and prove its validity
  • Setting realistic targets, not everything needs to be 100%
  • Having clear ownership of the measure. Someone who is passionate about achieving a business outcome, and is constantly tweaking the framework
  • Being practical – don’t overcook the requirements or the data needed
  • Telling your story. Contextualize the results and explain what it means in business terms

By way of a simplified graphical example, I recently had the opportunity to help a client think through a cause-effect model for “Innovation” – one of their strategic business objectives. The HR director wanted to explain how their HR technology was directly contributing and supporting this objective. When we finished the model, it became very easy to explain how this would be achieved. A key learning for the client was to link the HR Technology to “drivers” rather than the performance areas.

I’ll point out again that proving the “cause-effect” (performance areas in graphic below) is critical to establishing credibility. For example, my client had to validate that “Empathy for client’s needs” really did cause “Enthusiasm & Engagement” in their environment. Once that was established the drivers for performance were identified and agreed, and HR was able to determine which HR Technology was required and how it would be used to deliver measurable outcomes.

exampleOf course there is a lot more work and involvement from other business functions behind this simple graphic, but hopefully it’s apparent that with some careful thought and focus, the real value of HR Technology can be measured and explained. Your next business case for HR Technology funding should be much easier to achieve if you have this in place!

So HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics – get over it!

photo credit: All rights reserved by shellydelight – Flikr

updated March 2016

It started as a jovial discussion with some office colleagues about the “Meaning of Life” – that yet unanswered question which has plagued human kind since the beginning of our existence. Naturally we considered all unconventional opinions such as that of Monty Python,

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything = 42”

and to the more serious, such as concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl’s resolve to  “Having a sense of purpose that keeps your eyes on meaningful goals ahead” and general theological views which purport “To love and serve your god, and love and serve others”

But it didn’t take long before the flavour of the conversation became focussed on People…. more so the people in the workforce. We found ourselves asking a singular and fundamental question:

“WHY DOES HR EXIST?”

It’s a profound question that may have been asked before, but probably not simply answered.

In trying to answer the question our natural HR instincts lead us to describe HR activities – you know, the tons of things HR gets involved with in-between “Hiring & Firing” such as recruitment, talent development, learning, administration, workforce planning, comp & benefits, strategy etc. We raised our discussion to a “People Impact” and “Value through people” view which got us a little closer, but we were still unable to reach consensus on the proverbial question.

I reached out to my good mate Lyle Cooper, who likes to ponder difficult HR questions. He reminded me that “No person has been able to absolutely define and therefore control human behaviour”- he makes it a life-rule to run as fast as he can from anyone who claims to have a definitive answer about people, culture, life, afterlife etc.

Lyle’s point really goes to the heart of social (or human) sciences, the basis for much of what HR does, in that they are not perfect sciences. No matter how hard we try, we are not going to create the perfect performance management environment, a perfect engagement model or the ultimate user experience.

And it was this point that reminded me of the ongoing debate among mathematicians about the answer to the mathematical statement 00 (zero raised to the power of zero). The arguments as to whether the answer is 1(one), 0(zero) or indeterminate are excruciatingly painful to read and understand (especially if you are not a mathematician like me).

But while there are extreme views, most mathematicians agree  that  00 = 1 is preferable, as it is more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians.

“The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice”, is resoundingly similar to the “lack-of-evidence” and “soft & fluffy” disputes HR finds itself embroiled in.

So, while not perfect in any way, my response to the question “WHY DOES HR EXIST?” is “00. It fits perfectly with mathematician’s dilemma.   Business functions and HR professionals are unlikely to ever agree on a common reason for HR’s existence, but by accepting 00  = 1, HR professionals are able to move forward. HR will make validity concessions, builds faulty frameworks, creates imperfect processes and design software to support an imperfect business environment – and that’s okay!

One day we may find that much of what HR is doing is wrong, in the same way many mathematical assumptions may be questioned if and when someone conclusively proves what the answer to 00 is. But until it’s proved otherwise, let HR execute its stuff…its time to stop focusing on the equation!

HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics (and therefor finance, procurement and operations management) – the next time someone challenges  your HR framework, assumptions or software choices, be sure to remind them that the meaning of HR = 00.

Rob Scott is the Global Lead: HR Strategy and Innovation for Presence of IT, A global HR,Talent, Payroll and WFM consultancy.

Retailing outsourcing and Banking “deals”: Two of a (bad) kind

bangla4

It didn’t take much time after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) for the truth to emerge – that at the heart of the GFC lay greed for organisational and personal financial gain, and that those organisations were happy to do this at the expense of anything or anyone. The aftermath saw a lot of anger from governments, up and downstream suppliers as well as the general population, who lost jobs, livelihoods, lives and reputations.

 

 

“One would have expected that organisations would learn from these mistakes, even if they were not in the financial services industry but clearly they didn’t. The likes of Coles, Target, Cotton on and many more have once again been blinded by greed.”

