Is Technology Truly the New Face of HR?

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The pressures of the bottomline as well as the growing sophistication of the HR function have led HR in many organizationsto move from being a compliance‐oriented function into a full‐service, global “business driver” function. Technology is widely seen as a key enabler that will help the HR community transition from being an “administrative expert” to one donning the role of a “strategic partner.”Investment in technology in HR is no longer seen as a discretionary spend but is instead a strategic imperative.  As a result, many organizations have jumped onto the automation bandwagon with many HR touch points now being accessible online at the click of a mouse or being handled by Shared Service Centres situated at remote locations. Thus, HR is freed from the drudgery of these administrative “chores” and gets the time to focus on business issues of strategic significance.

However, many employees feel that the increasing use of technology and automation has resulted in the “human” side of human resources being sidelined. The perception is that there is no longer a personal touch in day-to-day operations – individualization and customization has been sacrificed at the altar of efficiency.  Also, many employees feel that the use of technology and standardization in HR may unintentionally send a message that the individual employee’s value to the organization has reduced.

The SHRM Forum at Chennai on 13th September 2012, addressed this topic under the able leadership of Hema Mani – Head, Human Resources at Lennox India Technology Centre who shared her views on balancing the dualities of efficiency and personalization.

The Advantages of Technology in HR
Hema started off by highlighting the many advantages of the use of technology to streamline HR processes, as seen from an employee’s eyes:

  • Paperless streamlined administration
  • Accuracy of information
  • Ease of access – information is just a click of a mouse away
  • Standardization and consistency of responses
  • Scalability of processes – ability to leverage economies of scale
  • Better efficiency and reduced costs
  • Faster access

The Possible Disadvantages
Employees also saw certain loopholes in the implementation of technology in HR. Some of these include the following:

  • Losing out on the personal touch that face-to-face communication offers
  • Employees feel that they are now being expected to do HR’s job themselves
  • Complexity of HR self-service portals and other technology platforms
  • Employees can “game” certain automated processes – e.g.,  e-learning modules
  • Lack of alignment between related HR processes
  • “Blind spots” in automated processes which cannot make “intelligent” decisions

Achieving a Balance: Balancing People and Technology
Hema highlighted that today, technology is used in HR in diverse areas to streamline processes and drive down costs, including the following areas:

  • Employee Self Service
  • Workflow technologies
  • Managing internal mobility, appraisal management and personal development
  • E-recruitment and performance management
  • Applicant tracking and hiring management systems
  • Career planning portals
  • HR analytics and reporting
  • Payroll automation

However, there is a very real risk of organizations overemphasizing technology at the expense of the human element. This happens when technology is seen as an alternative to human interaction. This approach underestimates the variety of employee challenges as well as the complexity of the human psyche.  On the other hand, when utilized in a balanced manner, technology and automation can actually provide the opportunity for greater human interaction in areas where it adds the most value. This calls for an integrated approach where technology and automation are seen as tools or enablers that help HR arrive at business and people insights.
A critical lever here is to identify what to automate or outsource, what not to automate or outsource and to prioritize the processes identified for automation. Processes that are high-tech, low –touch (e.g. payroll) and those that are high-touch, low tech (e.g. coaching and mentoring) are identified and prioritized for automation or outsourcing. This ensures that the personal touch is maintained for critical, “high-touch” processes while also achieving the scale provided by “hi-tech” processes.

For instance, technology may be leveraged to upload the Individual Development Plans (IDPs) or Performance vs. Potential ratings of all employees in an organization. However, the critical task of facilitating robust succession planning or developing a leadership development roadmap for the organization must still be carried out by the HR practitioner.

Trends such as the emergence of HR shared services, employee self service portals and HR outsourcing present great opportunities for HR. However, there is a need for achieving the right balance between technology and people to ensure that neither efficiency nor effectiveness get compromised. It is clear that people connect cannot be replaced by technology.

The key is to identify clearly “what” and “how” to automate and creatively look at available resources, while ensuring that the intelligence that the “human touch” brings in is not lost in the process.

Niranjana Harikumar is an organizational development consultant who has worked with various organizations in designing and implementing competency-based assessment and development programs for different employee populations. 

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