Digitally Place the "Human" Back in Human Resources

“Employees are our greatest asset” – how many of us in our careers have heard this proclamation from on-high, and collectively rolled our eyes?

In the real world, the phrase often clashes with the realities of midyear and annual performance reviews, or managers agonizing over increments of bonus and pay raises.

And what about the times when a star recruit – the “big fish” you’ve cultivated for months – gets away because of a hitch in the applicant tracking process, which resulted in their taking the competing job offer from your rival? Or they showed up on their first day of work “ready to rock,” only to be asked by the front desk – “Who are you? And what are you doing here?”

Our new research from the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work entitled “The Work Ahead: Soaring Out of the Process Silo” highlights data-based insights and tactical advice on applying new digital technologies to front-, middle- and back-office work processes to realize new levels of business performance.

We analyzed the responses from the HR leaders in our dataset on how they think digital will transform work between now and 2020.

What’s clear is that senior HR executives believe the future workforce will need to use digital technologies to work faster, and that their required skills will change, likely due to having to collaborate with smart machines.

Surprisingly, HR executives were 40% more likely than any other group of operational executives to say that digital will significantly result in a need for fewer people (this, coming from HR, after all!). And they show tepid belief that digital will result in interpersonal relationships becoming more valuable.

One thing is for certain: The one function with an explicit charter to “help people feel like people” is HR. Yet often, HR makes for the most de-humanizing business experiences imaginable. Instead of “Welcome to the future of work,” it can too often be, “Welcome to the portal – your password was denied.”

In a future of work that will feature more automation, people – and their unique skills and talents – will continue to make the greatest contribution toward accomplishing the mission of all businesses. In the words of Professor Leslie Willcocks of the London School of Economics, automation and AI will finally let us “take the robot out of the human.”

Imagine an insurance company that sees immediate opportunity for expansion in Asia, and through digital recruiting (using a platform like ZipRecruiter), accelerates fivefold the process of getting sales “feet on the street.” Or, consider a firm like BetterWorks, which encourages companies to drive objectives and key results (OKRs). According to BetterWorks, companies that use OKRs are four times more likely to score in the top 25% of business outcomes.

Here’s an action plan for how HR can get humming with humans.

TODAY: Change the mindset – it’s about your people, stupid.

Take a good hard look at all HR processes. Are they really helping make things better for people? Look at your annual performance reviews. What about bonus cycles? Are they aligned for up-to-the-moment expectations and results in often fluid, digitally-driven business cycles? Don’t overthink it; focus on two to three HR processes that are broken or that prevent optimal utilization of skills that will help your best people thrive in the digital future of work. Use OKRs, especially in an era when “managers are from Mars”. Objectives are all about where-do-we-want-to-go (i.e., “Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade”); key results are about how-we-will-get-there (i.e., “Build a lunar module weighing under 40,000 pounds by December 1965”).

TOMORROW: ort out the balance of the “art of the job” (for humans) vs. the “science of the job” (for bots)?

Judgment is very easy for humans but very hard for computers. How can you (or the operational staff that reports to you) double-down on the unique skills of your current and future employees in a digital world? Robots are very good at the “science” of a job, especially when reliance on computational capabilities, analysis and pattern recognition poses questions on the most appropriate action to take next, based on all data available. Humans are very good at assessing situations, or the “art” of the job, and essentially asking, “What is the right thing to do in a given situation?”

ONE to TWO YEARS: Develop a new master architecture to support “work.”

The striking growth of subcontracting for digital functions and processes demands a flexible, distributed workforce and a work platform that can issue digital “gigs” into the labor market as demand dictates. The work platform will need to start aligning the orchestration of human and machine tasks, particularly as automation technologies and analytic processes dramatically enhance productivity and innovation through knowledge work. From an HR executive’s perspective, that not only means less paperwork; it also means far better outcomes, such as the precision development of people, mitigation of biases, improved help for legal matters, and substantially improved employee engagement to be better humans in the digital world that is swiftly approaching.