HR Skills in the Post-Pandemic Workforce

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HR Skills in the Post-Pandemic Workforce | Erik van Vulpen

In this video, Erik van Vulpen, founder of AIHR, speaks at the Bucharest Tech Week (HR Master’s Summit) about the changes that the pandemic has caused in the workplace, how these changes impact the way we will work in the future, and the skills we will need to come out of the pandemic stronger.

In this video, Erik discusses the topics:

  • HR is changing: Three Trends
  • Competencies required to adapt
  • The new normal: HR in flux

Transcript: 

Presenter: So we are back. And I am very pleased to introduce the next speaker because he’s a globally recognised HR thought leader in digital and analytic skills. And especially because he’s the founder of the Academy to Innovate HR, so as I was telling you earlier, he’s here to talk to us about how, as HR professionals, we can prepare better for the future to overcome these challenging times, and to develop ourselves because, you know, it’s important to always start with you and be a role model for for the rest. So Eric, thank you for being here with us today. And the mic is on to you.

Erik van Vulpen: Thank you very much for having me. Hello, everyone. And let me start off by saying very, very happy international HR day. Today is international HR day. So from that perspective, I think we have a good day to be here at this conference. So today, I would like to share something about HR skills in a post pandemic workforce. I think the original title was about employees skills, but since I know HR much better than the more general population, I’ll focus on the HR skills required in a post pandemic workforce for the next 30 or so minutes. 

And I would like to talk about three specific topics. First of all, HR is changing, I would like to take you through three key changes and key trends that cause HR to change. And the next I would like to look at how this is impacting HR and what this means how we in HR can best tackle these changes. So the competencies required to adapt to these changes. And then in the last few minutes, if there’s still any time left, I’ll spend a few minutes on the new normal, which I call HR in flux. 

HR is in an ever changing state of change. Essentially, my name is Eric van Vulpen. I have a background in law, psychology and Business Administration, and I’m the founder of the Academy to innovate HR, or AIHR. In short, the Academy to innovate HR is the largest global training or online training provider in HR worldwide. We upskill HR professionals from around the world to become more HR savvy and more business driven, so to add more value to their organisations through being stronger in HR, but also through adding to the business. And from that perspective, I’m in the luxury position to speak to a lot of different HR leaders, and HR practitioners in the fields, learn from them, see what their challenges are, and how we can come up with solutions with learning interventions to solve those challenges.

That’s my perspective, I would love to take you through three challenges, three reasons why HR is changing. And the first one has to do with transformation and automation. And I don’t know how you feel about the void of transformation, but it’s one of my least favourite words, because it’s very overused. But I think HR is in transformation. And the question is, what is that transformation really about? Well, that transformation has two elements.

If we look at the numbers, the World Economic Forum last year, in the midst of the pandemic released a survey showing that 84% of companies plan to increase the digitization of work processes. And in a similar vein, 50% of companies plan to accelerate or go even faster with the automation of tasks. For me, transformation is on the one hand about digitization, on the other hand, it is about automation. And bringing those two together requires a new way of working. A similar survey from KPMG shows that only 1/3 of HR executives in tech companies, so specifically for the tech industry, feel very confident about HR’s ability to really transform into a technology driven future. So if we’re looking towards the most leading organisations because usually the tech organisations are the most advanced organisations when it comes to employee skills. Also in HR, you see that the majority is not very confident about HR ability to drive that transformation. And I think that’s a bit worrisome.

When we talk about, you know, transformation and automation, automation has been going on around us for a long time already. And when we define automation, there’s two elements to it. On the one hand, it’s the digitization process that’s already happening all around us. They call this the algorithmic wave. So rule based systems that help to make decisions when it helps to digitise processes. For example, the automation of simple compute computational tasks or digitising pen and paper processes on well, I know this is a virtual conference, but before the pandemic on the real conferences, I always like to ask the question like, who in HR is still working with pen and paper based processes. And usually, then it took some time for people to stick up their hands, but then about half of the people in the audience, you know, would put up their hands looking right and left, if there were also other people still working with pen and paper, the reality is at least before COVID, that a lot of the HR processes are not a lot there are still pen and paper based processes in HR. 

