Could changes in technology finally allow HRDs to make good on their promise of being more strategic?

To quote Nicola Millard, principal innovation partner at BT and until recently its resident futurologist: “The future of work is digital, but HR’s role is to have more of an experimental mindset.”

It’s a rallying call that respondents in our research agreed with, particularly in technology’s role helping transform the HR function. AI and collaborative tools rank second and third place (46% and 39% respectively), as the top tools for enabling HR transformation. But overwhelmingly it’s tech being able to take the toil out of day-to-day HR that most (50%) think has the greatest potential to position HR more strategically.

“Thanks to technology at our disposal, there has never been a better moment in time to be in HR,” says Stijn Nauwelaerts, corporate vice president of HR at Microsoft. But he accepts HRDs also need time and that for too long HR technology hasn’t taken the administrative burden or added analytical value to assist in strategic thinking.

“When technology can take 50 to 75% out of recruitment [53% of Ius Laboris research respondents believe recruitment will be more data and analytics-driven] it frees HR up. That’s when it has power,” says Nauwelaerts.

The basis for the entire HR work will be data and how to manage data Burkard Göpfert, Ius Laboris Germany

It’s little wonder better business technology is needed. Staff are increasingly digital first, wanting to log on when they want, at a time they want and, crucially, from where they want, which means once tight firewalls need relaxing to enable remote access and more employee self-service.

A recent study of the State of the Digital Employee Experience found just 13% of knowledge workers want to work exclusively from the office, with 30% wanting upgraded IT to enable this. Some 24% want more intuitive software and a further 24% would like tools to work across platforms.

Unsurprisingly, 25% want better employee self-service, to update personal information, review benefits and enrol in new ones, as respondents understand technology must be embraced more fully.

These trends shouldn’t scare companies, but rather ought to empower businesses to invest in people-centric, tech-driven organisations.

Organisations that are already 'tech-first' are less convinced by technology's ability to drive HR transformation

Industries that ranked technology as driving HR transformation to a large extent

“We don’t want to lose the ‘human’ part of HR, but tech has a huge role to play in skimming off the top stuff, freeing time up to design proper reward strategies,” says Rider Levett Bucknall’s Sarah Draper.

Nauwelaerts adds that tech could also provide the analytics to explore whether certain types of reward actually retain people and what could work harder.

In Europe 50% to 74% in Latin America of Ius Laboris-polled respondents believe “very much” that tech allows HR to focus on strategic planning. And it is HR management platforms, dealing with HR admin such as payroll, holiday planning and performance, that most (50%) cite will be the most important tech enabler.

But some unknowns remain. Technology also brings about new business problems. Since more employees have begun working from home, cybersecurity threats have increased by 238%, according to new research.

Further research has found 25% of remote employees say they have noticed an increase in fraudulent emails, spam and phishing attempts in their corporate email since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. Meanwhile, 26% say they keep their own copies of sensitive data at home, increasing the risk of data leaks.

I don't believe that technology can take over an entire recruitment process, but it can absolutely reduce the process by at least half, maybe even 75% Stijn Nauwelaerts

What HRDs certainly want is tech that creates innovation; it’s the top priority for choosing tech, according to our research. They also understand it’s an immediate short-term priority; 57% claim developing a more effective ecosystem is key, second only (60%) to building a more flexible workforce.

But are HRDs willing to evolve fast enough and do they have the skills in place to use and interpret data analytics?

“I’m surprised by how slowly HR technology and adoption is really developing,” says Ius Laboris Hong Kong’s Kathryn Weaver. “I don’t think the potential of technology is all hype. But the problem with tech is you can’t just dabble with it; you have to go full in and I wonder if that’s really happening.”

To really launch into it, some argue a whole new tech-enabled HR skillset is needed. “You’d never have had a data analyst role 20 years ago and that’s the opportunity tech offers,” says Draper. “But tech is only as good as the information you put in and the skill of the people interpreting it.”

Tools and technologies that are seen as being the biggest enablers of HR transformation

Surprisingly perhaps, Nauwelaerts says he wonders if technology is actually the panacea some really believe it to be. “HR tech is an opportunity, but not the only opportunity,” he concedes. “I almost think the biggest opportunity is creating simplicity first.”

Others share this view. “We often think the challenge is digital, but the challenge is really about mindsets and tackling unpredictability,” says Pernod Ricard’s Dolores Castelli. “But I think you have to commit to both simplicity and leveraging technology together. Data management is a top skill for HR that we are not leveraging as much as we should.”

Nauwelaerts says: “Ultimately HR should possibly be asking ‘why do we have these processes?’ or ‘do they add any value?’ and then ‘which can be improved by technology?’.

“Microsoft has zillions of processes I still want to refine. The pandemic is an opportunity to reset the agenda, but it's the readiness of HR leaders to respond to complexity that is really the question technology simply poses.”

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Changing status from administrative to transformational