HR in the Middle; Handling Digitalization When HR has a Rep of Being Slow and Technophobic
The Human Resources function generally finds itself sitting in a very pivotal position between leadership and the general workforce. However, many of my fellow HR professionals don’t see this middle-of-the-sandwich position as ideal, because we can be, and are often the recipient of pressure from all sides. Simply put, HR takes incoming from everywhere - even from people outside the organization. From this middle position, HR is constantly interpreting and digesting incoming messages while translating and facilitating crosstalk from all sides. HR works with executive leadership who may or may not want to run or gallop with a new idea and HR fields questions from the workforce on why executive leadership may or may not want to run or gallop with said new idea. The result sometimes is HR appearing to put the brakes on, slowing things down or playing catch up. Like I said, pivotal.
HR and Change
Due to this middling, making changes within the Human Resources function can be complex and bureaucratic. Some of the factors contributing to this complexity and bureaucracy include the requirement for legal and regulatory controls, the need to anticipate any potential impact on existing systems and the often siloed nature of the HR functions across sub specialties like benefits, learning, compensation, talent acquisition, employee relations and technology. Also, HR changes have to take place while operations continue without any noticeable negative repercussions. HR handles much of that risk mitigation by making sure employees remain productive before, during and after organizational changes. HR decision makers maneuver through layers of approvals and chain-of-command decisions, while constantly juggling priorities; all with the full intent of supporting business imperatives while reminding everyone at the table about the value of employees to the organizational mission.
Smart leaders observe these strategic and tactical activities from HR. Others who do not, could walk away thinking HR is just slow, bureaucratic and resistant. No. Good HR isn’t “slow”. However, good HR is thorough and knows the potential for change to go awry if mismanaged. For the most part, people actually count on HR being thorough or people don’t get paid, benefits don’t deliver, bad hires wander in, non-producers linger, autocratic leadership runs amuck and competitors innovate while our organization stays stuck.
The era of radical and rapid technology changes
This position in the middle, should make HR actually very valuable in this current wave of technology changes inside of their organizations. The time is perfect to leverage this pivotal position given the rapid pace of digital transformations happening across our organizations. Gartner’s research shows that “67% of business leaders agree their company must become significantly digitalized by 2020 to remain competitive.” Gartner speaks to this role of HR in the middle by stating, “HR leaders today find that CEOs demand improved performance from employees, while employees demand an easier and more seamless experience at work. Employees expect their work experience to match the app-driven, on-demand experience they are increasingly accustomed to in their personal lives.”
Based on my own research, HR practitioners find themselves smack in the middle of these changes. How we handle the incoming from both sides here, is going to have a lot to do with what the HR function looks like moving forward.
Talk on the street of HR Tech lag
However, if digitalization is the goal, we have to confront the talk on the street about the HR technology lag. The word is that HR doesn’t quite like technology and that HR lags other organizational groups in the adoption of technology. The literature confirms the perception that although HR has a footprint in broad organizational changes and plays a significant role in helping other functional areas within organizations transform with digitalization, HR itself has not been effective with its own technology, does not understand its value, and is falling behind in their own adoption and use of workplace technology (Angrave et al., 2016; Bassi, 2011). As Singh and Finn (2003) put it, “HR professionals have generally been known to be technophobic” (p. 399).
So here we are in the middle again. On one hand we have to play a key role in critical digital transformations and on the other hand, we have a reputation of lagging on technology.
I believe that HR is uniquely qualified to hold a position of dual responsibilities in this particular moment. HR is capable of transforming internally while facilitating needed transformations organization wide. We are uniquely positioned to handle this duality because we have been “HR in the Middle” for a long time, and now we have the chance to use our roles to enhance collaborations, facilitate conversations and improve implementations.
A Framework to Help HR Lead Through Technology Transformations
So how can HR better lead through technology transformations? The answer appears simple: By being the business advocate we are required to be and fully embrace the complexity of our midfield roles. However, ask any HR practitioner who has undergone a technology change recently or who is lumbering through one right now and you will find it is not so easy.
This digitalization is happening rapidly. Gartner’s research confirms it. This role of business advocate is not new to HR and we have heard from Dave Ulrich, no less, that “If HR professionals want to keep their jobs and increase their influence, they must focus less on what they do – their processes and systems and more on the value they can deliver to the organization.” Well here is our clear opportunity to deliver value.
One potential framework for supporting this rapid digitalization change involves HR practitioners doing four things. I call it the P.O.S.T. Framework For Change. The framework was developed from my research as I chose to explore the attitudes and perspectives of HR practitioners towards the use of artificial intelligence technologies in hiring. My recommendation is that HR professionals exercise the framework in two phases. First, within their own function and then working outward from this pivot point and adopting it across every unit slated for change.
First, there must be honest conversations among HR practitioners about our own beliefs underpinning our own personal attitudes and perspectives towards the changes. Second, HR must honestly examine its own prior organizational change experiences. Identify what’s repeatable or what would be discarded as it relates to successful change. HR must know what failed. Third, HR must fully explore and understand the social and environmental impact of the changes noting, for example, how various worker demographics could be impacted and why. Finally, HR must have conversations about the relative advantage of this technology to their own current functions and ability to better serve and deliver next-level solutions for their organization.
Without this type of exploratory work inside of the HR function, it is difficult to imagine having a positive impact on success outside of the HR function. This role of HR in the middle, comes with the opportunity to be engaged fully up, down and across the organization.
We have to own how we use that opportunity, before others define our roles for us.
Angrave, D., Charlwood, A., Kirkpatrick, I., Lawrence, M., & Stuart, M. (2016, January). HR and analytics: Why HR is set to fail the big data challenge. Human Resource Management Journal, 26(1), 1-11. doi:10.1111/1748-8583.12090
Bassi, L. (2011). Raging debates in HR analytics. People and Strategy, 34(2), 14-18. Retrieved from https://mcbassi.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/RagingDebatesInHRAnalytics.pdf
Singh, P., & Finn, D. (2003, September). The effects of information technology on recruitment. Journal of Labor Research, 24(3), 395-408. doi:10.1007/s12122-003-1003-4