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By Melissa Campeau

How HR can harness the power of disruptive technology to outthink the competition in a new age of business?

Maybe your last hour looked a bit like this: you gathered data from an online training module, chatted on an internal messaging system, sent a text to a colleague, pulled a report from Dropbox and then settled in to research potential hires’ social media profiles and watch their application videos.

Clearly, tech is changing the nature of work. But the changes we’ve seen in the last handful of years – the proliferation of mobile and cloud computing, game-like apps for employees and big data among them – are just the beginning. Expect disruptive technologies to come our way at a faster pace than ever.

Conduct business as usual at your own peril; this wave of change will upend how we connect, engage and make decisions, and drastically impact HR’s role within an organization.

Shane Cragun, co-author of Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption, says one of the key competencies shared by successful leaders is their ability to master change.

“They can see incoming global shockwaves and learn how to leverage them,” said Cragun. “They will not just survive, but they’ll handle the change quickly and leapfrog their competition.”

New ways of connecting with talent

Many disruptive technologies are already in play within forward-thinking organizations, impacting every aspect of the employee lifecycle.

A recent survey by IBM asked 5,247 business leaders what they believe the future holds and how they’re positioning their organizations to prosper in the age of disruption. The report (Redefining Talent: Insights form the Global C-suite Study: The CHRO Point of View) finds leaders are “…capitalizing on emerging technologies to improve the employee experience, building a flexible skills base, drawing on analytics to predict future workforce trends and creating a social dialogue with employees to manage change more effectively.”

To find job candidates, for example, HR professionals have been making the most of social media for years, now. A fresh take on recruiting, though, is the idea of using gaming to assess potential hires.

Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, points to a company in Australia that’s created a game for potential job candidates.

“The game gives them a few challenges to complete and measures their learning agility,” said Bersin. For most candidates, it’s an engaging way to apply for work. And for a recruiting team, it can help differentiate job candidates in a fraction of the time needed by more traditional models.

Making the most of mobile tech can help with onboarding, as well.

“Rather than the standard manual or classes, you could build an app to send to people before they join the company that gives them some reading material and videos, and connects them with some people they need to get to know,” said Bersin. “It’s such a powerful idea, and it wouldn’t take much more to design than a regular onboarding program. It’s a different idea, a different concept. This is the kind of thing we’re starting to see more and more often.”

Tech’s also being used to influence culture, with internal chat programs, employee performance recognition software and sharing tools that make the most of cloud computing and encourage cross-functioning teamwork and collaboration.

More feedback, please

Dozens of high-profile organizations ditched their traditional performance management systems in the past few years in favour of more agile formats. In most cases, the new models are enabled by new technologies.

“In just the past 24 months, there have been at least 20 software companies who’ve created applications for performance management that relies on frequent feedback,” said Bersin. “Many include options for HR to collect anonymous feedback about manager performance, as well.”

“The newer performance management systems are less about the yearly review and more about the quick-pitch elevator story,” said Cheryl Fullerton, executive VP, People at Corus Entertainment Inc. “They let employees record their strengths, where they want to get stronger, where they want to go in their careers and their personal and professional objectives. As companies are thinking about scrapping their performance management systems, there’s still a need to have all of those conversations. A good technology solution can enable managers and their people to crystalize their thoughts.”

Tech-enabled feedback is playing a growing role in other areas of business, too. HR is increasingly making the most of tools that ask for employee input on any number of issues, collecting real-time data and helping guide the decision-making process. Encouraging employee input in decisions can drive engagement, and the data collected can also help HR spot an emerging trend or issue before it becomes a big problem.

Big data, big results

Data can be collected from a long list of other sources, as well. The Internet of Things (IoT), for example, is defined as the network of physical objects – devices, vehicles, buildings and other items – embedded with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data. Think smart watches that capture biofeedback, for example, although that’s really just skimming the surface of the tech’s potential.

Collecting information – whether through feedback tools, IoT, talent metrics or any other means – is only meaningful if you can do something with numbers: spot trends, flag problems, make forecasts. This is where cognitive computing, technology with the capacity to learn, is making a profound difference within organizations.

In the Bersin By Deloitte report HR Technology for 2016: 10 Big Disruptions on the Horizon, Josh Bersin wrote: “While most companies have been slow to adopt people analytics, vendors have quickly seen the opportunities. Major HRMS, talent management, learning and recruiting vendors now offer ‘intelligent recommendations’ and predictive analytics modules – and they’ve built out their development teams. While it’s difficult to tell how accurate various predictive models are, vendors are moving fast; most already have solid data science teams working on their software.”

He says that new software can do much more than simply measure internal data. It can predict attrition, for example, by factoring external data (job openings, social media activity) into the mix, it can predict which job moves will result in the highest-performing career employees and it can even review data from employees wearing sensors to determine whether a new office layout is working or not.

Having access to real time, in-depth data about myriad aspects of the workforce can help HR make strategic and cost-effective decisions with respect to training, team functionality, performance, strategic workforce planning and more.

The shifting social contract

Software advances have made it increasingly easy – and common – for employees to directly access and manage such things as vacation requests, specialized training and performance management notes.

At Corus, for example, employees use online tools to request vacation time, access compensation information and approve hire requests or offer letters. In a growing number of organizations, this self-service, self-directed approach applies to training and performance tools, as well.

That shift supports the evolving relationship between employee and employer.

