The Age of "Technology will Save Us"

Created on Thursday, 27 August 2015 by

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear an HR professional use the term “The Future of Work?” (Yeah, me too)  From a pure business perspective, the concept focuses on company culture, environment, and how we treat our employees & clients.  Ultimately, this changes how organizations operate and is supposed to help attract (marketing), engage, and retain top talent. 

Note:  I have a range of thoughts and ideas that cover everything from leadership expectations to performance management in this presentation but the 2 central messages we should take away are:

  1.          Transformation is change:  Change has typically been hard for HR to handle, much less drive.  However, the expectations within the enterprise have changed and ages-old and layered complexity should no longer be considered the norm or acceptable.
  2.          Technology is not the magic bullet:  It’s there and rapidly advancing so for those who can embrace it and allow it to enhance the user experience, it can provide a robust and clean user experience.

The old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t play in HR anymore.  Now, it should be “if it ain’t broke…YES it is!”

Varied Approaches to HR Service Delivery

There are varied approaches to HR Service Delivery but let’s narrow it down to the 2 most prevalent:

People First:  Widely successful organizations/leaders (i.e., Virgin, Google, Amazon, etc.) focus their belief in the power & value of their people; human beings. 
If the employee is engaged, empowered, and happy, then innovation and excellence coms naturally.

Profit & Efficiency First:  We should all want to be as wildly successful as those noted above.  However, some leaders adopt a “the more profitable we are, the better we can treat our people” angle. Flashy vendor ROI/Cost Savings pitches trump the client experience (thus “technology will save us”).

efficiency profit costs pricing

 Regardless of the approach, HR still finds itself asking what business leaders want and struggles to lead or even facilitate the conversation.  In his “From the CEO” editorial in the May 2015 HR Magazine, Hank Jackson contends that “there is a gap between what business leaders want and what HR can deliver,” with no improvement in recent years.  Attempts to repackage & refocus the “HR silos” and terms like HR 2020 are not helping and merely mis-interpret industry/enterprise strategy and direction.  It is possible that this is the reason HR Technology vendors are selling so well to the C-Suite – in many cases, bypassing HR altogether - who then hands it down to HR to deliver (again receiving - not driving). 

Planning Ahead - How far does HR look into the future? 

According to the PWC Future of Work Report, only about 20% of HR professionals believe they are prepared to “meet the needs of a workforce that demands more freedom, autonomy, and flexibility.” 

So, what’s “Transformation” got to do with it?


In many ways, Transformation is another term that many business functions have taken on in recent years to describe change – or at least a perception of change.  According to good ole’ Webster’s Dictionary, Transformationis a complete or major change in someone's or something's appearance, form, etc.”  Unfortunately, Transformation has been equated to a mere Tech Swap in most cases and it is hard to fathom that any organization, department, or leader can create or manage true transformational change utilizing the current-state resources at their disposal. The real focus should be on the overall transformation of the HR Service Delivery Model. 

Talent-Centric HR Service Delivery

From an HR Service Delivery perspective, we must define the specific services to be delivered through the HR organization vs. directly through management/leadership or technology. Like it or not, managers will determine whether or not HR services succeed or fail - period.

seamless user experience

Employee engagement studies repeatedly show that managers have a direct impact on performance & retention. “When Managers understand and actively support their key role in guiding employees through the sometimes complex policies and procedures, Managers are acting as “HR-by-proxy” and have a direct impact on engagement and productivity. Successful HR departments understand the importance of the Manager role and are assertive in educating those responsible for managing people within the organization. Setting up consistent yet flexible metrics for managing people is an essential element for motivating management behaviors to support the HR Service Delivery model.

While the various HR processes are “owned” by the HR group, those same services are reliant on all the players involved in providing Human Resources support throughout the organization. The Manager plays a critical role in interpreting and delivering HR services and are ultimately responsible for engaging, motivating and shepherding employees through the tasks of everyday activities but they are also responsible for providing the employees with a view of future roles and responsibilities within the organization.

Key Considerations

The HR Service Delivery Model is designed to incorporate both generalized and specialized HR services and strategically leverage integrated automation (i.e., case management, knowledgebase, portal, HR Technology applications, etc.) to support intervention, information management, and the tracking/reporting of actions and events to provide a robust user experience. It is ok to ask consultants what other clients have done in certain scenarios (i.e., Best Practice).  However, an advisory services firm can either choose to either help or hurt:

Help:  A solid advisory services firm will always guide the client based on business strategy and requirements and should truly focus on a People-Process-Technology approach.  Forget “best practice.” It is great to share what other clients have done in certain scenarios BUT consultants should truly focus on replacing the client’s current state (whatever that is) with a People-Process-Technology approach.  Challenge the client when the terms “that won’t work here” or “that’s not the [ENTER COMPANY NAME] way” are used as barriers.  When the client says “you don’t understand our culture,” take it as a compliment!

Hurt:  Assume that the “soft stuff” (Talent Management, Engagement, L&D, etc.) is still just fluff, continuing to merely focus the client “streamlining” the components below, and implementing a great core (HR, payroll, Benefits) technology and support model. 

