David Woodward: So I'm David Woodward. I'm the chief products officer at SD Worx in the UK.
Philippa Lamb: It’s a Belgian based company offering global payroll, tax and legal and HR services through ten offices worldwide. It’s a really vast business isn’t it? Second largest in Europe is that right?
DW: Second largest certainly from a payroll and service provision perspective in the UK and Europe yes.
PL: So I was really fascinated to hear that not just going down the tech route but you've actually got a robot now on board.
DW: Yes it’s called HARRI.
HARRI: I am the future.
DW: The advances now into robotics and artificial intelligence means that robots are definitely the way that we can now start replacing HR jobs.
HARRI: I'm here for your business 9 – 5 or 24/7; for your people, your engagement, your talent, your business. I am a new kind of HR, I am HARRI
DW: In place, in situ, within organisations fulfilling effectively the HR business partner’s role.
HARRI: I am Human Advisory Resource Robotic Interface. I am a physical presence. I am a face. I am the future of human resources because I am a superhuman resource.
DW: That knows all about your policies, your procedures and of course it’s completely impartial
HARRI: Meet HARRI.
PL: Pick your jaw up off the floor the HR robots are not taking over just yet and HARRI is in fact a very convincing spoof.
DW: We are going to make sure this is tongue in cheek aren’t we?
PL: Don't fret.
HARRI was created by SD Worx where David Woodward is chief product officer. They’ve released a series of videos about HARRI who’s actually a 3D working model created by the same guys who did Star Wars. The idea is to get people talking about how we feel about the tech revolution.
DW: I think it is a really good indication of perhaps some of the fears that people have of what robotics might be doing for us in the very near term. The reality of course is that these systems aren’t yet this sophisticated: they have many, many issues, and of course you can't take the human out of HR.
PL: I think most of the people listening to this podcast will be really delighted to hear that.
Reassuring maybe but things are changing. Rapid advances in tech have already affected organisations in lots of ways from globalisation to flexible working. And human resource management has had to move fast to catch up.
Going forward by 2020 around three quarters of the UK workforce will be millennials and there's already research suggesting that at least 35% of the current jobs here could be computerised or automated within 20 years.
Dr Nicola Millard heads up customer insight and futures in BT’s global services innovation team. She's not a techie, she's a psychologist and a futurologist and she spends much of her time pondering those tricky questions like what will work really look like in five to ten years ‘time?
Nicola Millard: Hmm that's a question I do get asked a lot because I think there's been a lot in the press around robots eating our jobs and actually it’s more likely that robots are going to eat tasks within our jobs rather than whole job roles, although I keep saying there is precedent for whole job roles to be eliminated: typing pool being one of those precedents so actually we’re doing a lot more of that ourselves. I think I always say that actually some of the stuff to be honest is stuff I don't really want to do so the boring stuff I really hope that a robot would start to do my email for me for a start. So if that could manage my email inbox rather than me having to manage my email inbox I will very happily give that over to a robot. So I keep saying if you look at tasks that are typically very process oriented, process-bound, you can write it down, probably that's initially going to be the kind of tasks that's going to get eliminated. To be honest I actually find this an interesting trend. Obviously there's a lot of negativity around is it going to make up less valuable as humans? Are we going to have mass unemployment? For me though, I'm a psychologist and my background is AI, so my first ever job in BT was AI and I know that unless you can codify something, unless you've got data in the background you’re probably not going to have an AI working very efficiently on it. The thing that we’re very good at is making assumptions from patchy information, being innovative, being creative, being empathetic, caring, negotiation. All of those things are incredibly difficult for machines to do.
PL: To codify?
NM: Absolutely. So all of those things I think potentially those are the kind of skills that we’re probably going to start to value very much into the future. And hopefully, some put it as the dull, the dirty and the dangerous, could potentially start to be automated.
PL: David D’Souza is the CIPD’s head of engagement and he thinks long and hard about what tech will mean for work too.