Well, I think the pandemic has changed a lot of this. I’m very excited to ask this question again, in our live audience in front of me to see how many hands will still go up. But this first wave of transformation is really about the digitization of these more manual paper based processes. An example is an organisation that had a cafeteria benefit system. So individual employees could choose their own benefits and opt in for them. And this was an eight page document that people printed, and then they filled it in with a pen, made the calculations and then they handed that in, and that would be their benefits package. And there was an administrator who then looked at all the notes, put that into the system, checked the calculation, and you know, if anything was back, they would go back and check it, double check it and then put it into the system. That system was not necessarily easy, but it’s not a complex process to digitise it was digitised it was implemented. And the satisfaction for this specific process went up from a 6.4 I think for a pen and paper based version to an 8.3 on a 10 point scale for the digitised version. So it’s, I think, a great example of digitization in HR, and how that can already make a difference. 

But it was not just the user raising of the employee satisfaction that went up with that specific HR process. It was also the HR administrator who used to, you know, fill in those documents into a system and essentially copy data and do data entry. That administrator is now advising people on the best benefits for their specific situation. So you see someone who is working at a very operational level, now moving up because of digitization to a more tactical level, making more of an impact being more employee centric, and creating more value for the organisation because some of the more manual processes that involve more labour were automated. I think that’s a fantastic example of the first wave of automation, as PwC calls it, the algorithmic wave.

Now the second wave that’s coming in five to eight years, is the augmentation wave. This is about a dynamic interaction with technology for support and decision making. Where today, if you’re, you know, talking to a chatbot, or, you know, talking to customer services, you have the feeling that there’s a computer at the other end of the of the line, you know, you don’t really want to talk to a computer, you want to talk to a human. In five to eight years, there’ll be the other way around, because our computer, a chatbot, will be able to provide you answers quicker, and will have all the required information already available for you. So it’ll be easier to talk to a chatbot compared to you know, someone in HR, filling in customer service tickets, for example. So, in the near future, we see more and more complex administrative processes that are also changing that are becoming more and more automated. 

And similarly also more complex tasks like basic data analytics, for example, will also be automated. And an example that I like to use is if now on, I don’t know if any of you have ever worked with Google Analytics, but that’s website tracking data. Google engine that tracks all the data on your websites, all the Visitor Information, and then comes up with recommendations based on that pile of data. So Google can come with a recommendation saying I see I noticed that this page speed is low. At the same time bouncers, you know, people coming on the page and then quitting the page directly, are also up if you reduce the page, loading time, and the bounce rate also go down. And you can reduce the page loading time by changing these two images that are too big. 

So Google already is able to make, you know, for everyday users for you and I recommend the best courses of action when it comes to web traffic. And in a couple years, we will have a similar situation in HR, where we have so much and so much more data available that also refreshes at a quicker rate, that you’ll call that it is possible to generate these kinds of automated insights and automated recommendations, just based on the static data that you know, the changes changes over time, the recommendations can already be made in a couple of years by an algorithm. And then the art is not necessarily you know, doing these analyses yourself. It’s about the implementation of these analysis in your day to day practices, work practices, that will provide value within HR. So that’s when we talk about trends. Those are, I think, one of the key trends, resulting in an HR function where you spend less time on business as usual activities. But more time on more project based, more agile work processes will be more movement between roles, technology, adoption will be one of the key differentiators of an organisation. If your organisation is good at driving technology adoption quickly, you’ll be better off than a competitor who’s less able to do show, and there will be an abundance of data that will be analysed automatically. Through smarter algorithms that can identify hiccups in the data outliers and provide solutions or at least bring those to your attention automatically. That is the first strength to show transformation and automation. 

The second trend why I think HR is changing is the rise of agile. Lately, I’ve heard the word agile and agility more and more mentioned in one on one conversations with senior HR leaders. And I’ve always been a little bit puzzled because I thought agile is a bit of a buzzword that everyone is talking about. But no one really has a deep understanding of what it is. And maybe that is one of the reasons actually why a lot of people are speaking about it. But I think there’s slightly more to it, because working in a slightly more agile way will help a lot of especially large organisations, I think tremendously.

And that’s because many of the core HR operating models that we that we have now where you have, you know, three centralised elements, you know, the business partners who are helping the business and communicate with the business, the shared service centres who are doing much of the administrative work, and then the centres of expertise that the specialists who are two of the specialist advisors in implementation of HR processes, that’s that traditional three legged model is starting to show some cracks. And I think a more agile way of working will help us fit those cracks in and will help us operate in a more efficient way. 