What seems to be missing in many cases is the how.  If our business is people, there is an investment and HR has to be able to build the business case proving why an investment in the “soft stuff” adds value.  Data drives discipline in how we operate, perform, deliver, etc.  Better understand who I have, what I don’t have, what I need, why I need it and when. HR must start with the foundation (i.e., core, payroll, etc.) but they tend to stop here too.  They get tired of the ongoing project lifecycle and feel defeated, lose interest. 

In approaching HR Service Delivery logically, we have found that it is best to follow these key considerations:

Culture & Behaviors

     ·         What will differentiates our delivery model and value proposition?

    ·         How do we want to be perceived by internal and external stakeholders?

             ·         What are cultural barriers to changes in HR Service Delivery that will need to be addressed?

             ·         What behaviors do we need to effectively change (employee, manager, HR, leaders, etc.)

People & Organization

     ·         How will we organize?

     ·         How will we staff the model?

     ·         What competencies will be required?

     ·         How will we manage the change?

     ·         How will we communicate the changes?

     ·         How will we train/transition resources?

     ·         What governance structure will we use?

     ·         How do we create an award winning HR Service Delivery Model (not just structure/value)?

Process & Services

     ·         What services do we offer?

     ·         How will we improve our delivery?

     ·         What management updates will we need? How will we provide this?

     ·         How will we measure efficiency vs. effectiveness?

     ·         How will we bill for services?

     ·         What service level agreements will we have and with whom?

     ·         How do I provide services (by industry, by organization, etc.).        

Technology & Sourcing

     ·         How will we manage “employee facing” access?

     ·         What tools will we use?

     ·         Data capture

     ·         Knowledge management

     ·         Case management

     ·         Transaction processing

     ·         How will we handle employee data and “back-end” processing? (The opportunity for data & analytics is too important to miss)

Governance (HR Demand Management)

     ·         How will we manage the new delivery model and service offerings?

     ·         How will we measure performance?

     ·         How will we engage the business, operations, leadership, and HR on a common direction?

     ·         How will we support the demands of the business, our employees, and HR?

Breaking Bad

When challenged to deliver truly transformative HR services, technology is often looked at as the transformation; largely because technology is the tangible that HR can build a case around to sell to the C-Suite.  A prime example of HR’s reliance on “Technology will Save Us” is the now-antiquated performance review.  Once looked at as the only way to tangibly and systematically measure the performance of the workforce (and subsequently the enterprise) was through performance review technologies that allows managers to not only rate employees against set competencies and goals but to also rank employees against their peers. 

In a statement in the Wall Street Journal recently that said “Can a year’s worth of work be boiled down to a stock phrase like “meets expectations?”  They also refer to the 70% of Intel’s workforce who receive a “successful” rating (the second-lowest label) as the “Walking Wounded” and how it seriously deflated morale.  How sad is that? As companies reinvent management by slashing layers of hierarchy or freeing workers to set their own schedules, performance ratings—which grade workers on a 1-5 scale or with labels like “on target”—stubbornly hang on. Companies like Gap Inc., Adobe Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. abolished such ratings after leaders decided they deterred collaboration and stoked staffers’ anxieties. Yet other companies are having a harder time letting go.

Companies that have moved away from ratings say their employees feel better about their jobs, and actually listen to managers’ feedback instead of obsessing over a number. (Microsoft)

The Gap’s new approach dumps ratings in favor of monthly coaching sessions and frequent employee-manager conversations. But HR executives had to convince leaders that the move wasn’t “sacrilegious,” according to Eric Severson, the company’s co-head of human resources.  A 17-year veteran of the company, said it was strange at first (she was used to scanning her review for her rating and bonus number). She now talks more frequently with her manager, so she has a better idea of where she stands, a process that she’s found less stressful than worrying about her rating.

ADOBE:  As noted in the April 2015 HR Magazine, Donna Morris writes about her transformation of the old and outdated performance management philosophy at Adobe Systems, Inc. “We hired the very best, and then we brought them into an organization and on an annual basis said, ‘you were exceptional when you came in, but now, relative to your peers, you’re only average.”puzzled peices

Adobe had long ago adopted the stack ranking performance management process — a forced distribution system requiring managers to rank employees on a curve, cutting the bottom 10 percent from the organization. The system was popularized in the 1980s, when General Electric Co.’s then-CEO Jack Welch touted it as a central component to the conglomerate’s high performance. 

By the beginning of 2012 - buoyed by a broader strategy shift at Adobe, Morris, with the support of her team and the company’s senior leadership, made the call to ditch the stack-ranking system.  Its replacement: “Check In,” an approach of more frequent, informal performance conversations, centered on deconstructing the prim rating and reporting structure of the annual review in favor of quarterly, monthly and even daily performance conversations.  Now, a little more than two years in, company executives say Check In has sparked a change in Adobe’s culture. Voluntary attrition — employees deciding to leave the company on their own terms — is down 25 percent in the past two years, Morris said. Adobe’s stock price has also experienced a steady climb, which the company attributes to its revamped business model.

