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Imagining HR’s Role in Our Digital Future

Last Monday I was part of a panel at an event titled “Keeping HR Human in a Digital World”. It was a great panel with diverse viewpoints and experience, and a lively audience that stuck around to ask questions and chat.

A question that wasn’t asked, but maybe should have been is:

“What do we even mean by ‘digital’?”

Certainly we all know the literal meaning of ‘digital’, and based on the discussion at this event, we definitely get that a digital world means one with lots of technology…but how is that different than last year, or 5 years ago, or even 10?

If you’re finding the words “digital transformation” seem to be everywhere at the moment, it’s because according to Google trends data, it seems that it may be at, or reaching, the peak of the ‘hype cycle‘.

Digital Transformation Trend

Gartner’s hype cycle:


Like any term used to neatly package and commoditize something complex and sweeping, it over-simplifies. As busy humans, it’s easy for us to unconsciously agree that this simplified description is a good representation of the thing itself, and not devote further time to untangle what it might mean, both in the context in which it’s being discussed, and for our organizations and our profession.

So, What is Digital Transformation?

The term is intended to signal a move beyond mere ‘digitization‘ (moving analog data into a digital form that can be used by computers) to indicate a more profound change, in which an organization may reimagine its business model through the lens of digital technologies “to provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business”. Source: Gartner

An example, (also from Gartner):

“Take for example a nurse’s clipboard, used for bedside patient monitoring in hospitals. Simply replacing the paper forms with tablet devices is not in itself digitization. Of course there are benefits in doing this, such as faster and more accurate data entry into the electronic health record system than could be achieved with manual transcription.

But what if we redesigned the work using smart machines and the Internet of Things? Machines can do most of the monitoring, data collection and incident reporting, leaving nurses to do things only humans do well, like touch, talk, observe and empathize. The machines can monitor patient vital signs continuously, potentially alerting the nurse to a problem sooner than might otherwise have occurred with only periodic checks. The end result is a better outcome for the patient – and the nurse.”

This mindset shift would ultimately involve considering the potential of digitalization across all dimensions of an organization, from its workforce and internal operations, to its customers, vendors, and product.

Indeed, the point was raised at Monday’s event that thinking about a digital world as an HR person means thinking beyond the boundaries of HR tech and digitalization to consider the entire business.

Why Does This Matter for HR?

It’s fair to say that while most HR functions have at least a toe in the HR tech pool (an HRIS, maybe an ATS), many are still coming to grips with how to fully integrate these tools into their work (and few are selecting and implementing tech based on employee needs versus their own). So it’s understandable that as a profession we might not feel prepared to talk about ‘digital transformation’.

And yet,  given it’s position in the hype cycle, it’s likely that leaders in other functional area of our organizations are also hearing about ‘digital transformation’ non-stop. Indeed, many of these changes have already been happening in pockets of our organizations for years (they just didn’t yet have a fancy consulting label). To support and advise our organizations we need to know how to dig into what our colleagues, leaders, and stakeholders mean when they say ‘digital transformation’. We need to be prepared to ask questions like:

  • What are the broader market, industry, and business factors that are making digital transformation a priority for us now?
  • What challenges, opportunities, hopes or fears are driving their individual focus on digital transformation?
  • How does this align to our business model and strategy?
  • In which facets of the business would digitalization provide the most leverage?
  • What do our organizations’ leaders envision will change by adopting a digital strategy?
  • How does this look different than what the organization is doing now?

Armed with this understanding, as HR people we have a distinct and important role to play to support the success of projects and changes our organizations may label ‘digital transformation’. We can assess, frame, and plan for the impacts these projects present to the roles and people in our organizations. It’s an acknowledged truth that technology-related initiatives don’t fail because of the technology, they fail because of people.

And while there are people who will fear these changes (as there always are), digital transformation may not be the precursor to the bleak robotic future some believe is imminent.

Automation & Work Design

There continues to be a great deal of anxiety and focus given to the potential of AI to eliminate a range of jobs over the coming decades. And yet…it seems that to date it’s tasks, not jobs, that are being automated. In fact, McKinsey estimates that only 5% of jobs in the US could be completely automated. So, it may be that most jobs have elements that are automated in the coming years, which could (if steered deliberately) open up human capacity to focus on the work that can’t be automated:

“It’s important to recognize that we will inevitably automate parts of almost every job. We’ve seen it happen already across manufacturing, food service, and retail operations. As we move into the cognitive work arena, the idea will be the same: We’ll see automation of many predictable, scalable, and repeatable tasks.

