Profession can be a ‘critical friend’ to business leaders, CIPD London Future of Work Conference hears

HR professionals must take the opportunity to reflect and think critically about the introduction of technology in the workplace, rather than being swayed by hype, according to one of the UK’s leading experts on the topic.

Speaking at the CIPD London Future of Work Conference, Dr Richard MacKinnon said HR departments had an opportunity to be a “critical friend” to business leaders as they consider automating elements of their operations. But that required them to think about whether new technology was being introduced for the good of the business or because of a rush to follow others or be part of a new trend.

“We get caught up in the excitement of things,” said MacKinnon, insight director at the Future Work Centre. “And we often bring the bias of personally liking technology – but while we might like something, that isn’t the same as having evidence that it works or doesn’t work.

“It’s easy to take a selective reading of the trade press or a blog and think ‘that’s exactly what we need’. The technology might be the right thing for Facebook or Google or a government department, but is it the best thing for you?”

MacKinnon urged HR professionals to search for real evidence of effectiveness when considering technology – “A lot of things that get reported about employee engagement, for example, are false causality; one thing did not cause the other,” he said – and to consider it from a variety of perspectives: “Look at how it will be evaluated and implemented; what it will help you achieve.”

Being more critical about technology, he concluded, didn’t have to mean being an organisational voice of doom. “Being evidence-based isn’t a bad thing, though it can seem like a real downer. Being tactful and a good manager of relationships will help you a lot – nobody likes being hit in the face with a journal article, but they do like being asked ‘what can I help you with?’”

The conference also heard from a variety of speakers discussing the need for greater diversity and democracy in the workplace, as well as the impact of skills mismatches on the UK’s economic prospects. Professor Chris Warhurst, director of the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick, said the single largest demographic group that voted for Brexit was low-skilled workers, who he said felt “trapped” in bad jobs.

“Better job quality would raise innovation and would also raise skills. Whereas previously people might have felt that raising job quality would hurt job creation, we now know that isn’t the case,” said Warhurst, who pointed out that between a quarter and a third of people in the labour market were overqualified for their current roles. The governmental priority to increase employment, he said, had led to a generation of “frustrated” graduates.

Opening the conference, CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese echoed concerns about a mismatch between the skills being developed by the education system and the fast-moving requirements of business. “We know the gap between education and work has been growing. We’re not utilising the skills of the workforce properly, and that’s not just the fault of education. We have lost sight of what’s at the heart of business, which is humans,” said Cheese.