David D’Souza: Well obviously HR is a tremendously dangerous profession to be in, Indiana Jones-like at times, but I think what we’ll see is that where we can we will improve administrative flows within organisations. Where you’re looking at large volumes of data, so the recruitment process for instance, you'll see increasing usage of software to make sense of that and to make judgments within that. And when it comes to crunching of large scale data, so that might be talent management within organisations, that might be workforce planning, again you'll see more and more software solutions in that space. So the dull bits, yes I think they will be removed. Paper will be removed from offices more and more. Things will be stored digitally, understood digitally and communicated digitally. So lots of the onerous HR tasks will disappear. But hopefully that means the strategic bit that we’ve always insisted we wish we had more time to get round to will be more of a realistic possibility for people without other things getting in the way.
PL: But not every HR department will be at the forefront of tech change.
DD’S: The day to day of the HR function will be, in some cases, fundamentally different because you will have some early adopters but we still have HR departments struggling to get to grips with Excel. And that's been around long enough for us to have had a decent head start at it. So I think just because technology is available, just because something is possible doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll leap to utilising it to its fullest extent.
PL: David Woodward has 60,000 customers at payroll provider SD Worx which puts him in a great position to spot the direction of travel in the tech and automation landscape.
DW: Data increasingly is where the value sits and this is an area that SD Worx are looking at very closely to fully understand how we can support our customers with unlocking the value that exists within not just their data but the aggregated data, when you start taking a macro view of understanding those sorts of trends. It’s very, very powerful and that's where I think you’re going to see more and more development in terms of just understanding trends and patterns and benchmarking for example. It’s when you've got that amount of data it brings great value.
PL: Right now thanks to tech we have unprecedented access to wide-ranging power of big data. And as David says that's changing the way businesses understand their customers, how they market to new audiences and how they communicate with current and future employees. And if we look deeply enough the insights that big data can offer are really profound.
DW: We’re reaching the point where actually we can monitor lots of things about people we’ve never been able to. I can monitor your social networks; I can tell who you've been interacting with; I can, potentially in some organisations, tell your pulse; I can tell you how regular your breathing is; I can tell whether you're stressed; I can tell how quickly people in the organisation open your emails; I can look at if you post something on a social network internally how rapidly that spreads and I can look at your activity outside of the workplace as well, so how influential you are for instance on Twitter. All of those things are measures that historically we won't have had. For HR to find a way of providing a more rounded view of the value of an employee makes a big difference to organisations. So I think there's an opportunity for HR to support people’s wellbeing more effectively, to think about talent in the organisation more effectively, to think about their levels of stress and work/life balance that they have in the organisation, using that information to provide a degree of insight to the business that we’ve never had the opportunity to have before. Part of me is concerned that these are things we could be doing now and that we shouldn’t need to wait for the information to do the right thing for people but it’s doubtless far more simple to make a business case to a senior team if you can come armed with numbers and potentially for the first time we are coming armed with really detailed numbers about the people that we have in the organisation. The trick is to utilise that to help people be more human in the workplace and not to reduce people to numbers.
PL: Not an excuse for management shortcuts but there's another ethical challenge at the heart of the debate here.
NM: I have the word big data but we have a lot of data. I don't know how to describe it – it’s big I suppose but we’re also getting an awful lot more connected technology so we’ve got things like the internet of things. We talk about the relation of clouds of clouds as well so given a lot of this is going up into the network how do we connect clouds of things together. And then you've got smart cities and smart buildings. So there's a lot of data starting potentially to come in, in the next five years. The good thing is that can be codified and read by a computer. So you can learn from that. There's some interesting things you can do with big data and certainly we work with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in particular Sandy Pentland who’s been doing this lovely stuff called Social Physics which is all about using big data to start to understand how people collaborate together. Literally you’re fitting people with tags.
PL: Badges yes we’ve heard about these.
NM: Absolutely they’re called sociometrics badges but basically they work…
PL: To measure their physical interactions with each other?
