When John Naisbitt, the eminent futurologist introduced the concept of high-tech, high-touch in his 1982 bestseller, Megatrends, he triggered a debate which would become increasingly relevant over time. He theorized that in a world intoxicated by technology, people long for a more personal, human contact. Since then, generational shifts in the workforce have led to the entry of newer and younger workers whose engagement with technology in an ever-connected world is exponentially higher than previous generations. Nevertheless, a craving for the human element has remained and perhaps become much too important to ignore. The debate in today’s context is not whether technology should be embraced or escaped but discovering ways in which we can restore this indispensable balance for the success of work and workers of the future.
Growing technological overload is not without its unintended consequences in terms of employees feeling overwhelmed and highly stressed
Cognitive technologies, the contemporary name for artificial intelligence including deep and machine learning, natural language processing and robotics process automation are already at the center of a significant transformation in the design and delivery of work processes in organizations. Given their capability to perform a broad range of tasks from analyzing numbers, texts, and images to digital and physical tasks that lead to potential gains in efficiency and productivity, organizations are rapidly increasing the usage of these technologies to reimagine their work architectures completely. As we think about this new world of work, a key point to note is that disruption by cognitive technologies is impacting the delivery of products and services, and automation of processes and creation of insights both at the customer end for the business as also the workforce internally for HR. The rapid adoption of cognitive bots, AI, and intelligent predictive software has introduced a range of new functionalities in the HR, designed to deliver agility in talent practices and enable a productive workforce. Many organizations are replacing their legacy ERP systems with Cloud-based technologies or building entirely new infrastructure of team-oriented, app and data-centric, network-based applications for HR. Besides upgrading the core HR platforms, an increase in the usage of best in class standalone solutions for specific employee life-cycle processes is also being seen.
While there is no dearth of use cases from the exciting world of HR technology, I have picked the following only to illustrate how Digital HR is rewriting the conventional rules of HR service delivery.
Talent Acquisition: This area is probably attracting the largest share of global tech spending on talent. AI subdomains are being used to enable end-to-end automation of the entire TA value chain where machine learning algorithms can run job and candidate matching processes, smart chatbots and/or video-based applications can do candidate assessments, and several other specialized apps can provide an unparalleled pre/onboarding experience to new joiners.
Learning Management: Driven by the need to reskill and continuously develop employees and the ongoing commoditization of content, the new-age learning tools built on AI and machine learning platforms provide curated content, video, and mobile learning solutions to create a “Netflix” like experience with personalized micro-learning courses that are easy to consume and on the go.
Self-service and Employee Experience tools: With the growing shift away from employee engagement to end-to-end employee experience, self-service systems are becoming cognitive, conversational and intelligent. We are quickly moving to a world where employees can have conversations with AI-based tools to process HR policy related and other such routine transactions. These tools with conversational and intelligent interfaces have the potential to handle large volume of transactions and represent the future of employee self-service.
The above and several other developments undoubtedly point to a future of HR that is essentially tech-centric with solutions that aim to achieve much higher standards of agility, performance, and productivity for organizations while giving the desired transparency and experiences to the workforce. However, this growing technological overload is also not without its unintended consequences in terms of employees feeling overwhelmed and highly stressed as the pace picks up. Driven by the ‘always on’ nature of a digitally driven world, research shows that a large part of the workforce today faces high stress that negatively affects their engagement and overall productivity, health and emotional/mental well-being. Data on the increasing working hours and a drop in vacation hours clearly supports this trend.
As HR leaders with the responsibility of digital transformations of our businesses, we need to ask ourselves if it is time to put the ‘human’ back in HR. In my view, this is more relevant now than ever so that the full potential of both the future generation of workers and cognitive technologies in augmenting human capabilities can be harnessed.
Maximizing the millennial talent: A large and growing part of the knowledge-based workforce today comprises millennials who have grown up in an age of technology but at the same time also understand and value human touch. For this generation, working along technology is perhaps less daunting than mastering the softer skills related to communication, problem-solving, and management. There are other traits too that indicate a preference for the human touch in this generation:
- Civic-minded and socially conscious: A recent analysis on the pattern of citizenship activities threw up some interesting insights. 76 percent of the total hours spent on citizenship were by millennials on career guidance for the underprivileged and environment conservation being uppermost. Clearly, this generation places a premium on community involvement to fulfill its sense of purpose.
- Preference for mentors and coaches: Millennials view real-time consultations and feedback as an opportunity to self-correct and expect informal access to their managers to serve as sounding boards.
- Flexibility and personalization in designing projects and work experiences: Flexibility is the name of the game for millennials. From craving for collaboration, team-based work projects, and an amorphous flow of information at all levels, millennials seek flexibility in the ways in which they operate and also when it comes to work experiences.
Integrating technology and human capabilities: Is progressive automation of tasks the most effective use of AI?
There is a real risk that pursuing automation as an end-goal will trigger an adverse man-machine conflict.
To maximize the potential of AI and other emerging technologies, there is growing recognition that future jobs need to be redesigned to complement technology capabilities with skills that are ‘uniquely human’ like complex problem solving, cognitive abilities, social skills, empathy, passion, and creativity. The demand for these skills will grow significantly in the future and such a collaborative redesign approach would enable technology to address the routine tasks while freeing up HR professionals and managers alike to focus on enriching the essential human interactions.
Over the next few years, one of the HR and business leaders’ greatest challenges will be to reimagine work and workforce configurations to strike a balance between technology adoption and offering a true human experience to employees. Below is a set of considerations for driving the right decisions in this journey:
Deciding how much technology is right: From Virtual Reality that allows potential candidates to experience a day on the job to AI-powered coaching that provides real-time advice, today’s marketplace for HR technology is enormous. Before embarking on process automation, HR tech buyers need to ask how much is enough for the task and ask if an actual day spent on the real job with real people would be a more effective way of attracting potential talent or one that is completely impersonal or virtual?
Infusing the “human touch” in solutions: As the experiences of L&D and other experience platforms suggest, users feel compelled to engage with technology that offers content tailored to their individual needs and connects them to actual people or communities for experience sharing. Enlisting the help of solution-providers is also a useful way for HR to meet this challenge.
Considering employee feedback before technology implementation: This is important to ensure that effective HR technology solutions remain focused on individuals who play an active role in decision-making about work.
Paradoxically, getting to the right balance of tech and touch in the future will also require a thoughtful use of technology — to not just eliminate transactional costs but to create sustainable value for businesses and meaningful work for people.