With technology fast transforming the world of work, HR must help organisations to find the balance between people and machines.
To explore how, Changeboard hosted a dinner at London’s Hospital Club, in partnership with Capita People Solutions, inviting senior HR professionals to take part in a wide-ranging discussion.
Guest host and former member of the House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Select Committee, Lord Chris Holmes of Richmond began by highlighting the growing value of people and culture in the fourth industrial revolution and the challenges and opportunities of a hybrid ‘human-AI’ workforce.
“My interest in and beyond parliament is trying to hook together talent and tech, inclusion and innovation,” he said.
“I truly believe that the combination of people and technology – with people coming first – could put the HR function right at the heart of the business, where it always should have been.”
Changeboard CEO Jim Carrick-Birtwell agreed that “if businesses genuinely regard people as their greatest asset, whoever has any degree of control those people has a powerful leaver”.
“I’ve heard it said that people are now the differentiator,” added Peter Donaldson, sales director at Capita. “So how you provide horizontal and vertical pathways within your organisation is quite key. Historically, you’d say ‘how do we help people move up and progress?’
“But if you look at the rise of automation, it’s now ‘how do we help people move sideways and train in different skill sets that will help us as a business?’ We need to invest in a people learning strategy, enable our people to have different pathways and accept that not everybody wants to be a CEO.”
Lord Holmes argued that the significance of learning & development (L&D) has never been greater.
“It should be an absolute boom for L&D as part of the HR function,” he said. “L&D is not always seen as the diamond it is, but it’s critical to progress. We may not know exactly what we’ll need in 10 years’ time, but we don’t need to know the destination to start the journey.”
A focus on people will require an emphasis on employee experience and this means bringing the employee and consumer experience into line.
“The experience you get as a member of the business must be the same that you get as a consumer,” stressed Capita solutions director Dugald McIntosh. “If you’re used to dealing with a business as a customer, it would be really surprising to get into the organisation and have a really poor experience.”
“At my previous (telecoms) organisation, there was an investment in hearing the employee voice,” attested another HR director. “We linked our people-experience strategy and marketing strategy very closely. We asked how our brand on the high street fitted with the internal brand and had an employee experience team within the HR team to embed that in the thinking. We got the board to buy into it by saying ‘you can see how consumers act and our employees are also consumers’.”
Inclusivity for all
However, no one size fits all in terms of employee experience, in an increasingly diverse workforce.
As one HR director – of a young business in hyper growth – explained: “A third of the techie side of the business has a special need due to conditions such as autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). We spend a lot of time putting things in place to make things easy for people to work together. For example, everyone’s given money they can spend on headphones if background noise bothers them.
“We also have a lot of discussion now about clean space, where there is no tech, because at the moment there is too much. Young people actually value tech-free space. We’re now teaching people how to have quality, authentic conversations with consequence. Because they don’t talk.”
“How do you bring in and onboard neuro-diverse people who have these very different needs?” asked Carrick-Birtwell.
“You have to change the way you assess and manage people,” responded a participant from the finance sector. “We are as supportive as we can be of neurodiversity. For example, we have an employee who has fabulous attention to detail and great patience – because he doesn’t mind repetition – but goes into meltdown if the photocopier isn’t working.
“It’s being able to cope with something that, to you or I, seems trivial, but to him feels like the end of the world; getting people to understand and talk about this and appreciate the skills he brings. It has resulted in us having to support and underpin the people who are going to be managing neuro-diverse people. If you want the skills, you have to adapt the environment.”
Lord Holmes stressed the need to factor in machines when contemplating inclusivity. “Is it a culture where people are comfortable, confident and thriving alongside all the different forms of bot that will be in the mix?” he asked. “That will be one of the biggest tests of success.”
Ultimately technological disruption presents organisations with a chance to reinvigorate their people strategy, concluded Carrick-Birtwell. “It’s about looking at technology and humanity through the lens of diversity, as an opportunity to rethink and reinvent the workforce,” he said.