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Expert Roundtable: Why Digital Transformation in HR Means More Than Tech

Cornerstone Editors

Digital transformation has evolved from a buzzword to a real business requirement that means different things for different industries. In retail, the introduction of digital technologies and channels has driven businesses to rethink the role that in-store experience plays for customers, while in healthcare, the digitalization of medical records has added a level of transparency to patient care.

So what does transformation mean in the world of HR and how can organizations truly transform how they hire, train, manage, empower and engage workers? We asked our top contributors, Suzanne Lucas, founder of the EvilHRLady blog, Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, and Whitney Johnson, CEO of WLJ Advisors to provide their take.

In the roundtable below, they explain how companies can leverage transformation. Some of their perspectives differ, but they all agree on one thing: It takes more than shiny new technology.

What does the term "digital transformation" mean from an HR perspective?

Digital technology essentially provides new tools to complete the work we do, with the objective of simplifying and/or speeding up the processes involved. Having the right digital tools helps distinguish between whether an organization is transformed by them, or merely using them. Do the tools you use simplify and speed up your work? Do they increase the efficiency and productivity of the organization as a whole? Do they help you recruit, hire, train, retain, evaluate and compensate employees, and develop your leadership pipeline in a way that improves your organization? Are your digital HR tools appropriate to the size and type of your business? Do they help transform the way people in the organization accomplish their tasks and view their work?

Digital tools can also help amplify the diversity of our workforce by facilitating hiring and management of geographically dispersed workers. There are a lot of challenges and opportunities in HR and, commensurately, there are many tools to choose from.

— Whitney Johnson

When I started in HR, everything was handwritten. The digital transformation began with the change from paper to computer, but now [it involves growing interactions] with AI. The transformation also requires moving data to the cloud and making it accessible across the organization. Hopefully, for HR, the growth in technology means more time for human-to-human contact on the essential things, while we let the computers take care of the things that are easy to automate.

— Suzanne Lucas

Digital transformation is the strategy that Jason Averbook calls a "frictionless workforce experience." It’s putting digital first in the way we think, work and communicate. It’s about designing a user experience that takes into consideration the experiences of candidates and employees, not just HR teams.

— Ira Wolfe

What are some misconceptions that HR departments might have about digital transformation?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that if we can get the right application or the right chatbot, we can solve all our problems. Apps and bots can help, but they don’t solve people problems. They can direct but not guide. They can follow algorithms, but they can’t be creative in their problem solving.

— SL

Digital transformation does not equal HR technology. Most HR technology has simply put a lot of HR processes and paperwork built for an analog world online. It converts a paper job application to a web page. It eliminates some administrative HR burdens but does little for candidates and employees. We need more technology that puts people first.

— IW

Because HR is ultimately about people, digital tools help HR professionals but don’t replace them. Once the larger purpose of a digital transformation of HR has been identified, it hopefully becomes easier to select from the growing panoply of technology choices available. There are software and cloud options to choose from, and options for handling specific HR tasks, as well as expansive platforms that integrate HR functions.

— WJ

What are some technology or transformation mistakes that you see organizations making?

The greatest mistake organizations make is delegating too much to digital tools and/or relying too heavily on outmoded ways of attracting and managing talent. Though it seems counter-intuitive to most hiring managers, my work demonstrates that hiring the most qualified candidate for a position is typically counterproductive.

I promote the alternative practice of hiring for potential and recruiting on the basis of minimum needed competency rather than maximum qualifications. Potential is often a function of soft skills as much as of educational attainment or experience, and soft skills are trickier to screen for. This is not to say that digital tools can’t help, but they certainly shouldn’t replace a human evaluator in hiring decisions.

— WJ

An app is just a tool. You can have the best onboarding tool, but if a new hire’s manager doesn’t take the time to introduce her to the team and buy her lunch on her first day, the tool doesn’t make the transition any smoother.

People need people—they require interaction, appreciation, appropriate feedback, evaluation and training. There are digital tools to help us develop more efficient ways to monitor the well-being of our people, and the health of our organizational culture. Programs like Motivosity offer an avenue for colleagues to recognize the contributions of their co-workers. TINYpulse allows employees to offer feedback anonymously and informally, while better known applications like SurveyMonkey and Google Forms can be used in more formal ways to gather information on how your people feel about the organization.

— SL

What are some of your recommendations for companies still struggling to truly transform their HR practices? What should they look for in a technology partner?

First, identify the problem you are trying to solve and seek out a vendor that can help you solve it. If you go to a vendor first, they will tell you what your issues are and (surprise!) they will know how to solve them. But you will end up with a solution to someone else’s problem, not your own problem. Second, make sure that the vendor can partner with you for the long term. Transformation takes time.

— SL

Before shopping for solutions, define your desired outcome. Seek a partner who is interested in understanding what you want and need, more than they are interested in simply selling their product. Don’t just look at what your prospective partner offers as a solution; also be clear about what they will offer in terms of support, especially in the early stages. The right partner will be empathetic and will patiently work to help you find the right tools for you.

— WJ

How does a company’s size play a role in its transformation strategy?

What should smaller companies versus enterprise-sized companies do differently?

Disruption is company-size agnostic, but smaller companies often have the advantage. It’s simply easier to turn a smaller ship than a large company anchored by hierarchy, legacy and shareholders.

— IW

Smaller companies have an advantage in transformation. Small scale solutions are cheaper to implement. But the disadvantage for smaller companies is generally less expertise in digital transformation and fewer people to learn it.

Larger companies need bigger solutions. Enterprise-level software is expensive and invasive. Changing how things work often means dismantling a current system. On the flip side, you’ll often have the expertise you need to make better decisions.

— SL

A small business may want an application to help handle logistical tasks such as payroll and benefits, while keeping "people-facing" tasks like recruitment and hiring still fully in the domain of its HR professionals. As the company grows, it may employ tools to help screen applications or provide a more user-friendly interview process, such as HireVue. Larger businesses will be looking for a full-blown HRMS (Human Resource Management System) such as Kissflow HR, that will increase efficiencies across the full range of HR functions.

Whether large or small, a key principle is to adopt tools that will integrate seamlessly with one other and can grow as the organization does. Organizations—like individuals—invest in a lot of technology that goes unused. There’s no need to pay for more than you need.

— WJ

Image: Creative Commons

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