Specifically, oftentimes, what you now see is that these specialists working in the centres of excellence or expertise, are providing isolated solutions. So they come up with these brilliant solutions that do not always really fit the business that well. At the same time, the business partners who are customer oriented or customer focused, they’re speaking with the HR managers, they’re often in a much more operational role than we want them to be, instead of being very strategic or tactical, they often are the operational executioner’s or many of the the managers problems instead of looking at what the manager is trying to achieve on a more strategic level. And then interpreting it and seeing how HR can enable it, they’re very often just doing more, much more operational tasks, which is a problem and I’ll cover that in more detail later.

And then the third leg is about shared services. I’m curious how many people in your HR organisations have a deep understanding of automation, but usually that number is not really that big and having a good understanding of what you know, digitization and automation means and being able to implement that quickly in your HR organisation will give give you a an efficiency boost, and will give you a very clear leg up compared to your competition. But that’s that understanding of automation and bringing in those skills into the HR organisation, especially if you have a larger HR organisation is something that a lot of organisations are lagging behind with, and it will overtime become an increasingly important thing to do that quickly to drive adoption. And largely there’s a lack of integrated HR practices. So these three core elements of a natural operating model are failing to communicate, to integrate and to work together in a good way.

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That leads us to more agile teams. So as automation increases in business as usual, overtime slowly goes down, we have more time to spend on picking up projects that have high impacts and that create impact for the business. And that, in the end, will help us drive more business impact all at the same time we automate the core, the core elements in these projects. So think about the older model that I mentioned before, the roles in the HR team are starting to change. These teams, you know, will have older expertises as well, such as automation. But you’ll see teams where an HR manager, you know, is acting in the capacity as a scrum master, ensuring the efficiency of the team ensuring that everyone has the right qualifications and that the team is operating in a good in an effective way, where the HR business partner becomes more of a product owner, someone who really understands the business and who prioritises the projects that these project these agile teams are working on. And then in the teams, you have different specialists, together with the business partners, or with a business partner, and with people with other skills, who can then pick up projects, execute them, improve them, automate them, and then move on to the next project. So over time, you see that the business as usual, will start to decrease, while the time spent on more agile projects will start to increase. And probably in your HR roles, the more junior roles will spend more time or at least at the moment oftentimes spend more time on business as usual activities that over time will start to decrease. And you will have a more flexible organisation or HR organisation at least, that is probably also slightly less hierarchical, with people with more different capabilities.

And that brings us to the third change, I promised in the title to talk about the post pandemic workforce, you know, that’s COVID-19, the impact of COVID has been tremendous. COVID is a large driver of digital transformation. And has brought about a change also in skills that are needed. Research from McKinsey showed that in the US in 2021 69% of people of the age of business leaders actually were looking to build more skills compared to two years ago in 2019. And 2019, was already at an all time high. So the COVID not only drove digital transformation and the speed of that, but now it’s also driving the upscaling efforts in organisations. 

And these three trends in HR bring me to the following framework. And as you know, I have about five minutes left, so I’m not even halfway so I’ll go a bit faster. We need to solve this. And I’m not saying that upscaling is the one solution to do it. But I think upskilling is a key part of the solution to solve these problem areas that we’re now starting to run into more and more. And the way we have conceptualised this, it will be called the T shaped HR professional. Though the T shirt HR professional for us has on the vertical part of the T, a number of core competencies that are critical for good functioning in HR, regardless of the role in HR. And then depending on your specialisation, the vertical part of the T is about the functional competency that you have to drill down to have a specialisation that you are really unique at. And in these more agile teams, you have these people that you know can collaborate well because they connect all the core competencies. They understand the business, they understand their peers, but they also have different functional expertises that make them very strong in the area that they’ve specialised in.

Now for us, we have identified based on hundreds of conversations with senior leaders and 10s of 1000s of individual inputs from surveys of HR professionals, we have identified four core capabilities, which are being data driven. So it has the ability to read, interpret and create and transform data into information. So being more data driven. Business acumen, having a deep understanding of the business and being able to structure what you do in HR for the good of the business. It’s about leveraging technology, we call this digital integration – knowing which technology is out there and which technology to bring in to create more efficient and more effective HR policies that create business impact and having an understanding of people and culture. Being a good communicator and a transparent HR professional that builds trust in the organisation. I think those are key elements for being a good HR professional. So those are the four core skills that I see or that we are seeing, I should say. 

