Implementing Digital HR Initiatives: an Opportunity or a Disaster?

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Implementing Digital HR Initiatives: an Opportunity or a Disaster?

In our daily practice, we see organizations working on projects around HR Technologies. HR Tech is trending and big business in the market. Solution providers are promoting and predicting large positive impacts of implementing their technologies. 

Often, these technologies are introduced as a solution to all problems. Of course, mobile availability, the current permanent online society, and the push to go digital create a lot of excitement. This excitement is contagious when you are ready to invest in technology solutions. But these investments run the risk of looking better than they really are.

According to IBM Systems Magazine in 2016, 54% of large IT project failures can be attributed to poor management.

The big question is, how do we prevent introducing technologies from becoming a pain? How do we prevent that adoption is failing?

The answer to this question lies in leadership. We need to proactively control the balancing act of known factors during the implementation and preparation. These include business goals, HR strategy, and employee experience.

Keeping control of those factors demands an understanding of your audience. Who is the audience? How mature in terms of usage and management are the users and stakeholders?

In the past, organizations could act more independently when deciding how to manage their workforce. In the current transparent and open society, it is clear that decisions must be connected to the employee experience of the involved people and their network.

Nowadays, the experience of users of technology solutions becomes more relevant in experiencing our connection to a company’s goals. These functionalities have become part of our employee experience and that has consequences.

A balancing act

So how can you deploy Digital HR initiatives and ensure a successful adoption? Guarantees do not exist in this world but there are things you can do to set yourself up for success.

For example, 

1. Make sure you cut your plans/strategies/projects in small pieces that can be adjusted according to developments in your company. 

Digital HR activities are complex and time-consuming. The internal organization moves along as organizations are constantly moving and responding to (market) demands. Projects longer than six months have a risk to be less relevant due to changes in priorities. It’s key here to be flexible and agile in your approach, so you can respond immediately to such changes.

2. Look at this implementation as a continuum of improvement which must be a part of the daily practice.

Since we are working and living in a fast-changing society it is our belief that digital HR is a necessary component of the normal work dynamics. Innovation and change are needed as a part of our daily work and so should these kinds of initiatives.

Technology, in particular, develops too fast to handle it like a (long term) project. Three relevant priorities of the organization should be actively managed during a project around Digital HR Initiatives. These priorities can be seen as ‘communicating vessels’.

In communicating vessels, the liquid on the inside balances out to the same level in all the containers, regardless of their shape or volume. The same should hold true for our three key areas: business goals, HR strategy, and employee experience. If the liquid substance (money, time, and other resources) in one vessel is bigger than the other, it will create an imbalance that will prevent an organization from reaching its goals.

Communicating vessels - the optimum situation.

Figure 1. The liquid in all three vessels is the same. This is the optimum.

Business goals are obviously relevant for any decision of a company. Revenue, budget, and operating margin targets are the best known KPI’s. In addition, objectives around corporate sustainability and employee satisfaction are included in goal-setting. In our view, company branding should also be part of this, especially in the current competing market.

HR Strategy is set up to ensure a proper people approach for the organization. This people approach includes many traditional aspects as hiring, talent management, learning, and so on. The new aspects of technologies are becoming more and more part of HR strategy papers. An HR strategy should be long-term focused from a forward-thinking perspective. Strategic Human Resource Management focuses on the alignment of employee qualifications with the organization’s workforce needs.

Employee experience is a holistic way to describe how an employee thinks and feels about working with and for his or her employer. This employee experience is influenced by:

  1. Physical elements such as the workplace and location
  2. HR and workplace technologies that the organization provides
  3. The company culture or in other words the way of working

How do these ‘vessels’ communicate?

Business Goals and Employee experience

In many companies, a natural way of prioritizing is following the financial objectives of the organization. The challenge with financial objectives is to translate this into concrete, measurable performance indicators (PIs).

Performance indicators are in many organizations used to ‘objectify’ target-settings of business lines, teams, and sometimes individual people. In many cases, this cascading of PIs into individual objectives can be challenging due to its complexity and influence ability. Still, it is a way to connect people to goals. It might not be done at all levels but at least, at the team level, it should be clear how the team contributes to business goals.

This connecting is extremely relevant in understanding your role and purpose in the team and organization. Purpose is becoming the number one driver of people in relations, being work relations –but also private relations. So, understanding your purpose and via that, your contribution to business goals is a must-have for any organization.

HR Strategy and Business Goals

It seems very obvious that an HR Strategy is connected to business goals. But the translation of financially formulated goals into people-oriented goals is not always easy.

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Currently, many HR business/strategy plans are translating the goals into typical HR measurements as for example:

  1. # of hiring (to ensure growth)
  2. Talent management (to ensure development)
  3. # Learning & Development objectives (to ensure proper, educated people)

But why is a ‘# of hiring’ contributing to growth in your specific organization?

In most cases, there is a logic to this. However, this is seldom explained.

