Josh Bersin on why HR is now one of the most important professions in the world

A leading HR industry analyst's take on the evolution of HR, the importance of empathy, and why skills are so important

This story is part of Talent Pioneers, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of HR.

Josh Bersin is an HR expert with a focus on technology, but when he advises companies facing critical issues, he often thinks about his adult children.

They work for technology companies so he worries about their work-life balance. He knows how technology impacts lives. He understands that it’s not all about money but making life better for people.

His approach started from his home in Oakland, California, where Josh has seen first-hand how income inequality, unfairness, and insensitivity can forever tarnish the best of intentions.

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As a world-known industry analyst and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Josh believes the key to good HR is infusing empathy throughout organizations: “As I travel the world I see the same issues in every country, so I think my approach is to bring some science and a big dose of empathy to HR, helping the HR profession really help make life better for people, not just help companies make more money.”

Is your work your passion? What are your passions outside of work?

Yes, I do love my work because I have an opportunity to help people, teams, and organizations every day. And I love being part of the global HR community, which is made up of passionate, wonderful people. I also love my family (I have two wonderful children and I’ve been married for 32 years), and I adore the outdoors, exercise, bike riding, and spending time with my close friends.  I have come to love travel, which I do a lot these days. 

How does what you’re passionate about relate to how you approach problems at work?

I live in Oakland, California where we witness the “future of work” and the role of technology first-hand. My children both work for tech companies, so I’m very close to the issues we face: personal growth, the talent shortage, the overwhelmed employee, the independent workforce, and how AI and tech impact our lives.

We also have homelessness and income inequality in my city, so I’m very sensitive to the issues of fairness and the importance of citizenship by individuals and companies. As I travel the world I see the same issues in every country. My approach is to bring some science and a big dose of empathy to HR, helping the HR professional really make life better for people, not just help companies make more money.

What advice would you give to your younger professional self?

HR is an amazing, inspirational, critically important role. You have the opportunity to change the way people work, the way organizations perform and directly improve peoples’ lives. You have to think about your job as “working for the company” and “advocating for the people” at the same time, so in many ways, it’s quite a noble profession. People love to complain about HR, but in reality, this is now one of the most important professions in the world. We are the ones who architect work, jobs, and organizations for the future – and we have to do it with a focus on humanity and business and economics at the same time. I advise you educate yourself every day, and that’s why we’re launching the Josh Bersin Academy, to help.

Why do you think evolving the HR function is so crucial?

It’s pretty clear to me that well-managed companies have very evolved, advanced, and sophisticated HR practices. It’s not easy to hire the right person, train them well, keep them aligned as the company keeps changing, and inspire and move people in the right direction year after year. In fact, it’s very difficult. When companies are all growing (like today), people can take HR for granted. But even now, finding the right people, retraining and reskilling them, and dealing with vexing issues like fairness, trust, wellbeing, and transparency are vitally important. I think the CEO’s most important ally is the CHRO, and that makes HR professionals have to step up their game and really think like a business person, an economist, and an HR expert.

There is a lot of focus on skills and the skills gap. How is that becoming so topical and so important?

Skills are really one of the most important issues in business right now. And it’s not just technical skills. You may think that the shortage of skills is machine learning and software engineers and statistics and math, which is a very important part of business, but that’s only a small percentage of the market. 95% of the job market uses technology to serve people, to sell, to support people. So there’s soft skills, communication skills. In fact, LinkedIn just did a study of the most in-demand skills markets in the United States and the Bay area happens to be the toughest market for certain kinds of skills. And the number one most in-demand skill in the San Francisco Bay area is oral communication. It isn’t machine learning, it isn’t software engineering. Even though we have a huge market here of software engineers.

There are all these different ranges of skills that are needed and employees know that. And so they’re anxious about their skills and their careers. They’re seeing the job market change every year and they’re seeing new jobs open up, some of which are paying higher than the ones they’re in. And thinking, well, what do I need to do to get into that position? And so there’s this anxiety in the workforce that if I’m not working for a company that’s helping me progress and teaching me what I need to know next, maybe this is a dead-end job. Maybe this is a dead-end company. So that’s really pushing the expectations on employers to create a learning experience and a learning environment at work.

So what would you advise employees specifically?

Whether a white collar or blue collar worker, force yourself to take the time to learn something new every week. It’s not that hard. Take an hour at the end of the week, take an hour in the middle of the day, during your lunch hour, read a book, go online and find something that you always wanted to learn something about. Sit in a classroom class. If there is one in the office that you can join. Ask one of your peers to help you with something. People really thrive on that. It’s good for your self-esteem and you will find that other people will support you. That’s number one.

And number two is when you’re in the middle of doing something on the job and you find yourself frustrated because you don’t know how to use a tool or system very well … if you actually stop and take the time to learn it, it will pay for itself a hundred times over in the future.

How do you think AI can help?

AI is one of the most magical, powerful tools we have in learning. The problem you have in any learning experience is there’s a vast amount of content in any topic and you don’t know where to start. You don’t know what’s next. If you get stuck on something, you’re not sure whether you should jump to another topic or go back and do it again.

What AI can do is it can give individuals and the organization direct information on the skills and exact experiences that are going to be the most relevant in that job amongst people that have performed well. What better way to learn than to know that if I study these things, I will mimic the people that have been performing higher than I have. I mean, that information was never available before. It’s now available through AI. And then we also now have AI tools that will recommend content based on the type of learner you are, the role you’re in, the types of content that you like to see, your tenure in the job.

There are all sorts of characteristics that influence what might be the right content for you to view or read or access next. And AI can help with that, too. The powers of AI applied to learning are just beginning.

Any final thoughts?

We’ve got to spend time making the work experience more productive so people have free time. There are all sorts of books and tips and coaching things you can do to reserve free time during your day. But I think this is a part of HR’s job too. It’s to put in place the rules and the methods and the approaches to having meetings and email communications and all of the things that we do that distract people and take them away from their opportunity to develop and become better at their jobs. So all of this can be kind of a new mandate for HR. And I think HR is in a perfect position to really have a huge impact on this whole topic.

We’ve got to spend time making the work experience more productive so people have free time. There are all sorts of books and tips and coaching things you can do to reserve free time during your day. But I think this is a part of HR’s job too. It’s to put in place the rules and the methods and the approaches to having meetings and email communications and all of the things that we do that distract people and take them away from their opportunity to develop and become better at their jobs. So all of this can be kind of a new mandate for HR. I think HR is in a perfect position to really have a huge impact.

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