And then depending on your role, you have different functional specialisations. So if you join an organisation, as an HR generalist, for example, you need to have a basic understanding of what the organisation is doing. First of all, you need to understand the technology landscape, because you’re probably working with different systems. And, you know, often in a data entry position, if you start, you know, you’re working with systems and you and you’re working with data, and you need to have an, you know, your representative of the HR department in the organisation. So you need to be a clear communicator, and an advocate for the culture that you’re building in the organisation. And then as you progress through the organisation, and you start to specialise, you start to build a functional expertise, while you keep upgrading your basic core competencies. And, you know, depending on the role that you’re at, if you’re in the end, the chief learning officer, you have different functional expertise as well as being a fully T-shaped HR professional having a deep understanding of your core capabilities of your core competencies, I should say. 

Now, being T shaped has a number of advantages. Specifically, it helps HR professionals to better align with the business because they have this horizontal element that connects with owners, specifically being able to interpret what the business is doing and able to leverage HR policies in a way that creates more business impact because of that increased business understanding is one way of doing it. Another way of doing it is being able to understand data and being able to communicate with data, falsify hypotheses, being more data driven, but also having a deeper understanding of manager KPIs, for example. And knowing you know, if the manager is going off those KPIs, what are the HR interventions that we can do in order to help these managers achieve their business goals? That’s very relevant in large organisations, I think that’s even more relevant to smaller organisations where these business KPIs are much more top of mind and relatively seen much more important, or at least more important compared to larger organisations. 

But also, it’s about leveraging technology. In smaller organisations that means that you understand the steps that you go through when you implement or when you’re looking to purchase a technology, it means that you understand how to specify the elements that a technology needs to do in order for it to be successful. And it means that you can implement the technology you know, once you have bought it and the module made the right choice. Having that skill sets or having these one by one person, or multiple people in your organisation that have the skill sets will really help you to implement better technology and to implement the right technology the first time, instead of, you know, trying to implement technology that doesn’t really fit that doesn’t make HR more efficient, and that doesn’t really help drive business results. 

And finally, being more of a T shaped HR professional is about being an excellent communicator, being able to work collaboratively with people in HR, but also outside of HR to pick up those different projects to work on the more agile projects for a number of weeks, and then implement them, automate them and then move on to the next project that requires communication skills, that requires a deeper understanding of the people that you work with. And of course, also a deep understanding of organisational culture. So being a more t shaped HR professional will help in larger organisations and will also help in smaller organisations alike.

And, building more of these core competencies, I think is a key element. Now I have very quickly skip through these, we’ve built a competency framework with different dimensions, and we’ve different behaviours and different proficiency levels. And we’ve defined for each of these behaviours, what good performance in HR looks like. That’s, that’s a 25 page document that I won’t take you through now. But if you’re interested in this, you can find it at AIHR.com/enterprise where you can download these documents. For the sake of time, we spend one more minute on the new normal, which is HR being in flux. I think we need to start facing the reality that we have the world changing at a faster and faster pace. Pace, I should say. HR will start to become more and more being in a situation that is ever changing. IBM Last year in a report put the half life of skills at five years, meaning that in five years, half of the skills or half of the knowledge that you have is outdated. So essentially, when you start your bachelor’s and master’s, at the end of it, half of it is already outdated. So how do you cope with that? How do you make sure that everyone in your organisation does an extra bachelor’s every every five years? That’s the reality that we need to learn to deal with. And if you look at technical skills, that’s even more urgent than the half life of two and a half years.

McKinsey came up with a very recent report about three weeks ago, they said, one of the best practices is to launch an upskilling program to have an element in your organisation that, on the one hand, spots the learning content that is required for people to stay up to date. And that encourages people to continuously learn to continuously educate themselves, in order to stay top of mind. And I think it is our responsibility as HR professionals to think about this, how we implement this in HR, but also in the broader employee population. How do we ensure that people continuously educate both on the job, but also through more formal learning that we try to bring as close to on the job learning as possible. And I think that is a formidable challenge that I would like to give you today. Not giving you the answers, because this is a challenge that we need to figure out over the next couple of years. But it will be about bringing upskilling and the reality of work closer and closer together and integrating them so that through work people continuously upskill through training that is very close to reality of work, because I firmly believe that the organisations that are competitive today, and especially competitive tomorrow, are organisations that are able to continuously learn, continuously improve and become better. 

Because they tap knowledge and they bring in knowledge from outside of the organisation in a continuous way, they flow that knowledge into the organisation, so the organisation becomes richer, equals more experienced, and people’s skills stay up to date. That’s it from my side. And I think there was an opportunity for a Q & A. So I think we have a few more minutes for questions. 

