Leadership Role of HR in Digital Transformation

The concept of moving towards digitalization was speculative for most senior management folks a few years ago. Today, it is the need of the hour. The corporate universe is changing and changing fast. According to the Boston Consulting Group, in the last 50 years, the average lifespan of the major corporation has shrunk from 60 years to just 15 — a decrease of 75 per cent. The message is simple: go digital or go bust.

Everyone must undertake digital transformation or risk being left behind. The apparent need to digitalize and the current state of progress is disproportionate. For example, HR teams remain far back in the deployment of mobile solutions when billions of mobile devices drive a majority of internet traffic. The 2016 Bersin by Deloitte study on Human Capital Trends shows that 92 per cent of companies are trying to reorganize in a way that allows them to build this new digital culture, yet only 14 per cent are sure they know how.

One would think that the successful digitalization would centre around capital investment in the latest technology, deployment of IT-driven solutions and automation. In reality, successful digitalization, more often than not, taxes on the most non-technological element of an organization – the people.

What indeed sits at the heart of any successful business is its people. For now, and the foreseeable future, behind every innovation and organizational change there are still people. The more knowledgeable trained and motivated the people, the more successful the digital transformation will be. Hence, in times of digital transformation, there is a dire need to focus on workplace transformation. As digital transformation without workplace transformation is a recipe for failure.

If digital transformation is not done right and in the correct sequence, the risks of employee disengagement can be daunting. This is especially the case in organizations with disjointed IT applications, systems and processes. For digital transformation to succeed, internal processes need to shadow customer experience, not the other way around.

Digital transformation often calls for radical changes such as dismantling of processes and functional roles. Also, skill and capability demands change. When not handled well, these changes can permanently damage employee morale, primarily if the compelling reasons for the move have not been disseminated throughout the enterprise.

Employees will resist change if they perceive the resultant change as an employment risk, making it difficult for senior management to implement the transformation successfully. Here the role of  HR is critical.

The undesirable effects of change can be neutralized by effective HR management such as ensuring organization-wide buy-in of the change effort at the onset, if not before. Change management through open and honest two way communication is the most basic, yet critical aspect of today’s people-centric organizations. An excellent method of doing this would be to lead open conversations dealing with the reasons for the change and its resultant modifications to the workplace and workforce.

Additionally, the people who end up supervising the change more often than not are not emotionally equipped or adequately trained on what is needed to manage the impact of change. The emotional side to change is often miscalculated concerning its longstanding effect on the morale of the employees and the culture of the organization.  It is this gap that HR must step forward and take a leadership role to fill in. If the reasons for the digital transformation have been understood employees will embrace the change effort, knowing the organization will emerge a winner.

In leading this change, HR itself may need to evolve. Processes and systems that encumber workforce modernization, suppleness and skill must be ctrl+alt+dlt.

Consequently, in addition to effectively articulating the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of the objective of change, HR professionals need to regularly take the pulse of the organization as the changes occur.

Skill analysis is another crucial role that needs to be fulfilled by HR to ensure a successful digital transformation.  A talent capability diagnostic should be run before embarking on the journey to assess its existing network to perceive likely skills gaps.

It is also essential to hire the right talent at the right stages of the initiative. The talent requirement differs at every step of the digital transformation. The specification at the design stage will vary from implementation to deployment. Having the appropriate talent onboard at various critical junctures of the change can mark the difference between success and failure.

HR’s role in the entire process is that of a counsellor, confidante and mentor to senior management and that of an advocate of employee interest. In this capacity, HR should assist in talent acquisition required for the transformation, ensure the design of the program is well suited to the needs of the organization, fits with the governance framework and renders agility to the organization as a whole. HR has to at the same time manage stakeholders who resist the transformation. In summary, the need for HR to assume a leadership role in digital transformation is clear and compelling.

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