Rewriting the Rules of HR and Embracing Technology

By Louise Raisbeck

With more than 25 sessions dedicated to HR topics at the Think 2019 conference this week, where do you begin? Many talent acquisition and management executives started at yesterday’s HR Exchange. They heard from a number of industry experts and HR executives who have rewritten the rules and embraced technology to acquire and retain the best people.

Photo of Diane Gherson and Carol Surface onstage at HR Exchange 2019

A new agenda for HR

IBM’s CHRO, Diane Gherson, who was recently named HR Executive of the Year, outlined the new agenda for HR in the digital era. “The last era was all about efficiency – that's not the game anymore,” she said. “The game now is about responding quickly to customers – the external world – and that takes a much more nimble organization.”

First on this new agenda for transforming the workplace is creating consumer-grade experiences for employees that are personalized and digitized. “HR of tomorrow takes advantage of digital and social technologies, and AI,” Diane stated. “This is a radical shift. The employee was getting lost in the HR process. They had to search around for answers to their questions. Now, we can make it a great experience and personalized and transparent for employees.”

Throughout her talk, Diane noted that the new HR operation is focused more on experiences and less on processes. She offered the following three pieces of advice to change how we think and reinvent HR for the next era:   

  1. Build the roadmap and don't fall victim to the shiny objects. Think about the ROI and scaling your opportunities.

  2. Center your people strategy on the metrics of success around skills and the employee experience.

  3. Rethink the roles in HR in your organization to match the demands of the new era.

Carol Surface, CHRO of Medtronic, joined Diane onstage and reiterated the need to create consumer grade experiences for employees. Just as the medical technology company engaged customer advisory boards to stay customer-centric, she said they are using agile and interactive design thinking to implement more personalization from an employee perspective. She also offered a key lesson based on her experience – you need a strong foundation of data to use AI and chatbots. Investing time and energy in a strong data platform will prove dividends.

Photo of Amy Wright, Mary Finch, and Erica Koenig at HR Exchange 2019

Skills are a core foundation

Continuing the theme of building strong foundations, Mary Finch, CHRO of AECOM, and Erica Koenig, Senior VP of Talent for UnitedHealth Group, illustrated during a panel conversation how skills are at the heart of every stage of the employee lifecycle. Erica explained that her team previously focused on hard skills and tasks that employees did in the past, but now are focusing on leadership and softer skills. Mary stated: “We have to meet the organization where they are. We have to build with them. It takes an incredible amount of patience and time, but then it's ‘ours' and not just an HR program. And that will help us see a spike in value because we have buy-in.”

Photo of Deb Bubb at HR Exchange 2019

Deb Bubb, Chief Leadership Officer for IBM, noted during her speech that with the demand for skills accelerating at a rate that new hiring cannot fulfill, we need to think differently about the availability of our internal talent. She cited career development as a major driver of employee engagement and explained that people who take advantage of learning opportunities are more engaged. This led Deb to assert that we must democratize skills to create culture of inclusion. She proposed: “What if the secret to accelerating innovation and skill development, unlocking the human potential of every employee, full inclusion, and more diverse talent pools – what if that all came down to the same thing – our ability to reinvent learning?”

Deb pointed out that the biggest obstacles to learning are time, the difficulty that employees have closing the gap between classroom and application, and a lack of clear direction about what learning employees should take part in. She pointed out three key critical aspects of successful approaches to learning:

  1. Leadership (growth mindset, co-ownership, and incentives)

  2. Experience (personal learning, motivation, and practice)

  3. System (learning agility, transparency, and habits)

Photo of Yassmin Abdel-Magied at HR Exchange 2019

Look beyond bias

The audience was inspired by keynote speaker Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s exploration of the complex issues related to bias. A Sudanese-born Australian mechanical engineer, writer, and social advocate, Yassmin is on a mission to promote diversity throughout society. She stated that cognitive biases are shortcuts our brains make based on social norms and stereotypes. Some shortcuts are useful (i.e. the color red indicates stop), but some are not because they're not based on evidence. Whether we like it or not, we all have these biases – it's the way our brains are made, she said. “People who think they make ethical decisions are the least likely to make ethical decisions, because they don't check themselves,” she said.

Yassmin noted that we all should care about biases because when we say we hire on merit, we should be clear about what we actually mean. Noting that bias is about our blind spots and it leads to a lack of representation, she challenged the HR audience to look beyond bias and recognize what assumptions we make when we see what people are wearing and how they look. “What does ‘merit' look like here?” she asked. “Think 'culture add' not a 'culture fit.' What can different people add and how can those differences be celebrated?” Yassmin identified three concrete ways to take action:  

  1. Sponsor someone different, someone with less privilege.

  2. Extend your platform and your opportunity.

  3. Lean into the discomfort – when we are uncomfortable, we are growing and that's how change happens.

She concluded with this inspirational thought – we might not change the world, but we can change the world around us.

Photo of Josh Bersin at HR Exchange 2019

Shift to technology that makes work easier 

Keynote speaker, Josh Bersin, one of the leading HR and workplace industry analysts in the world, ended the day with an insightful presentation about HR technology and the role of AI in the workplace. He said the best HR tech goes beyond just automating processes: “Technology is not about improving HR anymore, it's about improving the working lives of employees.”

Citing research where CEOs say attracting and retaining talent is their top internal issue, Josh noted that the key problem companies are facing is slowing global economic productivity and the fact that they cannot grow without focusing on employee skills and careers. “Skills and capabilities are most important right now because that's what a company is,” he said. “My take on learning: we need to create an environment where people can learn in the flow of work… the learning curve is the earning curve… we need to give employees time and opportunities to learn.”

Another key topic that Josh emphasized to the audience was that trust is the new business currency. What people trust the most is their employers – he said they trust their employers 50 percent more than public institutions – and this has implications for technology. “In the world of AI, where you have incredible data about your people, your ability to be a trusted employer and a trusted HR department is more important than ever.”

What’s next  

The next three days in San Francisco are chock full of HR-focused sessions featuring  innovators, doers, and leaders. Not to be missed is Thursday’s Trends and Directions session “Re-inventing the Approach to Talent in the Era of AI” at 1:30 pm PT in Yerba Buena Theater. HR luminaries will talk about how organizations have already started reinventing the approach to talent to drive real business value. If you are not able to participate onsite, this session will also be streamed live at