“There’s a shifting social contract with employees,” said Benoit Hardy-Vallée, executive advisor for IBM Smarter Workforce, Canada. “The older type of social contract was about having a job for life and a pension, post-retirement. This promise was in exchange for a lifelong commitment. Now, an employer offers an employee the tools, a great environment and the ability to grow and build on strengths and engage in work. In exchange, the onus is more and more on the employee to manage his or her own training and development.”

HR still has to provide the learning opportunities, expert advice and performance aids for employees (and make them available around the clock), but it’s up to the employees to make the most of those opportunities, to steer their own course and stay engaged.

Some organizations may have achieved this state, but it’s still a target for others. Much depends on the quality of the user experience.

“The ‘secret sauce’ is always going to be in how service-oriented the tech is,” said Fullerton. Employees have high expectations when it comes to interacting with technology. If you think of banking, online shopping or any industry that works directly with their customers through online technology, they have to make it so simple that there’s no need for a manual. No need for training courses, and people can intuitively use it. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Freeing up HR for strategy

When the tech catches up, though, industry thought leaders predict HR will be freed from its more administrative tasks and be able to focus more time and resources on strategic work.

“The HR function is becoming more of an advisor or consultant to help solve problems and advise the business on talent strategy,” said Hardy-Vallée.

Part of that evolving role for HR will focus on behavioural economics and leveraging tech to tailor and personalize growth opportunities, making the most of mobile and cloud computing to offer a non-stop roster of on-demand training opportunities.

“People are more likely to do something if you nudge them than if you tell them,” said Bersin. Tech plays into this idea well, but enables HR to provide training at an employee’s choosing, according to his or her schedule. “So instead of telling someone that they must take this class before they sell a product, you give them a suggestion about why it’s good for them and they come to the conclusion on their own that they really should be taking that class because it’s going to make them more effective.”

The catch(es)

All this growth and development doesn’t come without a snag or two. For starters, is your organization flush with experts who understand these technologies and can foresee their use into the next handful of years? In the near future, the demand for technical acumen will almost certainly exceed the supply within a typical organization.

“The real challenge is sitting down and thinking about your current organization, the skill set that they have, and then looking ahead two or three years,” said Hardy-Vallée. “You might start forecasting that certain skills will become more and more necessary. If you’re going to be more socially connected, more cloud based, more connected with your customer, you will need other types of skills.

“The second big thing is considering whether to acquire these skills – if it makes sense to train people, to hire a third party to help with on-demand resources or to hire people that have those skills already.”

Answers will be are organization specific, of course. However, Hardy-Vallée predicts the solution involving the least upheaval will be the one most organizations turn to.

“I think the reflex today is still to go for training, just because it’s a little quicker and doesn’t come with the lengthy process of hiring and going outside,” he said.

Finding a focus

The sheer number of competing technologies to consider implementing can be overwhelming.

“Don’t get caught in the whirlwind,” said Bersin. “The changes are complex, but if you start with the user, whether that means leadership, citizens, employees, clients, patients, just start with those stakeholders in mind, then work backwards and figure out where to go next. If you just look at all the systems, all the processes, all the technology…it’s just so many pieces at the same time and it doesn’t give you the big holistic picture.”

As with making any changes, consider what areas of the business need attention.

“Spend time where the company makes money,” said Hardy-Vallée. “Look at the things the business could do better to improve results or reduce costs.” Can tech be applied to those areas to make a positive impact? If teams could be more collaborative, for example, is a tech solution among the possible remedies?

“It’s incumbent upon the HR leader to spend time with the CEO or the business leader they work with to let them say, if I could only do two or three things this year, what would they be? What would drive the biggest improvement for the organization from your standpoint?” said Hardy-Vallée.

The price is (becoming) right

The unexpected good news, when it comes to tech, is often the price tag. There was a time when applying these tech solutions would have been beyond the affordability of any but the largest companies, based on economies of scale. Not anymore.

“The venture community has poured billions of dollars into mobile solutions for HR in the past few years,” said Bersin. The result has been dozens and dozens of useful, engaging and entirely affordable employee-facing solutions.

“There are startup companies out there building these apps – they might be companies with five or 10 employees – and they’re charging as little as five or 10 dollars per month,” said Bersin. “You just turn it on and you’re up and running.”

Leverage the potential

Disruptive technologies – despite the ominous sounding label – aren’t inherently good or bad; they’re simply inevitable.

“If we zoom out, one generation’s worry is another generation’s business as usual,” said Hardy-Vallée. “Twenty or 30 years ago, I’m sure people had other kinds of worries about culture. So just like any change, we have to make sure that what we do with it brings more good than bad.”

How an HR professional handles ongoing disruption can make all the difference to an organization. Cragun describes what he and his co-author call the “reinvention agility matrix.”

“On the Y axis is the person’s ability to be humble, to learn and to accept and explore change. If you rank high on that axis, that’s a very good thing,” he said. “But any leader and any organization that doesn’t adapt to a changing environment – scoring low on that axis – will risk extinction.”

Trying to ignore technology and the change it brings is both futile and ill advised.

“It’s like saying you want to live in world that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Fullerton.

Instead, diving into the world of tech advances – learning, researching, adapting and riding the waves of change – might just lead to a long list of positives, including increased efficiency, better collaboration and increased engagement.

“Develop a mindset that’s excited about change, that welcomes it and leverages it,” said Cragun. “If you do, you’re more likely to operate as a strategic partner and to help the organization not only flourish, but also get ahead of competitors.”

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