Business Outcomes & Human Centered Experiences – #HRTechConf 2018

The 2018 HR Technology Conference is now in the books, having wrapped up about two weeks ago.  As I usually do, I’ve spent the time since then mulling over what I heard and saw there, reviewing my notes and tweets and thinking about the show as a whole.  The one thing that stood out to me this year is that although the show, of course, still very much focuses on specific technologies and how they are being used to enhance the HR function, there seemed to be an attempt by conference organizers to capture a larger audience beyond the “HR IT” folks and vendors, and maybe try to appeal to what I would refer to (for lack of a better term) as “regular HR folks and practitioners.”  This seemed to be evidenced by keynotes and general sessions that included “Dirty Jobs” Mike Rowe, whose message focused more on the value of all types of work rather than on anything specifically tech-focused, and the “Most Admired Companies” panel which, although did speak to workplace technologies, also touched on bigger themes like the need for HR to become more “human” again.

It seems to be a continuing evolution from the shows of the past few years.  Going back to my post-conference wrap-ups from 2016 and 2017, there has been an ongoing shift towards more focus on people, how people interact with technology and how technology can enhance the capabilities of our people.  We’re no longer focusing on just the latest, greatest, coolest, and most innovative new tools, or how we need to focus on data and analytics in our organizations – although of course that’s still a part of it.  We are also now not just talking about how we as HR professionals should be using these tools.  We’re now looking at things from a bigger perspective – how those tools should be designed with our people in mind and naturally weave their way into how our people do their jobs on a day to day basis for the greatest business impact.  And I saw that in two major themes: how technology can enable our people, and with that enable better business decisions; and digitization of the workplace.


Enabling People, Enabling Business Decisions

The first place I heard this idea of technology as a tool not to replace our people but to enable our people was in the Women in HR Technology closing keynote from SAP’s Jenny Dearborn.  Although Jenny’s message focused on data and evidence-based HR, reflective of the theme of her recent book “The Data Driven Leader,” she spent a fair amount of time focusing on how humans interact with that data to make better decisions and drive better business results.  It’s not just about having the technology and the data, it’s about figuring out what the technology can automate and how the data can help guide us, but then keying in on where humans need to step in and do the things that the machines and data can’t.

In this context, our role as HR professionals is twofold.  First is realizing that in this world of “Industry 4.0” everything that can be connected to the internet will be – the Internet of Things – and that everything that can be automated eventually will be.  So we need to be sure we’re preparing our employees for that eventual reality and building workforces and workplaces that are ready to thrive in this new world.  As Jenny said, we need to ensure that our employees don’t panic about the changes to come and realize that machines will not replace humans.  However at the same time, the world of work will change; it was quoted that going forward 83% of jobs that make less than $20/hour will be at risk for automation.  So how are we helping to prepare our workforces for that change?

Our second role as HR professionals in this world of Industry 4.0 is providing the humans to work with the technology.  Technology doesn’t just “appear” and exist in a vacuum; humans have to create it, humans have to interact with it, humans have to step in where the tech reaches its limit.  As Jenny said “The humans create the algorithms, the algorithms create the AI.  But HR brings the humans.”  This theme also came across  in the general session “What It Takes To Be a Most Admired Company for HR,” a panel discussion featuring leaders from companies such as Johnson & Johnson, The Walt Disney Company, Accenture, and Delta Airlines.  The panelists discussed the importance of having a “talent mindset” and creating environments where people can be innovative, where diverse thought and problem solving can exist and thrive, where we develop and promote a collaboration between the people and the technology to drive success.  And by the way, this is all driven by leaders and great leadership.

Attendees were reminded throughout the conference this year that technology is just the tool, it’s not the solution in itself.  Success is dependent of first defining the business problem (note: not the HR problem) you’re trying to solve, and then identifying the tools that can help solve that problem.  And you know what?  It’s humans that make those determinations, that define the problems, that select the technology.  Even when technology is in place, it may provide recommendations for courses of action, but it’s the people in the end that make the final decision.

All the more reason HR is critical in this new world.


The Digital Workplace

In her keynote, Randi Zuckerberg reminded attendees that in today’s world, everyone is or has the potential to be their own media company.  Furthermore, as employers we are at the front lines of where our employees spend a majority of their week.  As such, how are we using technology to engage and communicate with them?

Jason Averbook recently released a new book, “The Ultimate Guide to a Digital Workforce Experience,” that expands on this idea; that we have a responsibility for creating what he calls a “frictionless” experience in the workplace.  In his session “The World Known as HR Has Changed Forever. Are You Ready?” he spoke to many of the concepts from his book.  Reflecting many of the themes from throughout the conference, we once again heard the message that it’s not just about the technology alone; it’s about how it enables your people to do their jobs more effectively, how it creates an experience that mirrors what employees have come to expect in their worlds outside of work, and how it can help bring reimagined processes to life.  The key once again? People.

Jason challenged attendees in a couple of ways.  He started by pointing out that we (and our employees) have better technology in our pockets than what most companies give us to work with, and with that we disrespect the year we live in within our organizations by subjecting our employees to things outdated and not acceptable in the outside world.  Our employees have certain expectations of the workplace that have changed, and we have a responsibility to realize and react to that.  But beyond just the technology (or lack thereof) in our workplaces, he challenged us to examine our processes.  Most HR processes have been traditionally designed from the perspective of the HR practitioner; how can we look at them in a new light, from the perspective of and through the lens of what our people need (a little design thinking anyone?).  How can we ensure that the processes we have in place enable our people to do their best work, rather than meet an arbitrary need HR put in place just for the sake of having it (think performance reviews that are cumbersome, dreaded, and don’t actually effectively provide feedback or drive performance in any way, but are required by HR nonetheless).  So we need to take a hard look at our processes and determine whether or not they are relevant in today’s world and for today’s workers.  And by the way, if they haven’t been reworked in the past five years, they probably aren’t and don’t.

Again, an acute focus on people – what they need, how they interact with technology, and how technology interacts with them.



So although the HR Technology Conference will always have a keen focus on new and emerging technologies for the workplace (that’s sort of the point of it after all!), I expect to see a continued evolution towards this focus on not just the technology alone, but the impact on our people and our role and responsibility as HR leaders to embrace, encourage, and enable the changing world of work.



About the Author

Jennifer Payne

Jennifer Payne is a 20+ year human resources leader with a focus on researching, developing, and implementing talent management programs. She is a believer in lifelong learning and self-development who strives to stay current in HR trends, technology, best practices, and the future of work by sharing knowledge with and learning from HR colleagues and thought leaders across the country and throughout the world through writing, speaking, and involvement in various industry conferences and events.  She is one of the co-founders of Women of HR, and is currently the Editor of the site. You can connect with her on Twitter...


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