Presenter: I actually have a few questions for you, Eric, thank you so much. It’s always helpful as an HR professional to see, you know, a map that can guide your learning process. So thank you so much for sharing with us. I have two questions. In a way they connect with each other. So basically, one of them leaves you asking, how does the line between human actions and digital actions change? Now we’ll get to the pandemic fourth has to go into more digitized HR processes. So what’s in your view the you know, the balance between human intervention and using digital to replace it?

Erik van Vulpen: That’s an interesting, very broad question that I think we can do an entire keynote on. I don’t think that pandemic in that sense has changed much. I think the pandemic has mostly accelerated it. And I think it’s a broader trend where technology comes closer and closer to our fingertips. And technology is kind of the integration between the humans who’re doing their work. And then technology is an integrative layer between it. So technology is enabling, you know, humans to work in the end. And a very simple example is, you know, the laptop or the order computer that you’re, you know, working on when you’re answering your email, there’s a layer of technology between the person and the actual work. And work is happening through that technology. 

And I think that that seamless integration that we’re already seeing now, because you know, your work, you leverage technology in order to do your work, I think that will only only increase more and more. At the pandemic, we’ve seen that because, you know, even this conference is now online. Moreover, I’m speaking to you through an online environment. I think that integration will increase more and more and will become less seamless. So you know, where you used to start up your computer, and you know, wait two minutes, now your computer is online, within five seconds, you know, you’re up and running. And I think that’s that that’s that element that that layer between the human and the work will only get bigger, but also at the same time become less and less, will become seamless, essentially. That’s the abstract answer. And I think that will only increase and I think that the pandemic has been much more of an accelerator rather than really a game changer in that sense. I think they’ll just continue probably at a slightly slower pace, maybe also at a faster pace. Because the world is changing faster, faster.

Presenter: Thank you. And the last question, you know, HR professionals more experienced HR professionals who entered the field early on. And mostly maybe because they wanted to do creative social work, getting in touch with people. So they are not necessarily friends of numbers or data in digital skills. What do you recommend for them to do in order to be friends, that data and analytics and in order not to create a huge generation gap in the field?

Erik van Vulpen: Yeah, well, I think a lot of the new people who are joining HR have a similar motivation for entering HR because they want to connect with people, they want to help people. So I’m not advocating for a generational gap between you know, the new HR professional who’s fully data driven, and the old HR professional, who is not, I think, rather, it goes much more hand in hand, it’s an integration because, you know, if you see a data point, if you see, you know, objectives in a certain department is up, the question is, why is that up, you know, that that’s an insight from a data point, and an algorithm can can, you know, shoot it out and sell it to you, but then you need your human intuition to go to that department to look what’s going on. 

And it might be someone who has a long term illness, you know, was unable to work. And you know, that’s because there’s one person who’s able to work will drive it up. So it’s still very much you know, that sensing and that much more human and social connection that you need in order to interpret that data. So I’m absolutely not advocating for you know, you need to be data driven. And as the solution, I think, if you, you know, if you’re very good at that sensing and being in the organisation and being connected to different stakeholders, because you know, that comes to you very natural, then you need to invest more into, you know, also building that more digital and data driven capability. Because we’ve both together, you’ll be a stronger HR professional. 

Also the other way around, if you’re very strong in numbers, and in data and in technology, but you lack that human connection, you know, that that’s, that’s in the end, the same t shape, if you’re very strong on those two elements, but you’re not a people’s affricates, you don’t have that stuff, that sense for culture, that alignment, that communication skills, then you need to work on those other skills. So I think it’s very much a balancing act where you really need both of them. And in the T shape, you know, there’s the people’s advocates, and I talk about it less, because usually HR is already quite well developed in that aspect. 

But HR definitely needs that aspect. And I think it’s very much an integration that goes hand in hand. So I’m not advocating in that sense for a generation gap. I think it’s good to identify where am I good at? Where do I have strong ads? And what are the elements that I can still improve on, and then work on those elements. So you have at least a minimum balance. And until you have the minimum balance, you know, keep focusing on the things that you’re good at. But having a minimum balance, I think, good, you know, in this case, intuition and data, I think when they come together, you have a much stronger connection, and you’ll be a more effective HR professional.

Presenter: Thank you so much, Eric., for being with us, and for sharing all that information very, very useful again, to just lay out some development plans for ourselves as professionals in the industry, not just to take care of the others. So thank you again, hope you had a great time with us and maybe see you in the future. My pleasure. See you later. Bye bye. 

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