What does an agile HR function look like?

Write-up from HR Tech Europe conference, 24-25 March 2015 by Jessica Cooper, Research adviser – Resourcing. @JessicaCooperHR

I was excited to have the opportunity to attend HR Tech Europe in person, it was my first time.  Previously, I had followed on Twitter, thankful to those who were sharing their updates.  The conference was timely for me, I was in the middle of designing some research to look at how HR’s role was changing as a result of HR technology and analytics. I had set myself the objective of going to the conference to try and enhance my understanding of the software products out there and how they might impact HR roles, changing the way they work.

How wrong I was, the message in this conference was so much bigger than this.  Absolutely, there was the exhibition floor showcasing the latest ‘HR’ technology products some of which I will talk about in more detail later and there were the presentations from various speakers about implementing HR technologies but the real tone of the conference was set was by the opening key-note from Peter Hissen who spoke under a session entitled ‘The Network Always Wins’.

The message was very clear – technology is changing everything.  The next generation don’t watch TV, they watch You Tube.  The next generation might never need a driving license as driverless cars become common place.  What does this future mean for advertising companies, for car insurance companies, for driving instructors?  Jobs will change and some will even go away.  The same he said for organisations.  If these organisations do not spot what he called ‘the sharks’ in their industry they will become ‘extinct’. 

Of particular interest to me was his comments about organisational structure and the role of HR.  He said that organisations of the future need to be fluid; that structure and organisation charts don’t work.  This was a theme that was seemingly echoed in other presentations including that by Lee Bryant Director of POIST*SHIFT.   The emphasis seems to be on agility and the need to people to be able to react quickly “innovate radically”; networks and teams of people operating collaboratively.  What is HR’s and line manager’s role in this? To facilitate and be “enablers of the network”.  And the role of technology? To enable this collaboration.  A fantastic statistic was quoted by Baris Findik from Turkcell, saying that 96 of the projects in their organisation were born out of collaboration via social networks.

The other sessions I attended focussed more on the typical conversation you would expect around HR technology.  HR service delivery: from conceptual model to reality, a presentation from Maaden Saudi Arabian Mining Company with their interpretation of the Ulrich model but with a clear emphasis on paper of the different roles of each of the elements of the function and how they worked together, often absent from this type of work.  I attended an interesting presentation by Volker Jacobs from CEB entitled ‘Data and Innovation Driven HR Transformations – the direct way to business value’ talking about an alternative way to undergo HR transformation focussing on data rather than process.  I am desperately trying to get my hands on the research that sits behind this new methodology. My final session was a presentation by Nick Holley, Professor at Henley Business School.  His session was entitled ‘CEO’s don’t care about HR’ but his message was that they do, but they expect HR to be doing it and don’t care until you don’t do it.  Nick made so many good and relevant points, I can’t do them justice in this short blog post, but at a later date I will blog on the research Henley Business School has done on CEO’s expectations from HR (published shortly).  Nick compared the future role of HR to that of an orchestral conductor with the goal of balancing short-term profit for shareholders with social, long-term sustainability.

On the exhibition floor, I was impressed (once again) with the powers of IBM’s Watson’s Talent super sexy analytics solution. It amazes me how easy this solution appears (from the demo) to take data from multiple spreadsheets and other sources and in seconds you can be asking questions of your data which is presented to you in attractive infographics.  I have signed up for a free trial.

I was also impressed by other smaller vendors.  Recruitment tools such as Assess First who provide personality assessments to complement your recruitment process; HireVue a digital interview tool and more and finally emee a gamification solutions partner who have developed gamification solutions for processes such as onboarding and performance management.

But my takeaway on the impact of technology on the role of HR.  There is still room to enhance the operational processes through further automation and adoption of new technologies.  Analytics can absolutely enhance decision making and put people at the forefront of business decisions and HR can orchestrate this insight.  But the real role of HR; to predict where technology might take their organisation and the people implications of this, how it might change the nature of people’s jobs and how it can help organisations to better work  in this new environment.  And how should HR change its operating model to respond? I think that it should start to work more collaboratively as a function, data should be at the heart of every decision it takes (but not exclusively), there should probably be a bit of HR that is more traditional focussing on the stuff in HR that just needs to get done, but complemented by this more fluid, agile, collaborative component focusing on the future and innovation.  Above all HR needs to establish what is right for its organisation and the context in which it is operating.

For further blogs see HR Tech Europe or presentations from the conference.    

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