NM: To measure the physical and where they are. So you can start to figure out how people are using physical spaces and you can start to work out how they’re collaborating in digital spaces as well, so email and chat and social media. And from that you can get all sorts of insights around well who are the future leaders. So that's great. However, and this is the dilemma coming back in five years’ time, that data is quite invasive. So as an employee am I happy to be monitored in that way? And actually this boils down to something that I call the Meconomy so what am I willing to trade in terms of data and what I get back. So it’s almost like an economy. It boils down to the WIIFMs I call it, the what’s in it for me, so I'm not going to do it unless there's some benefit to me. There's also a creepy line, if they know more about me than I know that's a bit creepy. All of those things I think are very natural human reactions to some of that stuff and that certainly is potentially one of the things that holds some of the technological progress back because the technology can do a lot of stuff, it’s again what’s acceptable to us, what’s in it for me, and is it useful, usable and used.
PL: Useful, usable and used – the three Us which together mean technology is working. We’ll come back to that in a moment. The cloud, as Nicola says, is a tool we all use and it’s changing HR’s job. before the collection and storage of data used to be all about paper, filing cabinets and hard drives. Now all that data can be collected through automated processes and just live in the cloud: tax forms, contact info, performance review, everything archived in one secure, accessible place. Payroll systems are a great example of that. Here’s David Woodward again.
DW: One of the trends that we’re seeing increasingly in the larger employers, for example in retail and hospitality is the very fact that now people may have multiple jobs. They may not work for one employer and of course the whole gig economy is turning this whole model upside-down. Any that’s where I think the challenge around automation comes. How do these systems that sit in between that traditionally have been employer systems providing services to their employees adapt as the world of work is changing?
PL: What sort of systems are you talking about?
DW: Systems that manage and help support the employees’ time at work. So that could be as simple as being paid, when I say simple it’s obviously far from simple, especially if you take that example where I was referring to, they might be working for two employers in the same day, when are they going to get paid? Are they going to get paid at the end of the month or at the end of the week? That model might change. I think it might change to a much more micro-based form of payment where you might get paid maybe into your PayPal account as you’re walking out of that employer’s premises and moving on to doing something else. So the speed at which things now need to evolve from a systems point of view I think need to respect the fact that the way people work is also changing as well.
PL: So how does someone in HR select the right technology for their organisation? Let’s go back to Nicola Millard’s three Us because she's done some very interesting research into tech uptake.
NM: So the first thing is it has to be useful. Now frankly this is an interesting one because you would never, ever ask somebody who invented the technology, is your technology useful? Because frankly saying it’s not useful is like calling their baby ugly. So that's the first thing. Most technologies are useful but it’s the perception. So certainly in the workplace it’s the perception will this technology actually help me to do my job?
NM: And that could be effectively sometimes a sales’ exercise, so it’s around well what does this technology do for me, possibly hand-holding people through what it could do for me. Obviously there's things like managers maybe adopting it as well, so peers adopting it. All of those things contribute to the fact I think it might be useful to me. The second one which is interesting in the context of the enterprise is usable because actually we’re as consumers very used to usable technologies now because Apple kind of got there very early and those technologies are very simple, they don't need a manual, they don't need a training course, they’re very intuitive. Absolutely. Enterprise technologies however often are entirely the opposite. So we very much need to make sure that enterprise technologies are all of those things. They need to be intuitive. You shouldn’t have to take a course in order to use them. They should be frictionless. They should almost disappear into the ether. So useful and usable technologies are not necessarily used and used is the third U. And that's much more around some of the behavioural economic stuff, the lovely behavioural economic stuff that's coming along around the nudge effect. So that's really firstly around that peer adoption piece that I mentioned earlier.
PL: Well if other people are using it I’ll try it.
NM: Absolutely and I also say that social media is a very good example of that. It’s a tsunami effect so if you’re a Facebook user the chances are you’re on Facebook because you know someone else who’s on Facebook because otherwise a social network of one is a very lonely and probably quite useless social network. So the value in particular of that kind of technology is around who do I know that's on it and what value do I actually get from it as a result?
