Leading the conversation

Amy Rixon, Chief People Officer, Frucor Suntory

Amy Rixon, Chief People Officer, Frucor Suntory

Recently my family went shopping for a new fridge and I was excited to learn that a ‘smart fridge’ would actually notify me when everyone in the house has used all the milk before I got home, and prompt me to stop and buy some (via self-serve technology of course).

This week is school holidays and my 7yo daughter asked if I could take her to see the robots play soccer. When I asked her ‘what robots?’, she showed me a youtube clip of them, then located where and what time.

As a music lover, I still have a bunch of old LP records and enjoy playing them, but I have discovered so many new bands and musical interests since Spotify came into my life, which now continuously compiles listening suggestions for me.

I also manage my mum’s Kindle account - she calls me when she wants me to ‘upload more books on her thingy’ and loves to get a regular photo and video updates of the grandkids via our family WhatsApp group.

Even our 7yo has a school BYOD policy and cloud account to upload her school homework online – she recently showed me a presentation she put together on an app I’d never seen before.

Whilst we regularly have discussions in our house about online safety debates about our screen time limits and we ensure we have lots of wholesome ‘digital free’ activities, its unmistakable the presence of digital technology in our lives.

The acceleration and ubiquity of technology have become an integrated part of how we live now and how we are likely to live in the future. It’s continuously changing and providing us with things we didn’t know we needed, with an intent to make our lives better.

As an HR professional with a young daughter growing up now, I often reflect on what the future of work will be like for her.

"For the current generation of young adults and children (‘GenZ’, then ‘Generation Alpha’), they are the first generations to be born into an uber-connected digital world and they are the future workforce"

For the current generation of young adults and children (‘GenZ’, then ‘Generation Alpha’), they are the first generations to be born into an uber-connected digital world and they are the future workforce.

If we think about the current demographics of leadership in most organizations today (ranging from Gen Y to Baby Boomers plus, depending on your industry or company size), the understanding of and relationship with technology in their home and work lives is completely different to that of the nextgen.

At varying degrees, these ‘older’ generations (which I now include myself in) would have experienced some or all of the following things: Using paper memos, typewriters, and round dial telephones. They might remember telex machines and when the first computer would have been introduced into their workplace – how big it was and how only a few people could use it. They evolved to using fax machines, floppy disks and would have pressed the ‘tab’ key frequently on a green screen computer.

These generations know what life and work was like before mobile phones, how cool their first flip phone or blackberry was and then when they got their first smartphone. Changes for these generations have happened over decades. But for the future generation, it happened all before they got here. Digital connectivity is simply a way of being for them and the acceleration in their lifetime will be multifold from here.

So why is this important?

As HR professionals many of us believe that our job is to develop capability and talent for tomorrow, to future proof organizations, create opportunities for growth, and to create a workplace that allows a great experience and for people to do their best work.

Since computers were first introduced into workplaces, it used to be that case that employees had more advanced technology at work than they did at home. We know now that this is not necessarily the case.

Many organizations have a patchwork of outdated and unintegrated systems. The amount of ‘technical debt’ in businesses today continues to accrue and is tricky to fix when trying to do ‘more with less’ and balance cost with top line growth in competitive markets. We also know through engagement surveys that employees continue to point out the tools and systems that are causing inefficiency and pain for them and their customers.

We know that generations entering the workforce now (particularly millennials) are at odds with the traditional work practices and technologies currently at play – particularly because technology outside of work, ‘just works’.

When you look at the predictions of work in the future based on the acceleration of technology, it’s inevitable that the next work generations will be working in jobs that don’t currently exist. Automation and AI will be part of their working life and technology will continue to evolve and disrupt industry and work type of the future.

When we stop and reflect on all of these things, as HR professionals we should ensure we are taking stock. A good question to be asking ourselves is: what is the state of technology in our current workplace, and how are we leading for it?

Many HR professionals I speak with are either not involved in technology or digital conversations, are reacting to technology projects rather than sponsoring them, or simply not curious about the conversation (for whatever reason, either by choice or by circumstance).

How many times has this happened in your organization: business unit has a problem they need to be solved with a technology solution. The technology team compile a business case, procure capex, select a vendor and put on a PM to kick off the project. Then, they come to the ‘HR’ team to ‘manage the comms and training’ around the system implementation (or request a change management resource).

Perhaps this is an extreme example for some – but for those nodding and smiling as they read this, it’s a good locator of where HR is on the conversation. I don’t believe our technology teams are at fault here, rather I feel it’s a shared HR and leadership challenge to be leading for change – and not for technology sake, but for people.

Any change (particularly with technology) is actually a people change. Yet the way many of us observe changes in our workplace, it seems (or feels) that we are starting with the technology solution first.

The Manifesto for Agile clearly articulates as its first value: ‘individuals and interactions, over processes and tools’. So basically, people first. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that HR has not only a meaningful contribution to make, but a clear leadership role to play in the future of technology in the workplace.

Being at the forefront of these discussions also implies for us that that we may need to look in our own backyard of the systems we use (and make our people use).

Many organizations have an underinvestment in people systems. At a recent HR conference I went to, there was an amazing presentation by a particular business about AI and automation they were using in their workplace and how this was evolving for them. But all of the people on my table, and the two tables next to ours talked about how they didn’t even have a decent HRIS or any meaningful data to measure employee experience. There was an animated discussion about the lack of support for investment in ‘HR tech’ and how they were still doing most of their reporting on manually manipulated spreadsheets.

There are definitely a lot of HR professionals out there grappling with how they deal with their ‘day to day’, let alone how they are going to build a chatbot or replace people with robots.

But this situation is not true for all organizations. We are starting to see trends showing that HR leaders are moving into the digital space and taking more of a leadership role. Seeing titles like ‘Chief Experience Officer’ and ‘Director of People & Technology’ starting to emerge, clearly show the connection between people and tech is growing and where the future is heading.

To stay relevant, as HR professionals we need to ensure we are balancing their strategies for a resilient culture, inclusive leadership, and workforce capabilities whilst also influencing the future of a digital work environment to unlock the potential of our people.

So, for those readers who may be towards the other end of the spectrum to that of a “digital native”, here are some points to consider:

• Check where you are at on your own personal technology journey and the degree of involvement you have in technology/digital conversations

• Look at your HR functions, processes, and systems – where are you investing compared to other areas of your people strategies?

• Get educated on what’s out there and start to experiment with new systems. Many off the shelf tools are easily accessible and have no obligation trials and flexible subscription-based models.

• For the bigger end of town, use your network extensively to talk through their tech experiences and change journey to take the learnings into your context

• Think long term, integrated ecosystems (not short term stand-alone tools) when you’re thinking about your digital journey

• Upskill your HR team on design-led thinking and agile techniques

• Partner with your technology team and don’t be frightened to ask silly questions (as we say all the time in our profession, there is no such thing)

• Don’t let the techno-jargon deter you. Technologies now are intuitive and human-centric – if you cannot understand and explain it to others from a people lens, then you need to spend more time with your tech team before implementing

Most importantly, remember that as the people advocate, don’t be shy to put up your hand to lead a more human conversation about technology in your workplace.

The future workforce is depending on you.

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