4 min read

Going Off-Piste With Digitial HR

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It is ok. We all do it. None of us, whether inside or outside work, really want to admit among our peers that we've been unable to master a new skill, especially when you perceive others are great at it. To confess to being rubbish just makes us feel...well, a bit rubbish.

I went skiing this winter. Now I'd never claim after just 4 previous attempts in 25 years that I'm a good skier.  I'm a middle aged man, with ever reducing musculoskeletal flexibility who has on all previous occasions mainly enjoyed the fresh alpine air, modest Gluhwein consumption and a good time with friends. Around those key elements I confess to having regularly squeezed my circulation challenged feet into smelly pairs of ski boots (rented), strapped on knackered edge-free skis (also rented) and just 'had a go' as it were. 


Does that make me a skier? Do I feel equipped to tackle the risks, challenges and physical requirements of being able to get down mountains quickly, artistically or evenly safely? No it does not. It makes me a tourist sampling a winter leisure activity in a very controlled (blue slope) environment.  


So, given that context, what did I do when asked by a colleague about the winter holiday...


"Sounds lovely, CAN YOU SKI THEN?"


(Here's my moment of personal confession to you all, so please don't comment saying I need to face up and be more confident about my shortcomings as I'm working on it already)


... I panic at the question, inadvertently fire off thousands of neurones in my brain and think about how to position a response:


"I've been a few times, so ok"


I thus avoid the direct question and prompt them to make an assumption. I want them to think:

  1. a) He's at least done it before
  2. b) He's ok so should know what he's doing
  3. c) He must be able to ski or he wouldn't be going again


Nothing factually misleading and far better to allow all that assumed meaning than me opening the kimono and confessing...


"No, I'm so bad I prefer to spend four hours a day in the hotel Spa."


The reality is there's no way I'll ever ski well, but I'd said I was ok. Yet I know, without any hesitation at all, that there's several galaxies worth of room for improvement between me and the professional downhillers, slalom, half pipe and freestyle skiers I admired on the BBC's Winter Olympics Coverage.

And so I propose we have the same 'mastering of skills' admission dilemma with the Future of Work (FoW). In terms of having the capability to help Businesses survive disruption then HR being good at Digital has to be as equally critical as me needing to be excellent at skiing if I want to be an instructor or ski guide.


And here's the hypothesis. I suspect that HR, on the whole, is about as ready to master Digital as I am to be trusted to safely take a class of 14 school kids 2500m up in a gondola and ski back down the slopes in icy conditions 8 times a day. 


But, I'm lucky. I can choose whether to be a ski instructor or not. Unfortunately, businesses have no choice but to embrace the Future of Work (FoW) if they are to prosper. This means they absolutely need their approaches to work and workforces to be digital. HR, whether willingly or hesitantly, or even unknowingly are now the Exec Co's appointed ski guide around the treacherous FoW mountain range. On their patch are the daunting peaks of cognitive automation, workforce productivity optimisation, open talent utilisation, augmented work re-design, networks of teams design, epic employee engagement creation and new digital leadership capability development to name just a few.

So when I asked a senior HR client recently in a workshop if they felt they could do digital this is what I was told...


"well, I think we can, yes"


"Ok great, can you expand a little on why that is"  I asked


"Around automating bits of the candidate application process mainly and we've started looking at a chatbot."


Now, nothing wrong with those answers at all. It was true. They had revised the recruitment process to put a more simplified application form on-line (not yet mobile responsive) and they had also looked at bolting on a chatbot (hard-wired type not a virtual agent) to offer some kind of support to candidates.

But does that make them digital anymore than it makes me a skier because I'd bought my own pair of ski boots (pre-owned) on eBay?


I then later asked the same question in a separate session to a rather weary looking hiring manager:

"are you doing digital HR"? I asked expectantly.


"I'm not sure exactly what that is, but it doesn't seem very technology enabled to me.  We are trying to attract and retain some of the best data, cyber and analytics skills in the market with a proposition that is inferior to what they can get in start ups or Facebook". So it's frustrating when someone does engage with us for a job they are exposed to an old-fashioned website, no personalised experience, and no ongoing communication or management through the process".


He then went on to say...


"Directly, as a result of how we treat these mainly millennial candidates, over 50% drop out of the process and as a result we have far more unfilled vacancies than my department can cope with".


So, apart from feeling empathetic towards the chap, it highlighted to me that the Future of Work is here and that HR teams in most organisations are faced with the challenge of how to respond to a new set of demands with old world capabilities.


It doesn't seem a fair ask of HR at all does it?  They've been dropped at the summit of the most dangerous challenge facing humanity and are now off on their wooden skis, out of a fierce sense of professional duty, guiding their leaders and people down the black run of business survival wearing jeans and a T-shirt. 


So for us all to get down safely here's my checklist of what HR need to have in place before we set off.


  1. Aspiration: be clear on what successfully leading the organisation through the pitfalls and the positives of Future of Work actually looks like from a digital HR perspective. Define the destiny and visualise the journey.


  1. Attitude: be able to apply a totally digital mindset to all of your thinking, design, planning and execution of solutions to business problems. This will mean being more externally oriented, more flexible and more open to risk. It will mean getting your culture to be digital.


  1. Ability: understand and then acquire, borrow, develop or rent the full spectrum of skills, resources, technologies and methods needed to achieve a digital essence. This needs to be done at pace and with a full appreciation of commercial impact 


  1. Analytics: recognise as soon as possible that data, and how to translate that into intelligence, is the secret sauce that will determine winners and losers in the future. Life in HR needs to revolve around data
  2. Adoption: coming at problems with a customer first mindset is the key to driving engagement with digital solutions. Put adoption as the primary indicator of HR digital effectiveness.


Given what's at stake, and with all that to master, I'm going to forget the winter ski holiday next year. I was totally useless at it anyway. Far more fulfilling and important to be a digital HR sherpa.

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