Discussing the future of HR with Robert Williams

HR evolution is one of the main topics when it comes to digital transformation. In this new publication of “Riverflex Expert Talks”,  Robert Williams, long experienced consultant specialised in large scale organizational change, shares his impressions about challenges and opportunities that organizations and professionals will encounter in the upcoming future. The future of work, and the future of people.

Hello Robert, thank you for having this chat with us. First of all, could you please just tell us a little bit about your background and your experience?

I’m an independent management consultant, specialising in large scale organizational change and business transformation. I started my career off the back of a degree in Occupational Psychology which gave me early exposure to fascinating and, at the time, leading edge research and thinking involving people and work.

Following a useful grounding in HR management in the IT sector, I progressed into management consulting with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) initially in change management supporting complex process and technology-led change. Over time I developed into leading business transformation programmes, integrating people, process and technology to deliver business strategy. It was exciting times, working with leading global organizations. I did quite interesting work at that time, such as interim roles as stores HR Director for a retailer, HR Director for an internet start-up, Head of Change for a bank, and a member of the leadership team developing global human performance strategy. For the past 15 years I’ve been operating as an independent consultant, continuing to work with global organizations, helping them to transform for themselves, building their capabilities and confidence to deliver and sustain the performance improvements they are seeking.

An often discussed topic these days is ‘Future of Work’. What does this mean to you?

You are right; the future of work is very topical at the moment, generating a lot of discussion. When asked, I think about 3 inter-related dimensions:

Firstly, I think about what or how work gets done i.e. what can be automated, where it can be done i.e. location or geography and how this is changing through digitization and automation, and who can do it; and again how this is changing through new and emerging working arrangements and collaborations.

The second point is about the impact on people as workers, the capabilities they offer and how these can be re-organised and reshaped into different combination, teams, structures, collaborations and the opportunities for re-designing business operating models.

And the third dimension is the potential impacts on us as people in the sense of the purpose work gives us, what motivates us, the part work plays in life, health, happiness and well-being, and in shaping values and contribution to society.

How do you see HR transformation related to the future of work?

There has probably never been a more exciting time to be an HR professional with the opportunities developing through digitization, automation and globalisation. However, this is not without challenges, and the risk that HR can (once again) get left behind as strategic influencers and contributors to value creation. There is still potential for confusion between HR transformation and the transformation of human performance capabilities. Most of the focus of attention is on digitising HR processes, shifting from ERP-based HR systems to cloud-based solutions, enabling more manager and employee self-service capabilities, delivering further efficiency gains and costs savings. This is critical as a foundation, but by itself is not human performance transformation. I read a fascinating article recently suggesting that HR in the future should take a step back from front-line work and become experts in identifying and customizing digital solutions and designing workforce solutions that enable and enhance performance, meet changing business and add value. My sense is the technology is available; the challenge is HR ‘systems-thinking’, the ability to design and customise performance- enhancing solutions across the HR lifecycle.

I also think that with growing access to more and more data, workforce data analytics offers an interesting opportunity for HR leaders to bring more insights and challenge to wider strategy formulation.

What are the main emerging trends related to HR and future of work you see?

Firstly, the combination of automation with globalisation, a term economist Richard Baldwin calls ‘globotics’ has the potential to further open up the talent pool globally.  This means access to new talent pools, where language is becoming less of a barrier, work can be scheduled and delivered 24/7, and wage competition will be significant.

Another emerging trend (again highlighted by Baldwin) is the impact on the service sector.  Manufacturing automation isn’t new. You only have to compare photos of manual-intensive car assembly lines in the 1960s, with today’s robotic vehicle production lines. The displacement of production workers, co-incided with a shift to the service sectors. What we are now entering into a period of digitization and automation impacting the service sector. We are already seeing the signs of this in financial and insurance services, call centre services, legal services and healthcare.

 And what do you think the key challenges of these trends are?

