HR’s war against the machines

13 years after Fast Company magazine asked "Why we hate HR", the profession is still struggling to win hearts and minds.
By: | March 26, 2018

HR leaders have been constantly exhorted to “get a seat at the table”; to have an opinion, and to be heard; to be “Strategic Positioners” and “Credible Activists”. I myself was part of this crowd when I represented Dave Ulrich’s RBL Group in Asia between 2011 and 2013, and ran numerous HR Business Partner excellence and development programmes.

So you can imagine that I was quite horrified when in 2015 data was published to show that 80% of business leaders did NOT regard HR as “useful” in enabling digital transformation.

Russell Reynolds, Digital Pulse, 2015

The reason I was so horrified, was that I was then driving the Digital Mindset strategy at DBS Bank, and regarded supporting the CEO’s vision on digital transformation as the most important part of my role. All the reports I was reading stated that supporting Digital Transformation and building a digital mindset was a CEO’s highest expectation of HR.

Yet here was Russell Reynolds saying that 80% of CEO’s rated HR as “unhelpful” in this regard. That was shocking to me as someone who had worked in HR so long and worked so hard to develop the state of the profession.

Roll forward a year, and in 2016 DBS was recognised as the “World’s Best Digital Bank” and the judges specifically referred to how a culture of digital mindset and capabilities had spread throughout the bank.

This was due to a close collaboration between HR and the innovation team. There was a substantial effort to build a strong digital mindset and develop future ready digital leaders, which included the award-winning DBS Hackathon series (add link).

HR must be doing better right? So imagine my shock (again!) when just last week I saw the results of a recent global survey* of 25,000 business leaders by EY, DDI, and the Conference Board:


Data Dimensions International

Data Dimensions International

Here’s what caught my attention:

  • The number one challenge for CEOs is developing ‘Next Gen’ leaders conformable in the digital world, but only 14% of CEO’s feel they have the talent they need to execute their future strategy.
  • Just over a third of leaders, (37%), feel comfortable in the digital workplace; less than a fifth (16%), of HR leaders feel equally confident.
  • The biggest gap in perception between business leaders and HR leaders is in “operating in a digital environment” – a 57 percentage point difference in opinion!
  • HR managers are perceived to “focus too much on “adminis-trivia” and lack vision and strategic insight.


So let me summarise:

The CEO wants future ready digital leaders, and can’t find enough talent – but HR is not comfortable operating in this “future ready digital” space and is perceived as being more comfortable focused on administration and traditional operations and services.

Are the Luddites killing HR?

The data would seem to suggest that HR people would rather focus on known and predictable tasks, processes and administration, than deal with the ambiguity of the future.

For anyone who has spent time learning about artificial intelligence, chatbots and automation, this would seem to be the kiss of death. Predictable, rote, administrative tasks are already being automated in journalism and law; HR will surely be next.

For HR people to have a future, they must learn about the future, engage with digital and charge forth into this brave new world. They must be even more familiar with the digital world than the average business leader. They must play an enabling role in developing future-ready digital leaders, else the role of HR will be consigned to the dustbin of history. And the current data suggests nobody will miss us much! (The percentage of business leaders who regard HR as “proactive” (anticipators) has dropped 50% since 2014).

I was going to say “OK, rant over  now”, but this was driven by data, not opinion – that’s what makes this so scary. So what do we do about it? How do we drag HR kicking and screaming into the future?

How about by “Developing future ready digital HR leaders?”

And how would you do that? Watch this space for part two of this discussion, online at from April 16, 2018.


Laurence Smith

Laurence Smith is the host of HRM Asia’s Digital Mindset forum, and regularly contributes articles on how technology is changing the way workforces, and HR, operate.