Where HR Belongs In the Digital Age

Organisations are undergoing the most significant changes in a century and in the midst of it, HR is most noticeable by its silence.

This ‘significant change’ is, of course, the digital transformation. Much of it is tied up in technology: cloud computing, big data analytics and automation, for instance. The words ‘digital’ and ‘marketing’ are also tightly intertwined.

To think of the digital era only in these terms, however, misses the fundamental change brought about by the digital revolution: the way people connect.

The impact of hyper-connectivity is everywhere.

  • It’s the ability to search multiple businesses to find the exact offering you are looking for.
  • It’s the people you can stay in touch or keep up with that, without a platform like Facebook, you would otherwise never have heard of again.
  • It’s the way you can work with a team from any location because you have the tools to help you plan, track, communicate and even translate your work into different languages.
  • It’s the how-to blogs and videos you use to do something unfamiliar, made by someone you’ve never met before, who wanted to share their knowledge – often just for the sake of sharing.
  • It’s the way we interact today with more people than in the past because their accessibility and visibility online, such as through websites, mobile phones and email, makes it easier to trust them.

In the pre-digital era, when the source of value was physical (such as land, buildings, machinery, inventory and labour), it was understandable that HR’s response was to mechanise work and reduce the people who did the work into their mechanised parts. In hindsight it wasn’t a sound approach – given how HR has spent the last few decades trying to re-humanise what it had de-humanised – but it was understandable. (We could also argue that we didn’t know better because much of our current knowledge of human behaviour and motivation has come from recent studies, but that’s a different article for another day.)

Today, the source of the majority of value is intangible. It comes from the emotional engagement driven and amplified by the human connectivity digital enables. It includes emotional engagement of people with brands, with social causes, with people on a mission, and even with possibilities. You can see it in examples like:

  • Warby Parker that gives a pair of glasses to someone in a disadvantaged region for every pair it sells;
  • Airbnb that sells a sense of belonging, rather than accommodation;
  • McDonald’s (usually your poster child for mass production efficiency) whose Create Your Taste menus tap into our desire for individuality;
  • Fitbit that sells us our future better self.

When digital technology makes fostering relationships the greatest driver of organisational success, social capital that turns relationships into a resource for the organisation, must be the priority.

The people who should lead the reorganisation around building and managing social capital is HR. And not just with internal teams. In a world of prosumerism, two-sided markets and the collaborative economy, who is ‘internal’ is not so black-and-white anyway. Unfortunately, most of HR is looking the wrong way, still seeking solutions for an era that’s fading into the past.

After so many years that HR has struggled to find its place, comes the digital era in which people as people – not human resources – are the key to performance. HR needs to forget its mission to equate people with processes with their hard-and-fast metrics. Global connectivity is rewarding the organisations designed around people:

  • That place values at their core;
  • Where people are able to work to strengths, not fixed position descriptions;
  • With a business model that connects the organisation to a larger ecosystem of suppliers, buyers and users; and
  • With an infrastructure for creating and building social capital and other intangible assets.

It looks different to where HR is now, but they are the only function in the organisation specifically trained in the humanities. Admittedly, it will take some adjustment and a lot of learning however HR has long been the advocate for change and learning. It can’t be less enthused now, just because the change and learning applies to itself.

HR, your time is now. Where are you?

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