Unilever CHRO Leena Nair urges HR professionals to work with ‘confidence’ and ‘swagger’ at CognitionX event

HR professionals need to “junk all the self-doubt and work with some swagger and confidence,” said Leena Nair, Unilever’s chief HR officer (CHRO) at the 2019 CogX festival yesterday (10 June).

Taking part in a ‘fireside chat’ with HR analytics guru David Green, Nair offered her thoughts on HR’s role in leading digital transformation, and its place in organisations.

“We make a huge difference and we’re good at what we do,” she told the assembled crowd, who had braved a leaky roof and lack of electricity to hear from the high-profile HR chief. “HR needs to be laying the road for the business [to follow]. And to do that, we have to digitise HR end-to-end: we have to disrupt HR. Digital augments human potential and enables us to do our job better – to do the stuff that humans are uniquely able to do.”

Making smarter use of technology requires a solid understanding of people data, she said. “We have to use data to talk tangibly about the impact of technology. No one will give you free money to play with if there is no business case.” For example, the HR team is able to quantify that for every $1 invested in health and wellbeing initiatives, they get a return of $2.50. That’s the sort of information that makes the board pay attention, she added.

Nair cited several arenas of HR in which Unilever is using technology to deliver a “more human” experience for its people. The global FMCG firm receives a staggering two million job applicants per year: “We simply can’t cope with that [with human recruiters].” So that it can deliver on a promise that every applicant to Unilever receives feedback, the HR team uses technology that includes games, quizzes and video interviews. Each candidate, she says, completes the hiring process with an understanding of whether they would fit in at Unilever, their strengths, and what career they might be best suited for. Together, these digital initiatives save 100,000 hours of senior leaders’ times, and $1 million, each year, said Nair.

Unilever has also focused on delivering more personalised, specific and timely learning interventions, she explained. It uses software that curates internal and external materials into a relevant, personalised daily feed for each individual, based on each person’s “purpose and passion”. Other HR-tech investments include a natural language processing (NLP) bot – ‘Ask Una’ – that is the first point of contact for simple HR queries, which amount to around a quarter of the one million calls that Unilever’s HR service centre answer each year. Listening tools that analyse internal and external sentiment about the brand are also used to understand how employees in different regions and departments are feeling, particularly around organisational change.

Collecting and analysing people data is all about making the intangible, tangible, said Nair: “[it means] I can actually show you the impact of good work.” It also means organisations are able to tailor and customise the employee experience at the crucial moments that matter, “and make those experiences seamless, effortless and frictionless,” she said. “Too often systems and clunky and don’t speak to each other; we need to choose applications that solve employees’ problems,” rather than make their working lives more difficult.

To succeed with technology, HR professionals must be systemic thinkers, she said: “You need to understand that everything is interconnected – you need to see end-to-end, and look ahead of the business need.”

Top HR professionals also need to have “a sense of purpose, service and resilience, and an appetite for failure. I want to know: how many times have you failed? It’s far better to try and to fail, than not try at all.”