HR Under the Digital Influence

New survey finds only 16 percent of HR leaders feel “very prepared” to operate in a digital world.
By: | March 21, 2018 • 4 min read

Nearly half of all marriages are believed to end in divorce—a proportion that has increased as the meaning of marriage has changed. In the 19th century, marriage meant survival. From 1850 to 1964, the concept of marriage changed slightly to focus on companionship. From 1965 to the present, the concept of marriage has drastically shifted to what psychologists call “self-expressive marriage,” in which partners view their commitment as a source of self-expression, self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.

And when a partner or marriage doesn’t meet these lofty expectations, divorce is usually the next step.

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“This is a good analogy for today’s CHROs,” says Dennis Layton, global deputy lead of people advisory services at EY. “They’re expected to be thought leaders and experts in everything from the transactional to digital.”

The problem, he says, is that a clear majority of CHROs aren’t there yet and don’t know how to get there. This creates an expectations mismatch of what the CEO wants and what the CHROs can do.

Recent research from EY, Development Dimensions International and The Conference Board unveiled the level of dissatisfaction among the C-suite toward HR leaders. The Global Leadership Forecast 2018: 25 Research Insights to Fuel Your People Strategy paints a rather unforgiving picture of HR. Responses from more than 25,000 business leaders and 2,500 HR professionals revealed that HR isn’t living up to its full potential and its reputation is suffering.

Part of the problem is the perception of HR. In the 2014/2015 Global Leadership Forecast, researchers described three categories into which HR professionals fall: reactor, anticipator and partner. The goal for HR, according to the experts, is to become anticipators, especially in this ever-evolving digital world.

HR often isn’t a step ahead of business leaders in planning and analytics, which is where the partnership model falls short, says Evan Sinar, chief scientist and vice president of the Center for Analytics and Behavior Research at DDI and co-author of the Global Leadership Report.

“Partnership is often seen as the ‘last stop’ for HR leaders, but it doesn’t push the organization,” Sinar says. “HR needs to disrupt and challenge an organization to grow the business.”

Since the introduction of the three HR categories, business leaders have labeled HR as reactors (43 percent in 2014 and 41 percent in 2017), whereas HR professionals self-identified as partners (60 percent and 62 percent, respectively). In 2014, 20 percent of business leaders reported HR as anticipators, but this number fell to just 11 percent in 2017. What happened?

According to the report’s authors, the lifeblood of anticipators is predictive analytics, and unfortunately for HR leaders, that’s where they fall short.

“Digital and data are driving forces for businesses to grow and HR is responsible for leading growth and change; however, based on our results, we see that HR leaders are lagging behind other functional leaders operating in a digital environment,” says Sinar.

Just 16 percent of HR leaders felt “very prepared” to operate in a digital workforce, compared to 37 percent of business leaders overall.

Disruptive dynamics are simultaneously impacting business and the workforce, says Art Mazor, principal at Deloitte, adding that “HR is the only function with the purview and ability to turn those disruptions into opportunity.”

John Bremen, managing director of global human capital and benefits leadership at Willis Towers Watson, says that HR leaders need to bolster their agility, which will then allow them to enhance other critical skills sets.

“Research that we’ve done [at Willis Towers Watson] has shown four critical skill areas for dealing and succeeding in an evolved organization: agility, digital, communication and global HR function,” says Bremen. “For the last 100 years, the construct of HR hasn’t been agile—HR was meant to create continuity and manage risk.”

Ironically, he adds, to manage risk in today’s world, you need to be agile, and agility and transformation are intertwined in the most successful organizations.

Deloitte has found that high-impact organizations have HR leaders at the helm, navigating disruptions. Successful HR leaders elevate their department’s capabilities, engage in all aspects of the organization with a business mindset and optimize the value of investments by aligning and tailoring solutions that turn disruptions into opportunities, says Mazor.

Transforming into an agile organization is no small task, but it can be done. Take, for instance, Humana, a company that saw the coding on the wall and shifted its focus to digital in 2012. A few years back, a digital group was built into HR, according to Roger Cude, Humana’s senior vice president of human resources business partners, talent management and organization development.

This digital team was staffed with developers, industrial engineers and rapid prototyping experts, Cude says—professionals whose skill sets were outside of the HR realm, which enabled his diverse team to think outside of the box and deliver stellar digital content.

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“Our digital HR team stitches together various technologies to help drive an integrated employee experience,” says Cude.

Humana also has a Digital Center of Excellence that accelerates digitization capabilities. Cude has his team members rotate into digital leadership positions within the center to gain hands-on experience and knowledge that can be leveraged within HR.

“I advise HR leaders to speak with the C-suite and the board to get a deep understanding of what they need,” says Bremen. “Not every company’s interpretation of what digital or agile means is the same. Don’t make assumptions and collect good data on what’s required and how those requirements can add value.”

Sinar says that as many organizations struggle with what leadership looks like in a digital environment, HR needs to play a role in the translation of digital expectations.

“As HR leaders address skill gaps within an organization, they also need to acknowledge their own skill shortcomings,” he says. “HR leaders are responsible for organizational growth and change, but to successfully scale a business, they must make upskilling a critical priority.”

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]

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