Why digital transformation programmes need HR to succeed

“I need to do more, with less,” said every business leader ever. With such a single-minded top priority, the temptation to automate at speed and scale is overwhelming. But it’s not the only answer and if you want to avoid ending up doing less with more, it’s increasingly important that you adopt a people-first approach.

The impact of automation

Successfully rolling out enterprise-wide automation is complex - not least because one in two jobs could be affected, according to the OECD. So if you want to be one of the progressive businesses creating billions of additional hours of worker value (Gartner) through Artificial Intelligence, then first take the time to develop a winning workplace transformation strategy, including, an ‘HR Plus’ team drawn from learning and development (L&D), HR and talent functions. 

Such teams have helped to drive people-led transformations at some of the world’s largest organisations, such as at Airbus, where learning and development has grown to become a key cultural linchpin. By implementing a yearly ‘Resource Review’ of internal competencies, skills and job roles, publishing a report of this to improve employee awareness and by pursuing a ‘growth mindset’ that promotes a proactive learning culture, Airbus is encouraging employees to take ownership of their own development. This actively ensures employees are ready for present and future challenges with development programmes that pre-empt the inevitable evolution of job roles brought about by automation. 

It’s a high stakes game – and this is reflected by who owns these kinds of programmes. According to research from The Economist, automation is the responsibility of a C-level executive at 84 per cent of organisations – most often the Chief Technology Officer (29 per cent). Consequently, considerations about the overall impact on the workforce happens too late in the process.

“Our research shows that out of all the core departments, HR teams are least likely to be involved in decisions on investing in and implementing new technology,” says Johnny Gifford, Senior Research Advisor at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), the UK’s professional body for HR. “This is a significant oversight.”

The people behind the machines

Digital transformations are a team sport, requiring functional, innovation, IT and people leaders. An organisation taking its digital agenda seriously needs a game plan that brings these teams together, encourages their strategic collaboration and enables them to execute on the plan. This means assessing not only where the opportunity is, but also assessing which functions are candidates for transformation now, and which need to be addressed up to five years from now.

“Organisations must start to realise that transformation always needs to be workforce-driven, and it’s therefore essential that the HR department plays an important role. HR leaders need to step up and work alongside their counterparts in IT to ensure that organisations take a holistic approach to transformation,” says Geoff Smith, Executive Director, Capita Resourcing in The Case for Workforce-Led Transformation.

“Organisations must start to realise that transformation always needs to be workforce-driven, and it’s therefore essential that the HR department plays an important role”

If HR does not engage while the pace of change is relatively slow and the workforce is largely unaffected, the risks are amplified when that pace of change ramps up. To adapt and effect change, “HR leaders must hone their skills as both technology users and technology enablers,” says Holly Burkett, Ph.D., SPHR in a blog for the Human Resources Certification Institute. “HR functions that can harness and deploy new forms of technology in their talent management strategies will be better prepared to help their business leaders grow the skills needed to drive innovation, high performance and operational excellence.”

Championing a tech-friendly culture

Another crucial consideration factor is the need for a resilient internal culture that can sustain large-scale change, because it is the workforce that will help execute the strategy. For example, at HubSpot automation is positioned not as a possible threat to jobs, but rather as a liberator that can automate menial tasks that don’t add-value and free up employees to work on more meaningful projects. In a recent interview with Silicon Republic, Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at HubSpot, noted “it’s imperative that as we adopt automation, we use it to make human processes better.” 

Where automation takes away the most mundane, repetitive tasks and moves the workforce towards higher-value activities, it is imperative that employees view the changes positively. HR has a key role to play here, marshalling change management and internal communications functions effectively, not only to reassure those who are affected but also to ensure there are no unintended consequences for those who are not. 

“Moreover, HR needs to actively shape, measure and tune organisational culture to ensure automation projects are successful,” says Mike Bertolino, Global Leader, EY People Advisory Services and co-author of Future Workplace: How to Automate Intelligently . “High on HR leaders’ agendas should be developing ongoing programs to establish a culture that champions continuous improvement and, within each individual, a personal growth mindset.”

“HR needs to actively shape, measure and tune organisational culture to ensure automation projects are successful”

The digital treasure hunt

Access to talent that can develop and implement digital transformation programmes remains a challenge for organisations – a recent EY survey of 200 senior leaders found that 56 per cent of respondents see talent shortages as the single biggest barrier to implementing Artificial Intelligence into business operations. 

It’s a competitive hiring environment for recruiting and retaining such talent and rapidly increasing salaries are compounding this further. Many forward-looking HR functions have begun to hire raw talent from non-traditional backgrounds or are sourcing it internally.

Re-skilling workers whose roles are becoming redundant can present a goldmine of opportunity to fill the tech skills gap in the short-term. To plug such gaps, Unilever, the transnational consumer goods company, identified six digital-first skills and behaviours it believed were critical for employees to possess. To support this, Unilever invested in developing an internal learning culture and launched a series of programmes to help its people to develop these business-critical digital skills. Within four months, 15 per cent of the workforce had engaged, with a goal of 70+ per cent by the end of 2019. 

Longer-term, learning and development strategies to further strengthen employees and diversify the available skills is an essential step – and one that should work in tandem with a sharp, focused recruitment strategy.

HR 4.0

In the past, technology teams have looked at which areas of the business are the most appropriate to automate, but HR leaders can strategically position the whole business to follow the lifecycle of an entire transaction. This perspective allows leadership teams to identify how automation can add more value to an organisation than it could realise by automating functions in isolation.

To make a difference in an environment in which workforce roles are changing in fundamental ways and keep pace with the fourth industrial revolution, HR teams not only need a presence at the table, they must develop capabilities not traditionally associated with the people or talent management function. 

Increasingly, HR functions are evolving because the ways in which technology is disrupting organizations requires the disruption of the traditional HR function as well. 

“Whereas today HR plays a supporting role, it needs to become embedded throughout an organization in a coaching, advising and mentoring capacity,” says Mr Bertolino. “It’s a significant shift in the way HR operates and will require upskilling and a different mindset.” 

Now is an exciting time to be an HR leader. By taking ownership of people strategy, unlocking new benefits from enabling organisations to fulfil their workforce requirements while supporting the culture shifts needed for a successful digital transformation, HR has a clear opportunity to step up, reshape itself and lead in innovation.