 

The retail industry has done something just as bad in my view. They were prepared to hang innocent and desperate people out to dry, and in this case have blood on their hands with the death of many people from the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013. The collapse of the illegally built factory claimed the lives of more than 1,000 workers. This was the clothing retail industries equivalent of the GFC except we can now rename it the “Global Fabric Catastrophe

 

The reaction from retailers has been sickening. To try and cover up the facts and to suggest that the supply chain executives and others were not remotely aware of the physical conditions of employment  which the garments were being produced under, and the wages the employees were earning were not nearly commensurate with the work effort, is an insult to our intelligence. How can retailers believe a monthly salary of $69 for a sewing machine worker, who lives in a single room apartment with her family and shares 4 toilets amongst 100 people, is proper and fair? It’s blatant exploitations, and comes pretty close to slavery.

 

The reality is that if the human disaster did not happen, the plight of these people making the garments would not have been exposed. And just like the financial crisis of 2008, the industry would have continued to feed its greed through new schemes and deals at the expense of anyone.

 

One has to ask what role the HR functions of these organisations played. I would love to know if any one of the HR executives or CHRO’s from these organisations believe they and the HR function are to blame in any way for this calamity. My best guess is that they won’t see the relationship between HR and this event. That’s because their level of HR Maturity is low and they are not a real strategic player in any sense, even though they have an executive seat.

 

The fact that a culture of greed was not identified and properly managed and influenced by HR and others is indicative of the reality that most so-called “Strategic HR” functions are not strategic nor business focussed at all. I wonder if the local organisations would allow their own staff to live under such conditions as the people in Bangladesh – clearly not, but yet HR allowed its “extended” workforce to live in misery, and capitulated in all respects around fairness, quality of work environment, health and safety and its moral obligations to fellow human beings.

 

Dealing with HR and business maturity is becoming a priority. How many more disasters do we need to go through in other industries before we understand that making a profit and giving returns to shareholders is fine, but not at the expense of people and in this case their lives.

 

The Clash of the (Social) Titans is Near

2012 ushered in a new era for HR software solutions. It will be a year that we saw some really big deals going down as the big boys of the ERP world manoeuvred themselves into  strategic positions within the cloud ecosystem. The writing was on the wall and vendors that didn’t have a cloud based solution and strategy (or at least claim they had one) were likely to  face some difficult times financially and competitively over the next three years.

With the advent of HR cloud based tool, we also saw the introduction of social and gamifcation layers being added directly into these new products. Not just as optional extra’s, but often forming the epi-centre of the product driver. Particularly in areas such as Performance Management, where communication and discussion needs between employee and manager were ripe for something new to spur what was typically a dismal failure in most organisations.

As society was settling down to the acceptance of social media as a legitimate means of sharing knowledge, ideas generation and general chin-wags in the work environment, the HR vendors saw the gap to add this functionality into their solutions to drive out better HR and Talent management. And the good thing is it works ~ you have to be prepared to adapt your work environment, leadership styles and accept that the control that was prevalent in hierarchical organisations may not work in a social environment, but if you get that right, there is a lot of good stuff that HR can do. That’s not the problem!

Who owns the social layer?

While the HR vendors were thinking about how to leverage social layers within their products, the Enterprise social guru’s were making strong headway into major organisations. Tools like Yammer have moved many organisations into a new ‘Knowledge Management” and information sharing era – building stronger communities and starting to see good paybacks on tacit knowledge lying wasted around in their staff’s grey matter.This is good too!

So what happens when Mr HR Director goes ahead and purchases a subscription to a new cloud based HR solution that also uses a proprietary social layer tool?  The reality is that many of these tools rely on the end-user using the solutions social layer, not a third party tool. OK, well having more than one social tool is not a big deal, I hear you say, we have more than one in our private lives like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin, so things should work out.

This is where I think the proverbial paw-paw hits the fan and it’s going to get worse. If I look at the emergence of other cloud tools in the Finance, Rostering & Scheduling, Procurement and other business areas~ many of these tools are integrating proprietary social layers into their products just like the HR vendors, and they all have an expectation that you need to use the SM layer.

If I’m a user of the Finance tool and use its social layer, I might find that I’m having to repeat my knowledge post, great idea, message of recognition or piece of gossip on the HR tool – that’s of course if I remember to do that when I next use the HR tool. Not to mention the owners of the Enterprise Social layer who will be putting pressure on all employees to share and discuss on the corporate system. Then of course there is the confusion of whether I said something via email or on a social layer, or was it perhaps a text message.

Who will win the battle?

Maybe someone will come up with a clever technology layer that can plug into all these new emerging social tools embedded within discreet products to help manage the data flow and curb the likely confusion and risks. Until then I can see a number of battles taking place, with someone loosing and someone winning. The looser unfortunately may also see value disappear  from their beloved cloud solution. What we should acknowledge is that custodianship of the social tools is not an HR right!

I think we will be seeing a bit of fur flying in 2013 – a good thing in my view. Its the only way we will see the need for something new to help us manage our changing work places.

Let me know your views.