HR, technology and humanity

Written by
Sarah Wild

07 Feb 2019

07 Feb 2019 • by Sarah Wild

At an evening roundtable, hosted with Capita, HR directors discussed the function’s role in harnessing technology for the good of people and culture.

Convening a select group of HR directors at London’s Hospital Club in January, Changeboard – in partnership with Capita – facilitated a discussion about ‘humanity and technology’, considering the impact of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) on people and culture.

“How do we get the best out of the interplay between talent and technology; innovation and inclusion – everything that’s happening around 4IR?” asked guest speaker, life peer Lord Chris Holmes of Richmond. “How do we ensure the individual, the workforce, the people are at the heart of it?"

Drawing on his experience as a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on artificial intelligence, Lord Holmes stressed technology’s potential for public good.

“Nothing I’ve read, seen or experienced causes me to be anything other than rationally optimistic,” he said. “Of course there’s stuff we have to think hard about, but we have everything we need to make a massive success of 4IR: we understand psychology, values, culture, behaviour, leadership, economics, philosophy and more. We should always use our intelligence to make the best use of artificial intelligence.

There’s not going to be mass unemployment or the end of work,” he reassured guests. “What there will be are some really painful, frictional, transitional elements in there, which all of us, not least policy makers, need to be cognisant of.”

Data as 'the new oil'

Over dinner, participants debated some of these elements (under Chatham House rules), ranging from the explosion of data – and how to gather and use it to positive effect – to privacy issues, the dominance of the tech giants, plus generational attitudes to technology.

“Everything is predicated on data, it’s said to be the new oil,” said Lord Holmes. “Organisations need to ask what data they have and what they want to do with it.

“If we’re to look for the talent we want to do some of these roles we barely know the title of, it would seem sensible that we go about it in a different way. We need to drill down into that data to learn far more about individuals, candidates, to see how the fit can work.”

To delve deeper into the issues, Changeboard CEO Jim Carrick-Birtwell began by asking participants the extent to which HR is involved in organisations’ dicussions around tech and it’s impact on the landscape of work.

HR ought to be at the centre of discussions, pointed out one HR director. “Everyone says ‘digital transformation’, but it’s not digital transformation: it’s ‘digital adoption and people transformation’.

“Calling it ‘digital transformation’ takes away that human element: the machines are going to take over everything. Whereas it’s actually the adoption of the technology and how we can use it to enrich our lives and the work that we’re doing.”

However, he warned that a lack of investment in HR systems is hindering the function’s ability to make the most of new opportunities to collect and analyse people data and impact strategic decisions.

“I think from an HR perspective, it’s very much in its infancy,” he said. “The investment in HR tech itself is so lagging that it’s holding us back in many regards. It’s incredible the power that it can bring to decision making, to discussion about the business, but we’re still hampered in terms of the investment in what we have.

“Like most legacy businesses, we have a very bricks-and-mortar-heavy business,” added another participant. “The extent of re-platforming that you have to do to get your data-making in shape is huge; that work is incredibly difficult and when you’ve got it up and running it then takes five years to get to the point when your database can do interesting things. You can’t skip that.” 

A corporate mobility problem

Guests agreed that it is impossible for most organisations to compete with the dominance of the vast tech companies such as Google, Apple and Amazon which have been collecting and exploiting data for at least the past ten years.

“They’re trillion dollar companies,” asserted one HR director. “We’re not. Not even collectively.”

“There’s this increasing corporate mobility problem,” agreed another. “The legacy companies cannot catch up. There’s a small handful of organisations getting bigger and bigger and dominating more and more. This is where’s there’s a regulation challenge.

“And there’s a huge role to play for policy: a connected global policy around some of these huge 4IR questions,” she added. “I’m desperately hoping that there’s some intervention in that, because otherwise, you see the market forces playing out. That’s where I have a bit more of a dystopian fear.”

However, small steps can reap significant rewards, as a participant working in data science made clear, shining a light on the opportunities and dangers. Rather than attempting to mirror the tech giants, HR should work steadily to develop data as currency within individual organisations, he advised.

“There are ways of sorting data in a more manageable way so we can use it; but actually, most companies try to do too much too quickly,” he warned.

“The value of HR is demonstrating the value it brings to a business; that data is a currency – it can elevate the quality of the conversation you have with your board. However, it’s not oil – it’s more like uranium, because it’s very radioactive. Used in the wrong way you cause PR disasters, brand issues, personal damage to individuals. Data is a blessing and a curse. But think of it as a currency and choose your battles in terms of where you want to start that journey.”