Success in the digital age: Transforming HR

A screen of statistical data with someone holding a pen pointing at data on the screen,

We’re living in a digital age. Innovation and technical evolution are now part of the day-to-day for organisations worldwide, and the nature of ‘business as usual’ will never be the same.

Success in this fast-changing world will be driven by data. However, success, like value, is relative and there is tension, not to mention risk, at the core of digitisation. By digitising processes, you can automate and improve efficiency, but at the risk of losing the human element.

What’s more, it is impossible to harness the power of data – to enact real measurable change, to streamline processes, to deliver a better employee experience – if the human factor is ignored. HR professionals are on the frontlines of these changes, as well as being in the throes of change themselves.

So how can you transform HR for success in the digital age – and keep people firmly at the core of the function? We hosted a panel discussion with Simon McBride, Founder & Managing Director at Red Wolf CoachingBettina Pickering, Director at Aronagh, and Subhaan Nizarali, Global Head of Data and Insights at Imperial Brands PLC, and others, to explore the issue. 

The best time is now

Some companies, especially technology businesses with a focus on innovation, are already ahead of the curve. However, it’s never too late to embrace digital transformation. Our panel counsels that embracing digital can yield dividends for any company, regardless of their current stage of digital maturity. “It’s more about the maturity curve of the organisation,” says Bettina Pickering, “as well as the tech appetite of the organisation. Are they willing to take the risk and jump on the waves of technology?”

However, even if organisations are lagging behind, it’s still possible to catch up. “It’s easier than ever – that’s the power of today,” Bettina Pickering continues. “The companies that ultimately stand the best chance of success with digital HR transformations are the ones with a good relationship between HR and the business. Most companies have (or can get) the data and the conversations that illuminate it. The critical part is to focus on what business problems they are trying to solve, and focus data gathering and analytics on those.”

Define the “why”

“Digitisation is obviously about technological change,” says Mark Corden, VP Enterprise Delivery. EMEA at Ceridian. “But more than that, it’s about changing the way you work and making better decisions. If you can design that kind of change and envision how it’s going to really work across the organisation, then the tech is an enabler – not the end goal.”

As the panel stresses, a deep understanding of the organisation and its operating models and existing processes is vital in order to pursue a programme of change. You need to know where you’re starting from. “Understanding is everything,” says Subhaan Nizarali. “You need to know about your culture, your ways of working, your processes, and your organisation’s overall maturity. You need to understand the drivers for the things that matter.”

With this information, you can zero in on – and, crucially, define – why the change is necessary. However, this in itself can be challenging for organisations. “It’s easy to say what you’re going to do, and establish when you’re going to do it, but the ‘why’ is more ethereal,” explains Clare Dyer, Chief People Officer EMEA and founder of Asima Coaching.  

“It’s all well and good to say you want a data-driven HR team or you want a new operating model,” adds Bettina Pickering. “But you have to know why you want it, for what purpose, and how you mean to use it.”

Defining the ‘why’ at the outset helps get everyone on the same page, as well as helping to more effectively tailor the process and target the actual areas for improvement. “If you get that right,” Mark Corden agrees, “then you’re more likely to direct your resources wisely, and less likely to spend money on things that won’t actually transform the business.”

Bring everyone on board – as early as possible

Directing resources effectively and efficiently can be further refined with the buy-in of business leadership, according to the panel. This is particularly true when it comes to the broader data strategy, as leadership can help align all the functions within the organisation. “The benefit of that is that we can start to create operating models that operate independently, while also following enterprise ways of working,” explains Subhaan Nizarali. “However, you do need maturity at the leadership level in order to understand the impact of those models and how things impact HR.”

Strong leadership experience – from knowledge of the culture to the historic challenges the organisation has faced – is useful to embed into the DNA of change programmes. “You can use it to make sure that the data supports the journey towards your objectives,” adds Subhaan Nizarali.

It’s also important to remember that early action when it comes to engaging critical players can make or break an HR transformation. “There are some pivotal actions that need to be taken from the outset,” says Bettina Pickering. “Educating critical change makers – especially HR business partners – and bringing them on the journey, is absolutely crucial. Everyone, from managers to senior leaders, can benefit from being taught how to get the best out of systems and analytics.”

“Mind the gaps”

Our panel emphasises the need to have honest conversations with leaders and teams in order to ascertain the gaps between what’s said about the organisation (and its culture) and the lived experience. Knowing what these gaps are is crucial, as Simon McBride explains. “Engaging in open dialogue and minding those gaps proactively enables you to help leaders with the complexity of the changes they are challenged to bring about as well as to inform the strategy and decision-making.”

Bettina Pickering agrees, adding: “When HR teams are able to be facilitators or custodians of that process – finding those gaps and using the data to jump in with interventions – that’s when it all starts to bubble up and actually work.”

Hard data can be a “superpower”, but as the panel explains, HR teams need to have the ability to analyse and extract value-adding information from both structured and unstructured data during the transformation process. “You can put a lot of data on a dashboard,” says Simon McBride, “but what’s often more valuable is found as narrative within the organisation; the lived experience of being in amongst the change. Insights come from both types of data, and the links between them.” 

Use the data – properly

Crafting an effective data strategy that acknowledges the breadth of information available – including different types of data and data from multiple sources across the organisation – is a vital step on the road to success.

“The centralisation of your data assets, preferably in a Cloud-based solution, makes all the difference,” says Subhaan Nizarali. “When we talk about ‘single source of truth data’ or ‘golden truth data’, it’s about getting other data sets from the business and incorporating them with HR-related datasets and making it all accessible. Data then becomes a universal language for the organisation, one in which everyone’s agreed on the definitions and the dictionary.”

Such an approach lays solid foundations for the future. Data is always changing, as are the needs of those using it, so organisations need to be agile. “We need to be guided by the data, rather than validating decisions we want to make using the data,” Subhaan Nizarali stresses. “I’m a firm believer that if we can use the data properly, we can use reporting as a performance measurement tool, which, in turn, allows us to see the effectiveness of the strategies we’re creating.”

It’s a long process, but one that pays dividends as HR teams become more data-driven and proactive.

Leverage skills and capabilities

As we explored in our People, Culture and Talent report, building skills into the HR workforce is essential moving forwards. More and increasingly varied skills are being demanded of the function today, and that will only continue.

If you look at the data on skills, you can see that the demand for and cost of different skills continues to change aggressively: and the reality of these changes are often poorly understood by HR teams” says Simon Haines, Founder and CEO of Simply Get Results. “Data helps companies, leaders and individuals to be really clear on what skills they need for the future.  This in turn creates advantage in the market: it’s your secret weapon.  Furthermore, taking a ‘skills-first’ lens on your workforce helps to improve inclusion because skills are blind to some of the biassing factors.”

The current skills shortage, however, can make future-proofing the HR function challenging. Our panel recommends bringing in skills from across the organisation as a whole and leveraging the capabilities grown within the organisation.

Ultimately, the best transformations happen when there’s someone on the team who can really tell the story and connect into to the human elements and impacts,” says Clare Dyer. “Even 10 years ago, I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable saying that. We’d just default to only talking about harder KPIs. But it’s an amazing time right now. We can bring together all of our commercial expertise alongside owning who we are our intuition, leaning on how these insights can broaden the perspectives, bringing all of who we are and why we love this function.”

Success in the digital age is well within reach. For help boosting the capabilities of your HR team or embarking on a change journey, speak with a member of our People & Culture Leadership Team.

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