How to achieve ‘digital sustainability’

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The digital transformation of HR is occurring within a broader context: Organizations’ need to adapt to thrive in a world of accelerating technological advancement. How can HR help organizations meet that challenge? For some ideas, EBN spoke to Melissa Swift, Korn Ferry’s global leader for digital solutions. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.

Employee Benefit News: In addition to maximizing its own use of digital technology, HR needs to help equip the overall organization to thrive in an environment of rapid digital transformation. How would you describe that environment?

Melissa Swift: It’s a moving target. Technologically, you’re never going to be finished. And when you look at the evolution AI, and what it will be able to do two years from now, it’s absolutely incredible. So it’s really about seamless functioning. When your employees are using technology internally, or your customers are interfacing with you externally, things feel seamless. They feel like they work.

EBN: What kind of people does HR need to bring in an organization to help it operate that way?

Swift: Our research has identified five characteristics: Agility, connectivity, openness/transparency, discipline/focus and empowerment/ alignment.

EBN: Did any of that surprise you?

Swift: Some of the combinations of attributes are interesting. I don’t think agility — being able to respond quickly to change — surprised anybody. But there’s more to it than that. It also includes tolerance of ambiguity. Often in the past, especially in leadership, people have been chosen to “bake out” ambiguity — to know what can be expected from them. I’ve often seen this in the industrial sector, and financial services sector, where the goal is to manage risk pretty strenuously. You’ve had leaders there who minimize ambiguity, rather than accept it.

EBN: So what other traits are more associated with success in meeting today’s demands, according to your research?

Swift: You need people who are willing to take a risk and not mind too much if they look like a fool. Curiosity is also important. If somebody has good mental flexibility but isn’t very curious, they’re not going to jump in and embrace technology. And then, finally confidence. Working with technology can be very humbling.

EBN: What do you mean by connectivity?

Swift: Connectivity means being able to listen to your own people, and to the outside world. Being good at getting their message out, both to their own people and the outside world.

EBN: Haven’t discipline and focus always been essential attributes of a productive workforce?

Swift: Yes but it’s harder to achieve today — not being distracted by the vast array of shiny objects out there, now more than ever. This is where organizations sometimes go wrong in digital transformation. They think, “Oh, we can do 20 million things now” with technology. You’re much better off doing two or three things, and doing them right.

EBN: I assume all these qualities are required in high dosages within the HR department itself to help organizations facilitate digital sustainability.

Swift: Yes, but I also think there are some unique demands on HR. If you think about it, technology is almost like another set of employees. It’s like you’re helping one set of employees interface with another set of employees.

EBN: So that implies you know how to use that technological set of “employees” and put them to good use.

Swift: Exactly. So some of HR’s task is navigating the productivity of each group of employees and navigating the interface between the two. And that interface can be really tough, and there’s a lot of anxiety right now, particularly among middle management, about whether a robot going take away their jobs. And HR has a critical role to pay in shaping how people are going to see their role in an increasingly technology-enabled world, but also just concretely managing that interface.

EBN: Please illustrate.

Swift: OK, let’s say I’m a customer service rep, and now a certain proportion of my job is done by a chat bot. People are getting referred to me, but I’m only getting the people whose problem the chat bot didn’t solve. So suddenly I’m dealing more often with cranky people. So my job has changed a lot, and HR has to really have their arms around it.

EBN: So HR’s role is really being transformed?

Swift: Yes. Traditionally in some organizations, HR has been kind a referee and rules enforcer. But now HR needs to become almost like the employees’ guide, taking them through some unchartered territory. HR is charged with being a step ahead to make sure no one falls into a crevasse.

EBN: How does HR become able to do that?

Swift: It’s a multi-step process. And the first couple of steps are not necessarily on HR’s shoulders. Organizations need to, number one, find where they’re trying to get to. What outcomes are they going for? And, number two, what activities they’re going to undertake to achieve that outcome? So maybe the company wants to improve its customer experience, and that means needing to build its capacity in using AI, or something like that.

EBN: So when does HR fully engage?

Swift: The next steps are where HR is really critical. HR needs to help organizations understand what structure and capability that they need to really enact their digital transformation properly, and the structure question is a fiendishly difficult one. The next step is relooking at jobs and what is the work being done and how is it going to get done. You’ve got jobs that already de facto have changed massively due to technology, but the job descriptions don’t reflect that, nor the performance management systems.

And finally, if you’ve got the right people in the right jobs, what are you going to do to make them successful? This involves leadership development, adapting performance management, engagement efforts, compensation strategy, all of that to make people successful.

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