The most obvious challenge will be the displacement of workers from the service sector. Various research (such as Work Economic Forum, McKinsey Global Institute) highlight the impact of automation of many tasks that make up jobs as we know them today. The prediction is for the division of labour between people and machines to continue to shift toward machines, leading to a reconfiguration of jobs, with significant numbers being displaced. But it’s not all about job losses; there is also a prediction for job growth in different areas. In healthcare settings for example, I think it highly unlikely that the augmentation of clinical diagnostics enabled by artificial intelligence will lead to a reduction in numbers of clinicians; however it will probably lead to new roles being created. The more serious workforce displacement challenges will more likely arise in centralised administration and process centres, many off-shored to lower cost countries.

Another challenge will be managing increasingly complex organizations with potentially different operating models working alongside each other, with flexible workforces comprising different working arrangements and a mix of people and machines.  In some respects this challenge is not new, but the scale and complexity is.

Expanding on this, I think the future of work is also going to be further informed and influenced by changing attitudes and values, with the blurring of work and life, further influenced by Millennials and GenZs with their views of work ‘experiences’ rather than careers, wider environmental and societal values, and health and well-being.  I recently read an interesting and well-structured article on how to build organizational culture relevant for the digital, agile world. It was written for current executive leaders explaining what they should do; but it did not suggest engaging with the emerging workforce and the values and cultural drivers that matter to them.

And what about the main opportunities?

The main opportunities emerge out of the challenges and trends we have just talked about. Summarising these, the first opportunity is strategic talent sourcing, i.e. open-source talent management, knowing what, where, how and when to attract, develop, retain, release and rehire. It combines the power of data analytics to conduct global workforce planning, requires a re-imagination of work between who, how and where. Again some may argue talent management capabilities are in place today, with dedicated HR Centres of Excellence performing these roles. I am not questioning this; I am suggesting the dynamics are changing rapidly and there is the opportunity (and necessity) to further explore and expand capabilities.

The second opportunity is the demand for talent, particularly the cognitive expertise needed to help machines to learn. You know, maybe we shouldn’t be talking about artificial intelligence, maybe we should be talking about extended intelligence. And maybe we need to think more in terms of collaboration between humans and machines. There is already a shortage of, and growing competition for talent in this area, so incubation and growing of talent is also key.

There are also interesting opportunities in the redesign and reconfiguration of work in terms of roles, teams, organization structures and business operating models. If we consider for example, that AI tools are replacing much of case work analysis tasks in the legal profession historically undertaken by paralegals and trainees.  Yet this is core training. Similarly, in healthcare tasks considered essential to diagnosis can now be undertaken faster and more accurately using AI capabilities.

A final opportunity I want to highlight is a little contradictory to the pace and scale of change we have talked about earlier, and that is that I believe we have time, if used well, to respond to these emerging threats, challenges and opportunities impacting the future of work. My sense is that whilst the pace of digitization is certainly fast, and most organisation are developing their responses, a lot is still at the prototyping stage (not yet progressed to industrialization phase), ‘Prototyping’ initiatives typically focus on consumers and processes, adopting agile approaches to testing and implementation. I suspect the challenges we experienced in the 1990s with user adoption to drive out the benefits of process re-engineering and technology solutions will re-emerge for the digital age, slowing down mass adoption. We only have to look at smart phones; as much as we use our phones today for a wide range of day-to-day activities, it is not that long ago when they were first introduced as an average mobile device for making calls plus somewhere to store music. Change management expertise will be in demand as much as ever to help make the transition from prototyping to industrialization; but in a different guise.

Thanks for your time so far! To conclude, one final piece of advice you would offer to organisations?

I think understanding the future of work and what it means for an organisation is growing in strategic importance. My advice is to recognise and grasp this, to actively invest in understating the various dimensions, opportunities and consequences. I would encourage discussion, debate, information gathering and engagement with those that study this including academics, business schools, technology innovators, and the global management consulting firms.  And then bringing informed and relevant insights and business intelligence to strategy development.

HR leaders do not necessarily have to lead this; it could be the strategy experts. And I recognise it is a challenge for HR to find the time to do this well, when needing to respond to current and immediate business demands. However I do see it as a great opportunity for HR.