Strengthening the HR-Digital Connection

At first glance, the connection between the emerging role of chief digital officer and HR would seem tenuous, at best.

Yet, experts and employers that have CDOs in their organizations say the relationship between the two entities is a natural fit, as the CDO is often far from a “techie” and usually has a combination of tech- and people-savvy skill sets.

“CDOs are change agents assigned with transforming analogue companies into digital ones,” says Gillian Brooks, a postdoctoral career development fellow in marketing and co-author of a new report on CDOs from the University of Oxford’s Said School of Business. “Their focus isn’t purely technological, but cultural as well. The title hardly scratches the surface of what a CDO does, which is what makes filling the role tricky.”

Brooks, who co-authored the report with Michael Smets, associate professor in management and organization studies, says the CDO role has typically been created by large, established companies who feel both threatened from digital disruption in their markets and excited by the opportunities that new technologies can offer.

She explains that digital transformation, by its nature, changes all the operations and processes in the organization, eventually becoming a pervasive force. This means that, as more and more tasks are digitized, not only is existing talent freed up, there is a clear need for new talent as well.

“Here, CDOs and CHROs should work hand-in-hand to make sure the organization attracts the right kind of talent and upskills existing talent in relevant ways to make the most of digitization,” she says.

CDOs are not entirely new, but they are growing in number.  For example, a 2016 study from PwC found that 19 percent of 2,500 large global companies reported having a CDO in place, up from just 6 percent of employers surveyed in 2015.

Whether an organization has a chief digital officer or not, companies must make digital a priority, says Bhushan Sethi, joint global and US financial services practice leader at PwC.

“Those who don’t will not survive long-term,” says Sethi. “It’s that important.”

Unfortunately, he adds, some just don’t quite know how to do it. Many companies have a lot of work to do in terms of workforce planning, and use of data and digital are big parts of that. Many have staff who aren’t fully prepared to embrace the latest tools and technology that will help the organization thrive, e.g., AI, machine learning. So there is a great deal of upskilling to do.

Among other things, PwC’s approach involves creating a tool called the Digital Fitness app, which drives staff to a personalized curriculum that enables them to upskill in the areas where they have the most growing to do.

Joe Atkinson, PwC’s CDO, says he connects with HR to achieve organizational goals, explaining that digitizing an organization requires both great technology and great talent.

“Our objective to digitize PwC is focused on how we equip our people to respond to the market’s expectations for delivering greater value in a more tech-enabled way,” Atkinson notes. “Said another way, you can’t ‘tech-enable’ your way to a digital future; it requires talent equipped with the digital skills and agility to compete in an ever-changing business environment.”

And that requires providing PwC people with leading tools–things like AI, data visualization and automation–and also the skills to leverage those technologies for the benefit of its people and, ultimately, its clients.

To demonstrate the need for a close relationship between the CDO and HR, PwC created the role of digital talent leader because, Atkinson says, neither the CDO nor the CHRO can do it alone.

“Together, the vision for a digital organization becomes achievable,” he says.

Sarah McEneaney, PwC’s digital talent leader, reports to Atkinson but also sits on the firm’s People Leadership Team under the chief people officer. She works closely with the business in the design, rollout and iteration of what the company is doing to bring its talent strategy along with its digital one–ensuring stakeholder engagement and a change-management approach that allows for decision speed.

At Mercer, Gail Evans, chief digital officer, agrees that a digital transformation is as much about culture change as it is about technology. With that, a strong partnership between the CDO and HR will help drive the desired culture.

She says some companies are developing this partnership to move forward on initiatives and solutions involving robotic-process automation, more effective use of data to enable decisions, predictive intelligence, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“These initiatives not only improve their operations, they position some companies to offer better solutions, experiences and recommendations to customers and improve employee engagement,” Evans says.

A solid partnership between the CDO and HR can revolutionize the way an organization manages its people, says Mercer Chief People Officer Marcelo Modica. Through technology, he says, companies are moving from rich analytics to predictive analytics by gaining new insights and studying networks in ways they previously could not. For instance, digital teams and HR are collaborating in the use of data to improve employee retention.

“Companies are also using chatbots to help employees and managers get quicker access to information they need,” he says, adding that some companies are automating their people-reporting processes, reducing the time it takes to generate some reports from days to mere minutes.

“This allows their employees to focus on higher-value tasks,” he says.

PwC’s Atkinson says the HR-technology environment is among the most complex of the functional-technology areas supporting large organizations. As a complex global organization, with a business that relies entirely on optimizing talent, creating a thoughtful and disciplined path toward tech-enabling and empowering the HR team is a critical component of PwC’s digital strategy.

“I spend a great deal of time together with our chief people officer,” he says. “What we’re doing to digitize our business affects every element of our talent lifecycle, so executing side-by-side is critical.

“Digital is at the heart of the evolution of HR,” Atkinson adds, “and HR is at the heart of digital.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at