From C-suite to D-suite

Although most HR leaders are not trained technologists, that should not hinder them from collaborating with other more tech-savvy colleagues in order to drive their organisation’s digital agenda.

In 2014, self-fashioned digital energy conglomerate General Electric (GE) became one of the first global organisations to appoint a “Chief Digital Officer”.

This was a groundbreaking move, considering that it happened back when disruption was largely still a buzzword, and tools like big data, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing were being discussed only in the future tense.

Although technology has always sat high on business agendas, digital transformation was still in its infancy at that time. Today, with technologies like machine learning and virtual chatbots now making their moves across organisations globally, the digital strategy can no longer wait.

It has taken a few years for the digital agenda to take hold, but in in these last two alone, a long list of global brands have joined GE to appoint their first CDOs. They include the likes of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Australia, Mars, Lowe, and Wells Fargo.

Certainly, in today’s digital economy, the Chief Digital Officer has become an integral part of the overall business strategy. In fact, the International Data Corporation predicted in 2015 that by 2020, 60% of Chief Information Officers in multinationals will be supplanted by the Chief Digital Officer role.

The Chief Digital Officer is now next in line for the position of the CEO, and there are several examples to back this up. Al-Ishsal Ishak, the former Chief Digital Officer of McCann Worldwide Group in Malaysia, was appointed the CEO of Pos Malaysia Berhad in February this year. Vivian Zhu, former Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at Publicis Media China, was promoted to the role of CEO at Publicis’ subsidiary Blue 449 China.


Co-drivers of the digital agenda

This trend bodes well for digital and IT teams everywhere, but what has it got to do with talent management professionals?

It is no secret that HR has fought hard to secure a seat in the boardroom, and in recent years, an exclusive but steadily growing group of Chief HR Officers have themselves been made CEOs.

But if HR wants to maintain its position, practitioners and industry observers alike say it will have to increase its currency as a tech-capable function, particularly in today’s highly digitalised world.

At a recent round table of HR leaders, one of the most pressing concerns of participants was the lack of technical know-how across the profession.

Many organisations have also yet to define the Chief Digital Officer position, choosing to spread the responsibilities across departments and executives. This means HR is also expected to participate in the digital agenda.

It is unsurprising then that many talent management professionals are worried about how they would fit into this evolution.

Digital transformation leads also typically oversee the people and culture aspects of the business evolution, which encroaches into HR’s jurisdiction. What does that mean for HR?

The answer was hinted at during that same ideation meeting. Several practitioners emphasised the urgent need for HR to work closely with the IT department and other trained technologists so as to elevate their own digital savvy, and truly become a part of the digital fabric.

One HR leader said that “HR needs to go from being a follower, to leading with other functions on technology.”


Stepping out of silos

While some HR and organisational development practitioners are already doing this, there is still some ways to go in terms of real collaborative change, says Puneet Swani – Partner and Growth Markets Career Business Leader at Mercer.

Swani says there is a tendency to “perceive technology as a means to automate existing processes, rather than as a means to shift the way organisations think about a process”. Because of this mindset, he believes Chief Digital Officers may not be engaging Chief HR Officers enough around new technologies, and vice versa.

“Being digital from the inside out implies that the top executives are well-aligned around the expectations from digital transformation and are thinking of the impact on the business holistically, and not in their respective silos,” says Swani.

The other dimension, he adds, is for “HR teams to step up and be more conversant around emerging technologies, in a way that they can meaningfully engage with their technology counterparts and influence decisions around procurement and onboarding of digital product”.

“We have to move beyond titles and look at how well-aligned the different functions are with the overarching corporate strategy: whether it is technology, information, or human resources,” says Swani.


HR’s value to other functions

Alain Bejjani, the CEO of United Arab Emirates retail and property group Majid Al Futtaim, believes that type of partnership will only happen when HR is able to influence the top levels of their organisations.

“Business leaders also need to have the right mindset and desire to invite human capital into the business discussion,” says Bejjani.

“Today, technology and digital are a big part of the discussion. You cannot deal with them on their own. They are part of human capital, finance, strategy, marketing, customer experience – everything today has a technological dimension. Technology and digital are not add-ons; they are about augmenting what you have and moving from two dimensions to three.”

The reverse is also true, says Bejjani. He says other organisational functions can also look towards HR for valuable information.

“Talent strategies should not just be the sole responsibility of the human capital team. Yes, they are the custodian of the people agenda, but everyone in the organisation, starting from the CEO, need to be human capitalists and focused on bringing the people agenda to life.”

Kathleen Yu, CEO of Rumarocket, agrees that HR has been overlooked for a long time. Whether it is IT or finance, Yu believes other business functions can improve their own standing by actively working with the HR department.

She encourages technology heads to consult HR leaders on new digital interventions, especially since HR will play a huge part in the hiring of talent and ensuring a smooth transition among employees. HR will be able to give insight into what projects will take off and which ones will be met with resistance.

Still, Yu is cognisant of the fact that HR generally has more to gain in this relationship, and that regular communication with the technical teams is pivotal for HR to fully understand and effectively leverage the latest tools.

“Chief HR Officers have to understand from Chief Information Officers the strengths and limitations of each digital process, and be able to translate to staff with regards to how their jobs, incentives, and future careers will change,” says Yu.

Regularly checking in with the digital teams will also help HR to plan for skills and functions that will be needed in the future, while paving the way for more strategic HR functionalities through digitalisation and artificial intelligence simultaneously.


Specialised strategic partnership

This article appears in the July-August 2018 edition of HRM Magazine Asia. 

Check out the rest of the issue here

The of an HR practitioner is undoubtedly evolving rapidly to include both technical and operational responsibilities, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice-President of Global HR with Indeed.

“In an age where competition for talent is heating up, HR practitioners must create uniquely positive experiences in order to attract the best talent and retain high-performing employees,” says Wolfe.

HR can do this by utilising the many platforms that exist to make day-to-day tasks hassle-free – ranging from end-to-end recruitment, leave applications, expense claims, payroll, and timesheets. This often involves some level of collaboration with the technical department, which Wolfe says is increasingly evident. 

HR also has a role to play in the highly specialised and seemingly non-HR arena of data security.

In fact, George Chang, Vice President, Asia-Pacific, Forcepoint, believes that a comprehensive yet respective security strategy starts by partnering with HR.

To begin with, IT and HR often see security and monitoring from different perspectives. Traditional IT security assumes everyone is a potentially malicious insider and therefore works to identify people who do things like clicking a suspicious link, visiting dangerous websites, or inappropriately accessing or sharing sensitive data.

However, HR understands that not everyone is malicious, as employees can make honest mistakes. 

“Ultimately, IT strives to protect their networks and confidential data, while HR works to develop and preserve a positive culture,” says Chang.

With the path now clearly mapped out for HR, the dream is that one day HR, too, can lead the digital efforts of their organisations.

Rumarocket’s Yu says this is already happening in some workplaces, where machine learning algorithms have been used in talent profiling and learning and development.

“With the introduction of artificial intelligence, HR professionals are now evaluated on the quality of the people they bring in, and how this quality affects the top line. This makes them a true strategic partner in the organisation,” says Yu. 


HRM Asia is excited to announce the HR Tech Think Tank, a one-day event that will deep-dive into the latest HR Technologies that are enabling faster, better and cheaper solutions to HR practices and people operations.

Held in Singapore on October 19, the HR Tech Think Tank will feature eight technologist-led, interactive workshops on the latest applications for payroll, talent management, and much more.

Head to the HR Tech Think Tank website for more information and to register.