Becoming digital-ready, or aligned, is named in many HR strategy plans and it mostly translates in vague descriptions of technologies that must or should be used or implemented. It is not always clear why the specified improvement is needed or which business/employee problem it is solving. Clarity about this and being open towards the audience of the HR Strategy plan would push a more concrete translation of goals into functional needs.

Employee Experience and HR Strategy

When reading an HR strategy documents it is not easy to understand the individual impact.

Why and how the mentioned strategies are supportive to the individual employee and his/her experience is not always explained. So why not describe or explain the added value of a strategic choice into an individual impact? For example, ‘You will be able to receive your expense reimbursement within 10 days’ or ‘You will be able to build career scenario’s using the new Skill Analytics solution’.

This might sound like a communication strategy but we want to emphasize that employees (and managers, members of workers councils, temporary staff, etc.) have only one reference and that is what they experience day by day. For example, a decision to stop yearly appraisal cycles will automatically create the question of ‘How and when will my performance be measured as an alternative?’

Communicating vessels and risks

The theories around communicating vessels itself are well known. But do we constantly align the activities ‘inside’ and ‘between’ a vessel? We all recognize that financial objectives are, especially in certain periods of the year, prioritized on the agenda. ‘How can we make sure we meet our OM goals?’ or ‘You received an additional savings objective on top of the already challenging agreed goals’

The automatic response is that attention goes down on the other vessels. This creates an even a larger impact than we assume. Sucking up (changing the air pressure) attention in 1 vessel (business goals) will lower the pressure in the other 2 vessels.

Communicating vessels - emphasis creates imbalance
Figure 2. Emphasis on one area will create a imbalance in the other areas that should be equalized.

In figure 1 we suggested that time & attention in an organization are equally spread over the three priorities. This is reflected in three vessels of the same size. In reality, we believe time & attention are spread over more topics but business goals usually get the most attention. This is projected in our picture as a different (larger) vessel size for Business goals than for HR Strategy and/or Employee Experience. The result is that adding more time & attention to the vessel (business goals) will have a massive impact on the two smaller vessels.

Communicating vessels - focus on business goals
Figure 3. Time & attention is in reality more focused on Business Goals (as shown in size vessel). Impact of imbalance is even higher.

Leadership needed

When the business goals are stated, the HR strategy is confirmed and when the project has started all communicating vessels are equally filled with fluid. During the project, there can be events or changes that we discussed above that can influence the fluid balance in the vessels. Correct leadership acts as a pressure controller to guarantee that all the vessels have the same level of liquid. The goal is that none of the vessels or the supply runs empty.

Communicating vessels - correct leadership creates same level of liquid in all vessels
Figure 4. Correct leadership can guarantee the same level of liquid in all the vessels.

In HR Digitalization projects many stakeholders are involved. These stakeholders are related to the actors of the processes that are being transformed. Besides HR, these can involve for example IT, Finance, Procurement, HR, management, employees but also external factors like social media and societal developments.

The impact of these kinds of projects is high and that is why we believe we need solid and connecting leadership.

Business & HR leaders must work together to manage the expectations, project progress and stakeholders. This is not a one-off activity but should be a permanent attitude. As said earlier, an agile approach will work best and demands continuous & permanent fine-tuning.

Projects like this are becoming a permanent element of our day-to-day business. Digitalization creates the possibility to adapt ‘faster’ to changing perspectives.

This requires capabilities that should be organized in a smart way. So that ‘change/transformation’ becomes a part of the day-to-day business of HR.

We believe the following aspects will support and improve the success rate of Digital HR:

  1. Translate digital HR initiatives into concrete Employee Experiences.
  2. Continuous feedback loops with all your stakeholders will pay out in higher satisfaction of digital HR initiatives.
  3. Organize a permanent tuning model between Business Goals, Employee Experience, and HR Strategy.
  4. Work as agile as possible to be able to cope with the changes that will occur.
  5. Manage your technology providers like partners; invest and be honest and challenging.
  6. Perceive your Digital HR Initiatives like implementing a new way of working instead of implementing new technology.

In short

Deploying Digital HR initiatives can be painful. According to Gartner, the majority of Digital HR initiatives are doomed to fail. Why is this happening and what are the learnings we can already extract out of the current practice?

Digital HR initiatives should always be a balancing act between three different – and sometimes even contrary perspectives. Employee Experience is becoming extremely relevant in any business decision so also in digital HR initiatives. Business goals are always present but not always translated into concrete HR strategies. In addition to this, we often fail to think about how these HR strategies connect to the Employee Experience.

These three perspectives work like communicating vessels. Awareness and acceptance of this mechanism are necessary to prevent a misbalance. Failure to do so can result in higher costs, delayed timelines, and lower acceptance of the technology.

Finally, bringing together these three perspectives requires proper leadership. Leadership to align, connect, translate, support and guide the people of your organization.

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