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Is technology the dark knight for HR?

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As we enter a world where technology plays a vital role in many HR processes, how do we retain the human element, while making the most of the tech tools that promise to make HR’s life easier? Aditi Sharma Kalra finds out.

In The Dark Knight Trilogy, film director Christopher Nolan took pains to paint vivid pictures of both Batman (aka the Dark Knight) and his on-again-off-again ally/adversary, Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face). In the process, he proved that every hero has two sides; the complexity of which lies in being able to gauge and engage the two faces.

A little bit like the wave of conversations that technology is undergoing at the moment.

We have a number of use-cases of companies and individuals benefiting from the application of technology, yet there’s a significant number who are hesitant to jump onto the bandwagon owing to concerns around privacy, security, dehumanisation, cost, and customisation.

In this feature, we identify experts, from within and outside HR, who are ahead of the curve in working with technology, and who are able to shed light on HR’s readiness and experiences of IR 4.0.

Aviva: Robotics, predictive analytics, and AI

Insurer Aviva is proud of its progress in leveraging HR technology, having undertaken three key projects:

  • Implementing robotics for onboarding and off-boarding processes (which are simple, but repetitive and time-consuming, and can be subject to human error);
  • Using predictive analytics to develop insights on attrition; and
  • Leveraging on AI and machine learning for scenario planning to reskill/upskill employees.

“We have huge ambitions to accelerate our business growth and that requires us to drive our workforce transformation to ensure we are resourced with the right capabilities by building for both current and future needs, as well as tapping on technology to create capacity,” says Anuradha Purbey, People Function Director for Southeast Asia at Aviva, on the business need for these programmes.

Even before they were implemented, the first step in the journey was changing the team’s mindset – helping people understand why there was a need for change and how they would end up benefitting. One of the ways to do that was the monthly department meetings, where speakers from tech firms, consultancies and such, came and shared their experience, thus helping the team to better understand what was out there and what could be applied to the team.

“Making them feel comfortable and helping them to overcome the fear of change is easier said than done, especially if they’ve been doing things a certain way for so long. But once there is that mindset shift, the pieces fell into place very quickly,” Purbey explains.

While implementing robotics, the challenge was more around the team juggling its existing workload while working with the IT team to map out the processes, test the tool and then implement it. “In this instance, it does get worse before it gets better … way better,” she admits.

The employee life cycle team no longer needs to send out multiple emails to various parties as part of the off-boarding process.

But since the implementation, the story has been rosy. The employee life cycle team no longer needs to send out multiple emails to various parties as part of the off-boarding process. Its time is now freed up to focus on exit interviews to delve deeper into the reasons why employees are leaving.

“By implementing robotics, we are saving nine man days a month across the team. With the capacity that has created, it has allowed the team to move away from performing operational tasks to higher value advisory work to drive the employee experience.”

For predictive analytics on attrition, Aviva is able to use the data and insights to provide strategic advice to hiring managers. It is then empowered to take meaningful actions to prevent the outcome (attrition).

Meanwhile, the team has just started using AI and machine learning for scenario planning. While it is still early days, it does expect to achieve strategic oversight of budget, capacity and which roles will be impacted by emerging technology, enabling it to discover reskilling pathways.

With a host of benefits to cite, Purbey remains clear that technology will never replace the human element or people as long as they can deliver value. “Tech will help us do our work in a different way, in most instances, faster and better, but that doesn’t mean that people will have less work to do! Instead, it allows us to move our focus to higher value work that really shifts the needle,” she says.

Experian: Employee app, digitisation, and analytics

The technology and digital sector in Malaysia is evolving rapidly, and companies operating in the country are expanding operations from Malaysia to support both regional and global landscapes.

This was a driver for information services provider Experian, when it undertook three initiatives: an employee app, digitisation and digitalisation of key HR processes, and predictive analytics.

The first was the digitisation and digitalisation of the entire recruitment and onboarding process by implementing and integrating a suite of tools enabling its talent acquisition professionals to manage their relationships with candidates and internal stakeholders.

“The entire process is now managed through a suite of combined technology tools as our intention was to move from the old-fashioned ways of managing recruitment processes such as Excel spreadsheets to contemporary looking tools which will allow us to fully manage the end-to-end recruitment process, while maintaining high productivity levels of the TA team members and the full automation of tasks,” says Chua Chai Ping, HR Director for Experian Malaysia.

What that means is from the first interaction with a candidate, to an electronic offer acceptance, and automated tasks and content-sharing through a rich media online platform, the candidate and new hire experience is elevated. As a result, the company is now saving the time of both recruiters and hiring managers, enabling them to focus on other value-added activities.

