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All change for the workforce after three days of awesome new technologies for HR in Las Vegas

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15th Oct 2014
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The 17th annual HR Technology conference, the world’s leading event focused on technology for human resource executives and professionals, took place in Las Vegas last week.

At the conference, we heard from a long line up of great speakers who confirmed what we already know: The modern workforce is changing, and our use of technology needs to adapt with this change in order to help HR help businesses transform and grow. Attendees of the packed conference and expo witnessed a whole host of emerging technologies, while three key disruptive themes dominated discussions: big data and analytics, digital smart machines and pervasive disruptive change.

The combination of these suggest HR must change radically, and quickly, in order to manage the biggest change in employment since the industrial revolution: a global, mobile, social, tech-savvy – and replaceable - workforce.

So, what are the key factors we need to take into consideration when managing this modern workforce? This is what HR Tech had to say:

Emerging technologies

New approaches in managing talent acquisition - such as social recruiting, digital interviews, and mobile applicant and onboarding management - are evidence of the new and innovative ways the workplace is engaging more with mobile, social and tech-savvy candidates. 

Meanwhile, social employee recognition and the emergence of workforce engagement technologies, such as people matching applications (apps), are providing new ways to help organisations keep people motivated and grow productivity.

The arrival of data driven culture assessment, together with apps focused on work-life balance, wellness and happiness all point to the increasing need for managing well-being in the workforce, while also helping to manage benefits costs for employers.

Big data and analytics

Big data and analytics were the focus of the pre-conference sessions and this theme continued throughout the rest of the event. Many people felt that big data will herald the arrival of predictive analytics in HR, which will be a great help in identifying the best people for senior management roles, or those with the greatest propensity to stay with or leave the business.

There was also a focus on social networks and their unique ability to identify issues or concerns in the workforce faster. Companies can use social data as a sixth sense to help spot workforce problems before they occur. The key is in gaining actionable insights from the social data. 

Many people felt that cognitive analytics is the next wave of the future. By this we mean that context-based hypotheses can be formed by exploring massive numbers of permutations of potential relationships of influence and causality — leading to conclusions unconstrained by organisational biases. This has the potential to enable companies to build a culture of intent through behavioural and predictive analytics; cultures can now evolve by using analytics to build a set of commonly held values across the organisation. 

Digital smart machines

The conference featured some really forward-thinking conversations surrounding the digital frontier which continues to race forwards relentlessly. For example, there’s the emergence of an increasing number of driverless transportation systems including drones, cars, trucks and trains. There’s also robots working in homes, farms, factories, and a wide range of other facilities - and finally, there’s the ability of smart machines to undertake tasks that were once thought to be the competitive advantage of humans (such as pattern matching and complex communications). What’s also evident is these smart machines can continuously learn as their algorithms are refined, and do so at rates much faster than humans.

This has far reaching implications for tomorrow’s workforce, both positive (as in efficiencies in the workforce) and negative (as in the potential disappearance of job roles.)

Pervasive disruptive change

One of the show’s themes was “Awesome New Technologies for HR”, and there was a lot of discussion surrounding new technologies and apps which are continuing to provide disruptive ways of changing workforce processes and improving the employment journey.

These discussions also included interesting points on data-driven decision making and continuous learning, and how digital machines are becoming the foundation for higher performance and greater productivity gains. Companies that continue to rely on the ‘highest paid person’s opinion’ approach to decision making will surely lose to smarter competitors. But, however this plays out, as we learned, there are some immediate outcomes.

The glimpse into the future contrasts with today’s reality. Many HR teams still lack the systems necessary to answer simple operational questions. How are HR teams going to be able to undertake meaningful advanced analytics if the underlying data is inaccurate or inconsistent? Spreadsheets won’t provide this, nor will traditional skillsets. Big changes and serious investment will be needed before this becomes a reality for many enterprises.

As the HR Tech discourse regarding big data, analytics and the inevitable more widespread use of smart machines ensued last week, an uneasiness was evident regarding the fate of both the human workforce and the HR function. There will be a fundamental restructuring of the global economy. This is backed up by one report which suggests the growth of robots, automated and computerised services puts 47% of all U.S. jobs at risk during the next 20 years.  

This means that anything that can be automated will be, as humans are swapped out of workflows or tasks in favor of more cost-effective smart machines. This has profound implications as jobs disappear across all sectors, retraining needs grow and new skills development, continuous learning and constant adaptation become the norm.

WRM displaces HRM

A possible consequence that emerges from the conference is the evolving of HRM to WRM (Workforce Resource Management). New hybrid teams consisting of digitally proficient people and smart machines working alongside each other will create new management challenges and opportunities. As HR teams metamorphose into WRM teams, they’ll need to be better positioned to understand and contribute to formulating organisational strategy - and become more comfortable with statistics, root cause analysis and the basics of story-telling.

What was also clear from the discussions was that the WRM function will need to diversify to include people from a range of different backgrounds. For example, more ‘left brain’ statistical, analytical and engineering skills using analytics and data driven decisions are required for talent acquisition, management and development. There’s also demand for people with marketing and communications backgrounds to help improve the ability of brands to attract, recruit, engage and retain talent.

These are very different skill sets than those found in traditional HR departments. Creating an employee-centric culture with engagement systems of record and seamless positive work experiences has just become a lot more fascinating in managing the modern workforce.

Overall, it was a great conference and we’re really looking forward to next year. It’s so encouraging to see our function embracing emerging technologies that will support better ways of working. One final takeaway, whether we’re ready or not, the change in how organisations acquire, engage, manage and develop their workforce is coming, fast!

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