PL: One of the big evolutions is that for many jobs being in the workplace is no longer necessary, we’re increasingly social, we’re all hyper connected, as Nicola Millard puts it we’re untethered.
NM: Which is beautiful. I can work anywhere I want, any time I want, any place I want.
PL: And you do.
NM: And I do and I work for BT, we’re renowned for embracing that agile and flexible working mindset, every early on. In fact I've been at BT for rather too long, 26 years, but 1992 was our first homeworking trial and I was part of that trial. It worked we had people working from home for a year. I was there to make sure they didn’t go mad because we weren't sure, we weren’t sure. The trouble was in 1992 we didn’t have broadband so we literally had to dig people’s front gardens up in order to get a big enough pipe into their houses. So now we’ve got better connectivity, we’ve got cheaper technologies it does open up homeworking and flexible working. Now I always say with homeworking the interesting dilemma is for homeworking to work you need on very critical thing, a home. You're typically going to get the younger generation, probably still living with their parents, so we are seeing at the moment homeworking doesn’t work for them. So there's the option of the office. Now, the office in itself is quite interesting because that's also evolving because we don't have to be in an office anymore but we do know that the office is a very effective collaboration tool. So the place that we go to social about work.
PL: With other wins as well, social learning, all of the things we know about.
NM: Completely! But we haven’t designed offices necessarily to facilitate that so we are obviously seeing some real interesting office designs coming out rather than the lines of desks.
PL: For HR a remote workforce can raise questions about trust. David D’Souza.
DD’S: It brings some interesting challenges with it which we need to think about which is for the people that are less comfortable with technology what does that mean? For the people who don't have space in their homes what does that mean? And actually for people who value human contact on a regular basis and that's a bias and a preference for them, and that could be due to anything from a medical condition where the office is a safe space for them, due to just people who are more social, it has impacts on them too. It changes fundamentally I think the way that you manage people because you have to manage in a trusting relationship. What I would hate to see is technology being used more invasively to monitor people in their own homes to ensure that they’re online at the right time. I've already seen what I think is probably the most ridiculous policy I've ever come across which is insisting that people don't unload their washing machine during the time that they’re supposed to be working from home. So I think we just need to have, you know it’s the dawn of hopefully more mature relationships that are output-based rather than anything else.
PL: Finally David Woodward and he's feeling optimistic.
DW: I think we are going through the equivalent of another industrial revolution and while none of us are probably old enough to remember the first time round, if we read our history books of course everyone was very fearful that was going to massively change people’s work and people’s livelihoods and in reality of course that wasn't the case. What actually happens I think is it opens up a whole range of new opportunities. So I think none of us know the future but I think we can all be confident that it’s going to be an exciting one. Certain jobs will go, I think that's certainly true, but new jobs will emerge that will be equal I'm sure in terms of replacing the jobs that might disappear.
PL: Do you think so because I mean the point that's always made isn’t it that more sophisticated jobs may proliferate but the transactional, low grade, low skilled jobs will go?
DW: I have more faith in humankind I think. I think there's more likelihood that people ultimately still want to do business with people and there will always be, in forms we don't yet fully understand, there will always be roles for people to work, probably doing very different jobs to the ones we do now but I remain pretty optimistic that there'll probably be if anything an increase in opportunity. It may not all be at work, it might be at leisure. If we can really get this right as a race then hopefully we can have more leisure time and less work time. I think that would be…maybe I might not live to see it but I would hope that our future generations will be able to figure out a way of spending more time with their families and maybe spending a little bit less time at work.
PL: For more on this go to the CIPD website and check our Nicola Millard’s excellent TED talk on how to give new tech the best chance of catching on. You'll also find webinars, fact sheets, blogs and analysis to keep you on your toes. Thanks for listening.
Next month we’ll be asking how far we’ve come in the 17 years since the American academic Peter Senge first defined the idea of the learning organisation. It’s fascinating stuff don't miss it! As always the podcast goes live on the first Tuesday of the month.