That will leave us humans with a choice to make. How and where we deliberately apply automated and cognitive technology to work has the potential to result in changes that enhance and enrich the experience people have through their jobs. In fact, it may give us the potential to better tailor roles to humans – both generally and individually.

“A recent McKinsey study shows that there really are tasks that only humans can do for the foreseeable future, particularly in areas such as education and health care. Among them are managing others, applying expertise — such as knowledge of the stock market or a knack for creative messaging — and interacting with key stakeholders. There are still aspects of many jobs that cannot be automated away…”

Machines can’t do much of the important work that humans do. The ability to use lateral thinking, intuition, and creativity to draw meaning and make sense of seemingly unrelated information. Care-giving, emotional labour, and mentorship. We can and should design work and our workplaces around these unique human capabilities.

Further, the interfaces between humans and these technologies will offer fascinating and critical challenges and opportunities for the organizations (and their HR people) that approach them with curiousity and care.

Our Digital Future

Something that came up again and again on Monday night was the view that right now is a really interesting time to be in HR. I agree. There are new and engaging opportunities for us to contribute to our organizations approach to navigating these unprecedented changes. Rather than fear a digital world, we should be steering towards it, ready to let go of routine tasks (thank you robots) and help others do the same.

Shameless Plug:

Are you in the Toronto area? Free Tuesday night? Looking for an abandoned soap factory that happens to be housing a giant festival? You’re in luck! Join me at the Expo for Design, Innovation, and Technology and hear our panel discussion about designing organizations that will thrive in the future of work.

Read This Week:

On Improving Diversity in Hiring – Cate, Accidentally in Code

I follow Cate, Automattic’s mobile lead, on Twitter for her insights and reflections on the workplace, management, and feminism (her travel photos are awesome too). I found her latest post on diversity and hiring to be a clear and well-written reminder that we need to think more broadly about how to create a diverse organization:

“We talk about “Diversity and Inclusion” but perhaps it should be “Inclusion and Diversity” because inclusion needs to come first. Don’t hire people into an environment they can’t be successful in. On a practical level, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. On a human level, it’s harmful.

A good rule for inclusion pre-work to diversity is to stop doing things you would have to change if the demographics of your team better reflected the demographics of the world. If you find yourself watching interactions or jokes and thinking they wouldn’t be okay if there were women / people of color / lgbt / … people on the team… maybe shut that stuff down now if you ever want to have women / people of color / lgbt / … people on the team.”

A Field Guide to Jerks at Work – Jena McGregor, The Washington Post

A topic bound to evoke lively discussions and possibly some ‘horrible anecdote” one-upmanship: jerks at work. We’ve all encountered them, we’ve all complained about them, we’ve all tried to cope with them. If you work in HR there can be times when you feel like jerks at work are equally responsible for your stress headaches and your job security.

This article gives an overview of Bob Sutton’s forthcoming book “”The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People who Treat You Like Dirt”. It’s a follow up to his best-seller “The No Asshole Rule”. I’m looking forward to seeing Professor Sutton speak at the University of Toronto this week, and enjoyed this preview of the insights from his book.

On the “Lone Bosshole”:

Who they are: Research finds that rudeness in the workplace operates almost like the common cold, infecting a “carrier” who spreads it to others. Sutton cites University of Maryland researcher Trevor Foulk, who found that when people experience even a single instance of rudeness at work, they become more aware of it — and are more likely to respond in kind.

“You start seeing it, you start responding to it,” Foulk said. “You become more vigilant, more discerning, you tend to interpret things as rude.” That’s why, he says, it’s important for organizations to oust a single pompous jerk quickly.

Do Men and Women Have Equal Opportunities? – James Elfer

This is a thought-provoking summary of recent research on the question James asks in his title. His organization MoreThanNow intends to bring behavioural science to the workplace, and is currently focused on gender equality.

“…while it’s true that the extent of this disadvantage will differ across contexts and companies, let’s finish with a meta-analytic review of 136 academic studies on gender stereotypes in employment decision-making.

The authors conclude:

  1. Men are preferred for male-dominated jobs while no strong preference for either gender is found for female-dominated jobs.

  2. Male decision-makers exhibited greater gender-role congruity bias than did female decision-makers for male-dominated jobs.

  3. Gender-role congruity bias did not consistently decrease when decision makers were provided with additional information about those they were rating. “


Missed last week’s post? Check it out here: A Spotter’s Guide to Rebels and Cynics

Image credit: Jamison McAndie via

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