Talktech: Rethinking HR for the digital era

HR is reaching a new business normal.

For years, the HR department was seen as custodians of employee information and career development. While they do get involved in strategic decisions, much of their time was spent servicing requests and managing employees.

Digitalization changed this. Demand for new talent with new job scopes that universities have yet to create courses for added new pressures. Business owners and lines of business managers started to demand faster and more effective HR management as digital transformation initiatives kicked in.

Meanwhile, the HR team sees its role shifting to becoming more strategic, a further strain on current processes and workload.

A recent TalkTech roundtable, organized by Computerworld Hong Kong and sponsored by ServiceNow, discussed with senior HR executives from leading enterprises what transforming HR means to their organizations, and what the struggles are as they reinvent HR from within.

The human side of HR

While Human Resources is made up of two words, it is Resources that has been getting a lot of attention.

"HR is often seen as the go-to department for checking personal HR details," said Margaret Choi, director, Human Resources, Swiss Reinsurance Company (Swiss Re). "But in truth, these are things that HR people do not like to do."

Talent scarcity and changing skillset needs have now put a premium on the Human side of the HR equation. Finding a balance between human and resources is never easy. In the digital era where human talent became a premium, the difficulty becomes immense. 

Participants, like Choi, felt that it offers a good case for digitizing HR, especially in automating laborious tasks and delivering self-service options to business unit (BU) managers. Such moves free up valuable time that HR can use to add value to the company’s operations.

When such a system is deployed, managers remain unsatisfied. In some cases, they even resist from using the system. "We found that it is really difficult to change the behaviors of the line managers," she said.

Cindy Ng, general manager, Human Resources, Organization and Management Development, Hutchison Ports added that it is also a question of culture.

"In performance management, some companies reinforce scorecards while others got rid of the rating system.  Some corporates use force distribution with a direct link to rewards yet put focus on development. All sound good suggesting that there is no ‘ONE formula fits ALL’ approach. Our focus is on enforcing the behaviors which drive success.  The art is in how to balance between achieving the business target and demonstrating the values and cultures of Hutchison Ports," she said.

Abhishek Prasad, HR Product Sales and Strategy lead, Asia, ServiceNow lamented that it continues to be a common concern across many organizations. The problem is that we may be approaching the issue from a wrong perspective.

"When you look at the workflow of a core HR system or talent management system, you will see that it has not changed much. So, this is when you take an outside-in perspective and understand what it is you are doing to make it easier for the user to use the system. This is the point where design thinking for HR becomes important."

Keeping scores on talent

Companies are beginning to understand they need to free up HR for more strategic tasks or face talent pressures. They also see a rising need to become creative about talent management.

At Swiss Re, Choi and her team decided to implement a scoring system to help BU managers to create the “correct JDs” so that the HR department can send over the right set of candidate CVs. The system also uses other market data to let BU managers know “how likely they able to recruit the right people” to set expectations.

For Choi, the critical aspect of the system was the ability to remove bias in the JDs and improve diversity and inclusiveness.

For Hutchison Ports' Ng, the question is how one can make a corporate [HR] system that seems so challenging to use into one that is as friendly as an Apple iPhone. "I am not a techie, but I can use an iPhone."

However, ServiceNow’s Prasad cautioned that automation and technology should not be the primary focus. “Essentially, you need to design your HR solution around the employee experience and the persona of the users, and develop the right processes first,” he said.

He went further by saying that it may be the right time for HR teams to consider whether some of their processes are necessary and streamline it further. “If the project has not gone through such a design thinking phase, it quickly fails,” he added.

Head office and subsidiary struggle

HR’s problems are further compounded by the need to standardize on a global HR system.

Tina Au-Yeung, group chief human resources officer, Emperor Group shared some of the lessons her company learned when they tried to automate her approval process using a third-party provider.

“The [third party provider] was not as responsive to customize to our local needs,” Au-Yeung said.

Participants added that it is difficult to use a single HR system to meet the needs of all countries, especially with the diverse needs in specific countries and changing workforce regulations. However, they also added that a standardized system does help.

What is more important is ensuring the approval process is clear and transparent. This is where mistakes or problems arise, and where companies end up spending a lot of time to fix.

Having the right system only half the solution. Getting users to embrace is the other. Here, digitalization and understanding the mindset of users help.

However, ServiceNow's Prasad noted that technology and processes cannot replace “the human touch” in HR.  It is what that separates a great HR from the rest.

Prasad cited an example of promoting people and transferring them to another location.

"It is the moment that matters for the employee who is looking for support from HR to get relevant information to sort out all the unknowns that comes with the relocation. If the organization can address this upfront, this will greatly reduce anxiety and increase positiveness around the entire experience."

HR’s future unclear

The discussion took a sobering look at HR’s future role. Among the participants, the question was who should be in charge of the people strategy.

For Swiss Re’s Choi the answer was clear. “Leadership should own and drive it. Then you select the HR tools to support it. After all, if we do not change the HR processes [as a company], we won’t be able to get the people into the company. And most of us rely on getting the right people to drive the business.”

However, Naveen Kumar, senior vice president, Human Resources, Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) argued that HR should own up to such a strategy holistically instead of solely through the use of technology. "It is not only about HR technology and adoption but also about shaping a workforce for the future. We need to break it down and understand how skills are evolving and start shaping the work processes today. Technology plays a role in changing the face of a work-community, but the work-community also plays a role in shaping the future of technology"

Kumar cited cybersecurity as an area that many industries are concerned about. “There is clearly an industry shortage of talent in this area hence the need to up-skill and develop the current workforce. This is where the use and adoption of technology come in,” he said, adding that artificial intelligence and robotic process automation can help to alleviate some of the talent development issues.

“It would be a disservice to our current workforce and impact our competitive positioning if we are not at the frontier of skills development; technology will help aid that process.”

ServiceNow’s Prasad echoed Kumar’s thoughts. He also emphasized that automation should be seen as a job enhancer and not a replacement strategy.

“In the end, automating processes of manual tasks and creating a consumerized experience, will inevitably increase the employee’s satisfaction. That is truly putting service at the heart of your business,” he concluded.

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