Getting to Grips with Digital Innovation – How Can HR Exploit it? by Devyani Vaishampayan

Digital innovation is no longer a buzzword; the world of AI and emerging technologies (bots, robotics, augmented reality, blockchain etc) is changing the workplace at a rapid pace. This can all be incredibly confusing for the HR professional; what can they do to understand the implications on their roles and how do they figure out what is hype and what is genuine? Help is at hand and there are several ways that HR leaders can get more hands-on about engaging with this change. It could be through experimentation and use of digital start-ups, through interaction via innovation hubs or even through an investment in the right one. All of these routes offer hands-on exposure to real-life products and solutions and enable HR professionals to grasp the rapid change in this space.

This can, however, all be incredibly confusing for the senior HR professional. Should we genuinely expect robots, drones and chatbots to completely take over or is nothing much actually going to change over, say, the next five years? After all ‘automation’ is nothing new; we’ve had PCs, cloud technology, social media et al for the last 20 years. And, apart from slightly more sophisticated HRIS systems, shared services and the like, most HR professionals have not had to adapt to massive change. So why is it quite possibly different this time around?
What I believe is different today is how, over the last few years, technology has seeped into every aspect of our life and how we are bombarded with it 24/7. The impact of artificial intelligence and other burgeoning forms of technology is making the rate of change and digital disruption so fast and furious that it is fundamentally changing the nature of work. The World Economic Forum has come out with a report in October that predicts 52 % of jobs will get replaced by automation by 2025. Incidentally, it was only a year ago when McKinsey predicted this would happen by 2030 so the rate of digital change is only going in one direction. The impact of this prediction can be quite significant. On the one hand, there is the promise of higher productivity, increased efficiencies and an enhanced employee experience. But, on the other hand, these technologies also raise difficult questions about the broader impact of digital innovation on jobs, skills and the nature of work itself. How do you help organisations rapidly upskill themselves with the new skill sets needed, what does the organisation design need to look like, how do you make this upheaval painless and how do you change the culture and mindset within organisations to enable them to respond to this change? HR Leaders need to start acting now to help their business leaders tackle these issues.

Who is Driving this Change?
Interestingly, it’s no longer the large technology companies leading this change. It’s the nimble and agile start-ups with lowers costs, rapid deployment, easy integration with existing HRIS and a heavy focus on predictive analytics that are changing the digital people tech environment at an astonishing rate. However, it does mean that acquiring the necessary insights and intelligence to stay ahead of the pack is proving a challenge – even for the most proactive business leaders and HRDs. Thankfully, there are several ways HR leaders can get a better understanding of emerging technologies and the power of innovative new digital solutions.

Digital HR Start-ups
More often than not, most of these new solutions using artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies such as augmented reality and machine learning are appearing in the form of start-ups. They are being created in the main by young, talented individuals – very few of whom have an HR background – who are unencumbered with traditional thinking and have simply grasped how innovation can be applied successfully in people-related sectors to reduce time, cost and, often, human frailties and biases, to improve processes and efficiencies.

Unfortunately, HR start-ups are part of a very disparate ecosystem and it can be quite challenging for corporates and senior HR professionals to source and find them. The other challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff as it’s risky for HR functions to use a product that is early stage and could cause productivity issues for line managers. However, using some expert guidance from the larger consultancies or organisations like ours can help HR functions address specific pain points through experimentation of such solutions. Most of these products have a reasonably low entry cost so big budgets are not usually required – unlike most regular HRIS systems. As they all provide predictive analytics, it enables HR to truly become strategic and improve the ‘employee experience.’ A big advantage is that they interface easily with your existing HR technology. The key here is to go small and start with a small team/group and then scale according to requirement and demand; you don’t need to plan a big rollout!

Participate in an Innovation Hub
An innovation hub involves sponsoring start-up activity in an established accelerator programme. A start-up accelerator is a fixed-term programme of various start-ups which provides seed investment, mentorship, connections and demo days to the start-up. There are some direct benefits of participating in a programme of this nature:
It enables a corporate to participate in a tried and tested model to accelerate digital innovation. Most HR functions have very little exposure to this concept and participating in an external hub with other HRDs is a risk-free way to start understanding this process.
You can attract good quality start-ups through the benefits of a wider accelerator ecosystem (customers, investors, partnerships). Many start-ups are wary about going in-house within a corporate as they feel they might get subsumed with the respective corporate’s individual requirement. Being part of an established accelerator gives them numerous other advantages.
You can get cross-industry insights through the wider participation of 100+ start-ups in the accelerator. Apart from digital innovation in the human capital area, you get exposure to start-ups in the fintech, cyber tech, retail tech and other areas and your broad understanding of digital disruption increases. You can start linking changes in the organisation’s product space to human capital requirements.
The HR function gets learning and exposure around the ‘future of work’ and emerging technologies. For example, you could sponsor a blockchain start-up and, via the process, get a more practical understanding about the implications it has to disrupt HR processes.
Finally, it helps create an agile organisation and enhances the corporate brand around innovation. HR leaders start getting a more hands-on view of the role they need to play in getting the culture and mindset across their organisation to deal with rapid digital change.

Angel Invest in Digital Start-ups
Angel investing is also a great way to get a better understanding of the innovative products entering the market. Angel investing – particularly through a crowdfunding approach – enables individuals to spend relatively small sums of money and you can do it in an area that you are familiar with and reduce the risk considerably. It is a known fact that the fourth industrial revolution is all about data and technology. Tomorrow’s fast-growth companies are the ones that will capitalise on using technologies such as artificial intelligence and the like to address real needs within organisations. Being familiar with these innovations will help you become a far better HR professional and you have the added benefit of some financial gain in the process!

The Business Transformation Network has posted this article in partnership with HR Tech Partnership.

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Devyani Vaishampayan is an experienced Group HR Director and the founder of The HR TECH Partnership, an Angel Investment Fund where the investors are all FTSE 100 senior HRD’s and the investment is in HR technology start-ups. She has been named in the 2017 FT/Empower Ethnic Minority Leaders List and in the 2016 FTSE 100 'Women to Watch' list.

Having led Human Resources in over 70 countries for large multinationals such as Rolls Royce, BG Group, AT&T, Citibank and Price Waterhouse and lived in Singapore, HongKong, India and the UK, she is an international and multi-sector HR specialist. Her experience of managing the HR TECH Partnership puts her at the forefront of HR technology innovation in the start-up space.

Devyani has also been a Non-Executive Director of The HR Fund, The Singapore Association of the Deaf and Board Agenda.