Technology has allowed – and in many ways fostered – a more collaborative, team-oriented environment that is harder to measure and nearly impossible to rank.  In this broken model, most leaders are forced to conduct annual or bi-annual performance reviews that are at best costly, time consuming and often a one-way monologue with staff, knowing that the overall system is not working. According to Dan Vander Hey, Principal Consultant at KnowledgeSource Consulting, “Organizations need an entirely new approach to managing performance because appraisals are often a monologue rather than a dialogue [and] stifles discussion.”  Dan goes on to note that appraisals are too infrequent and stressful, but opportunities like Climate Review conversations (whereas managers & employees review things like Job satisfaction, Morale, and Communication) are becoming more mainstays.   “We also see Performance Reviews turning into more of a Strengths & Talents conversation where there are opportunities to discuss growth and expectations with the following type of questions. 

       What are my expectations as manager?

       How are you performing to those expectations?

       What can we do to help you meet my expectations?

       Are you committed to meeting those standards in the future?

When focusing on transformation and the client experience, it is wise to consider all generations and not spend too much of your time & resources courting any 1 demographic.  As the Millennial generation moves into the workforce, incorporating their expectations (yes, the hip work atmosphere of the leading technology companies, great onboarding experience, etc.) can be a positive and transformative move.  However, not considering the needs and expectations of the Gen X’ers and others who are here now and getting the job done today does the organization a disservice. 

So, what’s important to the employee? 

Keep in mind that employee goals & objectives may not even slightly resemble those of the organization - some cases, not even close.  Consider multiple engagement approaches; different demographics have different expectations (one size does not fit all).  Also keep in mind that technology is never a magic bullet.  Assuming that millennials are “tech savvy” and expect a more robust (often complex) technical environment to keep them challenged and engaged would be a big mistake. 

Engagement Matters

Employee engagement impacts nearly every efficiency measurement used in business today; healthcare costs, productivity & performance, customer satisfaction, retention, and the list goes on and on.  According to a 2013 Gallup report, only 30% of the workforce is engaged in their work; leaving 70% disengaged and not reaching their full potential.  (Gallup, 2013)  This is not to say that 70% of the workforce are “low performers” and it would be nearly impossible to get the same results from the “sliding scale” performance ranking system of yesterday that seems to be the vein of HR’s existence and the kryptonite of morale & motivation.  The report goes on to estimate that disengagement costs the US Economy $450-550 billion per year and finds that “managers who focus on their employees’ strengths can practically eliminate active disengagement” within the enterprise. 

Managers are ultimately responsible for engaging, motivating and shepherding employees through the tasks of everyday activities but they are also responsible for providing the employees with a view of future roles and responsibilities within the organization. Like it or not, managers will determine whether or not HR services succeed or fail - period.

Interestingly enough, Gallup also finds that the generations near the end of their careers are more engaged than those at the beginning of their careers. 

Engagement in the workplace starts with leadership!  What should leaders know? To truly manage engagement, you again have to focus on the experience (user experience, client/stakeholder experience, etc.) as well as approaching the learning & development (L&D) of your workforce from a more streamlined and “on-demand” angle.  The Learning Management System (LMS) market started in the late 1990's by companies like Skillsoft, CBT Systems, NetG, DigitalThink, and Ninth House Networks.  These companies started building online courses more than 15 years ago with the intent of transforming the way people incorporated enterprise knowledge into their jobs.  However, as we are continually expected to do more – with less – L&D has taken on a whole new dimension and is focusing on delivery of knowledge in 3 key areas;

     •           Peer-to-peer collaboration

     •           Video on demand

     •           Education in smaller bites.

Business Leaders…Take Note

A major hurdle in getting to a state of much-needed transformation is the inability for some leaders to take ownership and make decisions.  Highly successful leaders are transparent (what you see is what you get).  52% of Gen Z’s and Gen Y’s state that honesty is the most important quality for being a good leader.  (Schawbel, 2014)  This transparency establishes confidence, creates buy-in, and builds trust.  Transparent leaders are respectful and trusting of their staff and they are open & honest about motivations and decisions.  Unfortunately, the fear of making a decision and failing at execution has hobbled the department and fostered an environment in which other executives make the decisions and then require HR to execute.

Some decisions made outside the focus of HR are more technical in nature and lead to what we like to call a “Tech Swap” vs. true transformation.  Again, this is where the “Technology will Save Us” mentality comes into plan.  In the widely popular The Second Machine Age, Authors Brynjolfsson and McAfee contend that the "Internet of Things" (the comprehensive digital networking, learning, mapping , etc.) is creating the next industrial revolution that is replacing (vs. complimenting) human cognition, in that computers ultimately do work that used to involve people for manual, routine, and information-based tasks.

We are now seeing the automation of middle-management jobs that are highly cognitive and non-routine as well.  (The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies (First Edition.), 2014).  Simply put, you cannot automate humanity.  Creating a rock-solid HR Service Delivery Model takes HR out of the “stupid stuff?” and allows them to be much more of what the business needs today; strategic, proactive, client-focused, and yes…transparent!

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