HR leadership in a digital world

Written by
Steve Hearsum

21 Oct 2015

21 Oct 2015 • by Steve Hearsum

What is the best way to move forward?

Its great news that 71% of HR leaders, surveyed in Roffey Park’s Management Agenda 2015, said they’re successful when it comes to understanding the business environment and co-creating strategic responses. But it’s not so great when only 23% said they’re successful at exploiting technology to enhance HR and business performance. 

But is it really necessary to ‘get’ digital when leading a digital organisation? Or is there a way to successfully navigate and lead the digital workplace for more ‘analogue’ HR leaders?

Words matter

The word ‘digital’ often seems to be accompanied by a Pavlovian response of one extreme or the other, one that throws out the old in favour of the new – which HR can get swept up in as well.  But there is no one definition and the people I speak to, who operate in the ‘digital space’, get frustrated that there’s still this debate. This is illustrated in the figure below which is the result of asking groups what digital means for them.


Yes there are similar terms in there, but I defy you to pick out an easy, succinct definition. Searching online doesn’t help with assertions such as:

“Digital isn’t software, it’s a mindset” (as if there is one mindset that we are all agreed on, another beef of mine)


“Digital is not a technology, it’s the speed at which things happen”

My own bias is towards the frame Richard Gold, at Transform UK offered me, in an email exchange:

“Clients often start with the question: what is digital? And it always depends on who is asking. A better question is: what are the consequences of digital? What do we have to do differently?”

So, what has changed?

Society, communities, workplaces and homes have always been impacted by technological advances. And the gap between that leading edge of technology and the ability of social processes to keep up widens accordingly. Digital – however defined – makes that gap widen, faster, often amplifying patterns of communication/behaviour. #ReutersReplyAllGate is a lovely example of that.


HR and digital

Let’s assume that there is a ‘digital skills gap’. Do we know the difference between digital and non-digital skills, and are they radically different I’d argue not, the core behaviours and competencies to navigate, thrive and survive complex human systems remain profoundly similar, if not the same in key respects. 

The frustration for many is a failure to understand that the challenge is not one of technology (e.g. getting in this or that system) rather it is about culture change, organisation design, organisational change/transformation and the leadership skills and competencies which to go with that. 

As McKinseys noted recently, in a report on the role of Chief Digital Officers (my itallics):

“… it’s the ability to lead transformation across an organization that is the true indicator of likely success in the role, and that requires a combination of hard and soft skills…the managerial ability to lead and see programs through to fruition.


The importance of soft skills should not be understated: some CDOs estimate they spend 80 percent of their time building relationships. In our experience, successful CDOs have the patience to navigate the complex organizational structures of large businesses; additionally, they collaborate to get buy-in across functions and are able to diplomatically challenge the status quo and solidify relationships with a broad group of people.”

Transformer in chief: The new chief digital officer. McKinsey & Co, September 2015

And that applies to all senior leaders, not just those in digital roles. Does that require senior leaders to become something they would not otherwise aspire to? No. It sharpens the need for them to improve themselves in ways they already should be, and for HR to get more supportive and challenging in terms of both highlighting what has changed, and crucially, not letting those they serve off the hook when it comes to addressing what really matters.

Sting in the tail for HR

There is a broader challenge for HR. The assumption in all of the above is a) that organisations remain similar enough to how they are now such that b) HR has a role. I had a conversation with Neil Morrison, HRD at Penguin Random House, and my colleague Alex Swarbrick this summer. I sat listening as two experienced HR professionals mused on ‘what all this means’. The thread of the conversation that is worth mentioning is the observation that, in a workforce that is increasingly geared towards a smaller group of knowledge professionals able to sell their skills to the highest bidder and a larger and lower skilled workforce increasingly consisting of contract workers (zero hours or otherwise), the need for managers and leaders to run things changes and crucially we need less of them. One of HR’s key reasons for being slowly evaporates. 

Certainly that pattern is emerging, and regardless of how fast or slow it goes, HR is going to have to become more comfortable with reinventing and redefining what it is and what it does, as other parts of organisations have already had to.