Can technology solve HR's PR problem?

Written by
Karam Filfilan

10 Nov 2015

10 Nov 2015 • by Karam Filfilan

Living through a ??2.4 billion merger

Neil Morrison is a man who believes in looking forward. As group HR director of Penguin Random House, he lived through the £2.4 billion merger of the two publishing giants in 2013 at a time when the industry was in turmoil, reeling from the effects of heavy discounting by online retailers such as Amazon and struggling to adapt to new e-book technology and piracy problems.

With a need to acquire and develop talent for this new era of publishing, Morrison has embarked on an ambitious digital transformation programme at Penguin Random House, building new capability in the organisation, and in the process raising the profile and reach of his 30-strong HR department. 

But as a self-avowed HR evangelist and newly appointed CIPD board member, how has he created this brave new world? 

“In 2008 when I first joined Random House, the iPhone didn’t even exist in the UK. There was no Kindle or Android. Fast forward five years, and how we consumed media was completely different, so it was all about taking the organisation through that transformation journey, building new structures and skill sets without losing sight of who we were,” says Morrison. 

“We wanted to be clear that we were a publisher, but that we wanted to transition into a digital world, and deliver what we do really well even better because of technology, rather than get distracted by it and start thinking we were a technology company instead,” he adds.

How technology is transforming work

For Morrison, utilising technology effectively in publishing – and for HR in a wider sense – is more about understanding and choosing a mindset than deep technological knowledge. His belief is that employees need to understand how new technology is affecting everyday life, which then allows them to think about how to utilise this technology in the working environment. 

As an example, he relates how, in pre-merger 2010, Random House gave every employee an iPad for Christmas, with the CEO making it clear that this was a personal gift rather than a work tool. Employees were encouraged to play with the tablet over the holiday break with the aim of getting people used to the technology and its possibilities – and how consumers use them.

“It’s about trying to get people comfortable with technology, rather than thinking ‘I need to know everything about how apps are made’. Of course you don’t. But you need to know how apps interact and how people use them.  If you do, you might think about it when we’re publishing a book and maybe you’ll think about how we might publish an app alongside it.” 

However, Morrison does admit that the digital transformation required a shift in talent strategy, in order to both develop new skill sets internally and attract a small element of deep technical ability that was missing. Bringing in these niche roles can be difficult in a changing environment, he concedes.

 “We needed new skills such as those around digital piracy. However, some of these jobs didn’t even exist externally, never mind internally, so initially we had to work with third parties who were the only people who had the knowledge needed to find pirated content,” he says.

The Scheme - creating a recruitment buzz for just ??500

Penguin Random House’s talent strategy has always been around driving internal talent capability, but this created its own recruitment issues. 

“As a publisher, why should someone with brilliant coding experience come and work for us versus going to Facebook? Our talent acquisition had always been based on who we were as a publisher, but the new environment meant we were targeting people who didn’t care about our number of Pulitzer Prize winners. They’re interested in other elements, so we had to think about how we projected ourselves.” 

This determination to build a new image can be seen in ‘The Scheme’, Penguin Random House’s drive to hire four entry-level marketers. Conceived by Morrison’s team with input from the marketing department, ‘The Scheme’ was a social media-led recruitment campaign to solve three problems that went to the heart of the changes Penguin Random House faced:

  1. As the world’s largest publisher, the company should have an entry-level scheme.
  2. Trying to attract new talent who hadn’t previously thought of working in publishing.
  3. Recruiting new types of marketers who knew the way marketing books was changing.

With four entry-level marketing roles on offer, it had two criteria: that entrants had finished full-time education by September 2015 and that they had the right to work in the UK. 
The team targeted social media activity at the 18-34 age range, launching teasers on Twitter and Facebook and using Tumblr to host its website. 

The company had 26,000 visits to the site, with 800 completing an online application. The team took 50 to the second stage, where candidates pitched a marketing campaign for Alice in Wonderland’s 150th anniversary, before 20 finalists had a two-day assessment. 

Goodie bags were given to those unsuccessful at stage two, while the final 20 had feedback before the four were selected.

“The thing about ‘The Scheme’ is that it was an event. It created a level of noise and excitement [more than 26,000 website visits] both in publishing and marketing,” says Morrison. 

“It cost just £500 – including the website build – because we did it ourselves. The excitement internally helped increase the HR team’s brand value, with people saying, ‘wow, my friends are telling me about this!’ That’s when HR can become sexy, when you do something exciting,” he adds.

Why HR musn't forget its core strengths

“I once said ‘I’m a businessman who happens to be in HR’, but I don’t agree with that anymore. I was wrong. HR management is what I do and where my core strengths lie. But the reason I do it really well is because my team understands how things fit in the business and where we fit in the wider economy,” says Morrison. 

HR’s opportunity to lead the future of business is “massive”, with conversations around the living wage, future talent and organisational agility all dominating CEOs’ thoughts. For Morrison, solving these new challenges – whether you see them as HR or business challenges – is integral to future success. 

“The opportunity is there, but maybe we in HR spend too much of our time focusing on making the machine operate, rather than what our organisational challenges are and how we overcome these for business. The key organisational challenges are often HR ones, just not branded HR. If we can think about those issues creatively to add commercial value, HR can lead businesses in the future.”