“People Still Matter”                

Oct 23, 2017 9:39:00 AM / by Jennifer Payne

The 2017 edition of the HR Technology Conference wrapped up about a week and a half ago, and other than transitioning back to my real world day-to-day responsibilities, I’ve also spent the time since then processing what I heard and what I learned.  When I attend a conference, I usually like to hold off writing about it until a little while afterwards because I like to take a look back at my notes, scribbles, and tweets and see if there is some sort of theme that emerges, especially from an HR practitioner perspective.  And when I did so this year, the one thing that came across loud and clear can be summed up in a quote from Friday keynote speaker Josh Bersin – “People Still Matter.”

No doubt we continue to be operating in a world where technology is more and more pervasive in both our personal lives and work lives, and technology and technological interfaces that we’ve come to expect in our personal lives are continually becoming more expected in the workplace.  Not unexpectedly, the ideas of artificial intelligence and machine learning continued to permeate the agenda and top this list of discussion points in a large number of the sessions this year, albeit still quite a bit of speculation as to how exactly it will impact the workplace into the future.  But the one thing I found interesting was also a focus back on people.

This idea of people came through as a theme from last year’s show as well.  In my wrap up post from 2016 I talked about how “the human touch” could be found throughout the show, in the context of personalization, focus on employee well-being, and HR’s evolving role and responsibility to use technology to be “sensors” and keep tabs on what’s happening throughout our organizations.  This year I saw a little bit different twist on that theme, a little more focus on how people interact with technology – specifically how leveraging the power of people drives technological innovation, how technology ultimately shifts the skills needed in the workplace, and technology as a driver of better understanding groups and networks, not just individuals.


People Drive Innovation

Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, kicked off Wednesday morning with a keynote titled “From Moonshots to Roofshots: What Everyone Gets Wrong About Innovation and How to Get It Right.”  The gist of his talk came down to a simple truth – people are at the core of innovation, and building a culture of innovation requires focus on enabling your people.  Specifically, he discussed connecting people with a mission, tapping into intrinsic motivators (not just extrinsic), reducing fear of failure, and setting both aspirational goals and easily attainable goals, among other ideas.  How do I think this ties back to HR technology?  In a world of work where various technologies to help us do our jobs more effectively and efficiently are more and more prevalent, this culture of innovation mindset will enable everyone to figure out how to best utilize what’s out there to contribute to organizational success.


Shifting Skills in the Context of AI

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning were no doubt the most often uttered phrases at HR Tech 2017.  These aren’t exactly new concepts at this venue – for a couple of years now the declaration “the robots are coming!” could be heard, but now AI and ML are beginning to take a bit more of the center stage.

For as long as artificial intelligence has been discussed, there has also been a debate about how it will impact employees and jobs going forward.  Will robots replace humans?  If machines can think like people, why would we need people in the workplace?  Although this debate has not gone away entirely, the focus now seems to be on AI enhancing human capabilities rather than replacing them.  So in other words, AI and ML may automate and replace some functions, but that will actually free our people up to do more value added, strategic, and transformation work as opposed to more transactional tasks.  Holger Mueller of Constellation Research moderated a panel titled “Looking Ahead: Where Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning May Take the Next Generation of HR” where this exact idea was discussed; AI and ML will ultimately augment human potential and empower people to do things they previously weren’t able.  The ongoing concern and caution in this context is…are our employees ready for that shift?


HR Tech for Groups & Networks

In Josh Bersin’s closing keynote “Digital HR: A New Architecture for Technology” he talked about how our organizational structures and the way we work is changing.  With more focus on managing networks of teams, HR tech is already evolving from systems of automation to systems of engagement, and will ultimately move beyond that to focus on systems of productivity; how do we leverage technology to get our people working together to accomplish common goals?  Some are already there; in the panel discussion “The Business Value of Diversity & Inclusion and the Role of HR and HR Technology” Cisco’s Michael Krupa referenced their concept of “the power of participation” and how they are using technology to drive collaboration and amplify individual voices so that all can contribute.  I expect in the future we’ll be hearing more about how technology can help figure out how people best work together and how to maximize collaboration.


What Does This Mean For HR?

Although technology is already pervasive in our lives, at work many of our employees (and many of us for that matter!) still haven’t figured out exactly how to use it all.  As Josh Bersin stated, employees are overwhelmed…there are just too many messages, too many platforms out there.  Even in some of the less technologically advanced organizations, chances are there are at least a few different systems that employee need to use to accomplish their day to day tasks.  As we introduce more, employees are going to want to know how it’s actually going to help them to get their work done.  So as HR professionals, we have an obligation to bridge that gap and help them understand how it will.  Furthermore, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to help prepare our employees and organizations for the future.  If artificial intelligence and machine learning really is going to shift the type of work that we can and will need to do, are we ready for that?  Are we hiring people who have the capacity to learn these new skills as they evolve?  And are we developing the employees we currently have to enable them to embrace these new skills as well?

As the world of work continues to evolve, so must the world of HR to support that new reality.  And it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

Jennifer Payne

Written by Jennifer Payne

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