All managers, leaders and stakeholders were introduced to the technology tools prior to implementation, and sufficient workshops were carried out to collate feedback prior to go-live.

The second initiative was the introduction of its HR-based app across APAC called Your Choice app, which allows employees easy access to four components:

  • A personalised digital rewards statement.
  • A benefits allowance through the allocation of annual points for employees to spend on fitness, entertainment, food and beverage or daily essentials.
  • A monetary employee relief fund for employees or their dependents experiencing hardships, and a support line for when life gets tough.
  • A focus on their health and wellbeing by giving information and support in real-time on employee devices.

The third initiative was an in-house built predictive analytics solution for HR to give greater insight into the organisation’s workforce and help accelerate HR strategies.

“This interactive online platform provides a truly unique view for HR and supports the core people management processes for leaders to develop the right strategies to reduce attrition, drive churn-related cost savings and improve overall business productivity,” Chua explains.

Any technology change and adoption is underlined by a change in human behaviour, and Experian’s experience was no different – thus, education and awareness sessions were given equal importance as technical implementation and user testing.

“All managers, leaders and stakeholders were introduced to the technology tools prior to implementation, and sufficient workshops were carried out to collate feedback for implementation prior to go-live.”

Given the investment for the tools was done regionally, she credits the encouragement and influence of the company’s senior leadership for making it successful.

In the effort to implement this technology, the intention was to build an outstanding candidate and employee experience, and Experian has certainly achieved that. The talent acquisition process is now fully paperless and digitalised, including onboarding and talent analytics, via a single local set of recruitment technology.

Additionally, all users (employees, managers, recruiters and candidates) have much greater visibility over their processes, among a host of other benefits such as the reinforcement to the employee wellbeing agenda, and the reduced business impact of losing key talent by making evidence-based decisions.

As with most new initiatives, she affirms this one shouldn’t be HR-driven, but rather a partnership with the business. To continuously measure the results, Experian monitors several sentiments and engagement survey results at various touch-points of an employee’s journey at Experian.

It has also adopted CheckPoint @ HR session, whereby employees, who have spent two months in the business, are invited to an informal coffee session with the HR team to gather live feedback on their onboarding to date, and ideas on how to improve further.

Jewel Paymentech: Goals tracking platform

As a start-up, one of the common challenges that financial risk technology company Jewel Paymentech faced was juggling too many priorities and keeping team members focused on what was really important and prioritising what was urgent, to deliver outcomes that really mattered.

This was the backdrop for the team to implement goal-tracking software that enables the team to plan, align and track goals; provide guided support on one-on-one conversations; automate calendar invites; track and record conversation points; as well as a platform for employees to seek and receive feedback from multiple parties and track career progress, thus helping the company to build a succession plan.

“It’s the second year since implementation and the journey has been full of learnings,” says Evanna Chuah, HR Director for Jewel Paymentech Malaysia.

For those who are not familiar with the concept of OKRs (objectives and key results), she explains: “It’s difficult for one to comprehend what those OKRs are in your role, and how it connects with the wider network of OKRs of members around you.”

As such, in the first year of setting OKRs, the team learnt some hard lessons – the first of which was being overly ambitious with its goals and setting too much up to achieve.

Second, while it started off with baby steps by getting familiar with OKRs, it quickly realised that some of the OKRs were dependent on other parties to complete their part on time before handing them over, and when these slip, so does their OKRs. “Looking deeper into the problem, we realised that the priorities amongst different teams on the same objective were not aligned,” she explains.

The final challenge was in realising the need to “reset” the objectives quickly, as and when needed.

“In 2018, we set our goals once, at the beginning of the year and thought that we were set for the rest of the year. We were so wrong,” she admits. “Things changed fast and we did not build a process robust enough to enable us to reset our objectives.”

When something ad hoc hits us, we question ourselves – does this urgent task fall under any of our overarching objectives, if they are not, why has it become so important?

Is the team doing better this year? Certainly so, as it was more realistic about what can really be delivered. “When something ad hoc hits us, we consciously question ourselves – does this urgent task fall under any of our overarching objectives, if they are not, why has it become so urgent and important?”

She adds: “In fact, we started collaborating with other teams to align our OKRs and made them co-own our OKRs.” Furthermore, the team put in time in the middle of the year to re-look at its OKRs, and invest time to reset objectives if need be.

One thing that was for certain was the use of this technology did not reduce the human element in Jewel Paymentech’s objective setting process. “In fact, it has brought us closer together, and focused us on the right things and producing the right outcomes to help us get there.”

She cites the one-on-one feature for having increased the quality and frequency of conversations between manager and employee, and more importantly, employees now ask for more one-on-one conversations as this helps them know (with crystal clarity) what and how they are contributing to the company, which keeps them excited and engaged at work.

Moving forward, she clarifies: “In my opinion, in terms of fully adopting the approach of setting stretched objectives, tracking and attaining them, we’re not 100% there yet, but as we constantly review and innovate our approach for what works for the company, we have certainly done better compared to 2018.”


Caution! Speed bumps ahead

Among the several cases of positive experiences, it is equally important for HR decision makers to remain cautious when implementing new HR technology, as well as learning from others’ experiences.

To bring you both sides of the story, we’ve unearthed an example of a HR practitioner whose experience wasn’t as smooth as one would have imagined. For privacy reasons, we will withhold the interviewee’s name and organisation, referring to her as Sylvia in this case study.

Sylvia shared the experience of implementing an HRIS cloud system from a company that is based in Malaysia, but has since established itself overseas.

“When they came over for a demo, they said everything is possible, and we were so impressed,” she says. Thus, the company opted in for the cloud-based system with a monthly subscription, and the added convenience of not paying anything more than a one-time implementation fee.

“For an SME like ours, we will not be able to purchase from one of the big boys. I can almost assure you that most of the local companies will have budget constraints, therefore a subscription-based model, where you don’t have to come up with an upfront investment, is ideal for us,” she explains.

The lessons to keep in mind? “Be mindful of what salespeople claim they can do on PowerPoint, versus what is actually possible in terms of customisation.”

The system was implemented in March last year, but what followed was a complete lack of support. Although there was some customer support based locally, the bulk of it was located overseas, which meant slower and untimely responses. Additionally, while the salespeople gave the impression that “everything is possible” when it comes to customisation, the reality wasn’t so.

The lessons to keep in mind? “Be mindful of what salespeople claim they can do on PowerPoint, versus what is actually possible in terms of customisation.”

Another lesson from Sylvia’s experience is to allocate sufficient time for implementation. She says: “Typically, the global HQ will decide the timeline, and they have a target to keep on moving on to each country, so they will tend to rush it. Make sure your team isn’t shortchanged by the speed of implementation.”

Finally, her recommendation on internal marketing – make sure you don’t oversell it. “Tell your stakeholders the good parts, but also remind them that in order to get to that stage, it will take some time and adoption. The change management process is really important, in terms of giving them a realistic picture.”


What’s next for HR professionals?

Dr Fermin Diez, Adjunct Professor, Singapore Management University (SMU), on how the HR function will be delivered very differently than it is today, given the impact of digitalisation, artificial intelligence and robotics.

A 2018 survey by David Green and Ian Bailie at myHRfuture identified key skills HR professionals need to develop in order of their future importance. “People analytics” came in as most important, along with “digital HR/HR technologies”. And yet, the next two were “soft” skills such as change management and consulting/influencing. It is clear HR professionals need to become more analytical, but it is equally clear the profession needs to also stay grounded on its human aspects.

HR professionals traditionally have shied away from gaining basic data literacy skills, including data visualisation, finance and statistics. Yet they need to become more analytical if they wish to keep pace with the new demands on the profession and be an integral part of the future of the HR profession.

A glimpse of the HR future

There are analytics capabilities built into most new and upcoming software offerings, which have increased our ability to collect and analyse data. This data holds the promise to help HR analytics teams understand how they can improve the employee experience.

Real-time sentiment and emotion recognition analysis is a fast-growing field, which is increasingly being used to measure how employees are feeling. There is technology to analyse a person’s facial nano-expressions and gauge their emotions such as happiness, anger or sadness. Similar technology for voice analysis is already available.

Biosensors and wearables are widely available for personal health and fitness. Similar devices are used in the workplace to help improve health and safety – for example, devices used in high-volume settings which alert employees when their stress levels are too high.

However, future applications do not need to be so individualised. Improving any HR process is a good opportunity to apply a design-thinking mindset; get feedback from users, supervisors, vendors and other stakeholders; use the feedback to redesign the process; pilot the new approach; and collect data to see if it is better than the old process.

Many questions remain about this ability to track and use data. We need to overcome the lack of skills to analyse the data. Technology, and the resulting data, must be validated, especially when it comes to interpreting feelings and thoughts. The new technologies have access to sensitive areas, raising concerns about data storage and usage.

There will also be many HR professionals and employees who will resist change. The handling of sensitive information on an employee’s health or feelings must be handled with extreme care.

The HR function will need to continuously monitor and update its policies and communicate these to employees – about what type of data is being collected, for what purpose, for how long, where it is stored, and the data protection mechanisms in place.

Whatever the future holds, it is an exciting time to be an HR professional!


This feature was first published in Human Resources’ August 2019 edition of the Singapore magazine. Read more stories here: “Is technology the dark knight for HR?”

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