13 September 2018

Technology has brought HR a long way – but we still have much further to go

HR processes have changed a lot in the past 15 years, says Zoe Wilson, but many organisations are missing out on the full potential of using digital technologies


Zoe Wilson

Zoe Wilson


Career development HR transformation Technology


HR processes have changed a lot in the past 15 years, says Zoe Wilson, but many organisations are missing out on the full potential of using digital technologies

I fondly remember my first job in HR as an administrator, where I processed payroll changes for 1,200 staff every month. The processes were very manual; I had to check that all changes were properly authorised, write confirmation letters, and pass papers to the payroll team. At the time, I was very pleased with my ‘modern processes’; I used pink paper for starters, green for leavers, and white paper for any other types of changes, to make tasks easier to categorise.

As you can imagine, this way of working wasn’t without its problems. Managers would tell us someone has left three months after the fact; sickness often went unrecorded; and papers often ‘vanished’ somewhere between line managers, me and the payroll team – with the only possible explanation that there was black hole hiding somewhere in the office that liked to suck at least one important item into its void each month.

Modern workflows, automated email notifications and systems interfaces will, for many HR teams, take care of the tasks that comprised much of my HR administrator role 15 years ago. If you have the right processes, map them correctly, and set the appropriate authorisation levels, tasks such as changing payroll details become relatively easy and require far less human intervention than they used to. Of course, that doesn’t eliminate the need for HR administrator roles, but most of the core tasks will be very different to those that made up the role 15 or even 10 years ago, and the use of a specialist HR software will certainly play a key part.

Fast-forward another 10 years and I wonder how much further these types of processes and jobs will have evolved. By 2028, most simple HR admin queries will probably be dealt with by chatbots, training will be done in virtual classrooms, and video interviews and gamification assessments will replace face-to-face hiring interviews. All this technology is very exciting and has the potential to evolve the role of HR data processors into jobs that have more in common with business data analysts and process architects. But will HR professionals embrace these new technologies? And will staff miss the ‘human touch’?

My father works for a global company and is constantly moaning that he doesn’t understand what his HR team do all day. If he calls them, he is directed to the HR system or to read an online policy. There is less and less human interaction with the HR team, which frustrates him and is potentially damaging the function’s internal reputation. While in this case I don’t think HR’s ‘overuse’ of technology is necessarily an issue, it sounds as if the benefits of HR technology need to be more clearly communicated to managers and employees, and the role of the HR team more clearly defined and explained to ensure that people engage with and support its initiatives.

There are many good reasons to introduce HR software, such as keeping pace with your competitors, reducing the time it takes your HR team to produce simple management reports, and providing the platform for a culture where line managers take on more people management responsibilities.

I fully embrace technology and love to trial new ideas and ways of working. But experience has taught me that not every piece of HR technology is right for every organisation: it very much depends on the sector, size, environment and budget. Most of all, it depends on whether your people are ready for it and can understand the value of it. Even moving from Excel and paper holiday forms can be a big step for some organisations, but think about how your new starters might regard your processes: do you want them to think you are stuck in the last decade as you hand them a paper holiday booking form on their first day?

As digital technology moves on apace – with candidates increasingly accustomed to practices such as recording video answers to pre-interview questions – there will be more pressure on organisations of all sizes to embrace a wider range of HR technology.

Although taking the next step in your HR tech journey can sometimes be daunting, with the right approach, communication and training it could really enhance your organisation and free you from doing basic tasks that can be automated. While you may not be ready to introduce an HR chatbot, for example, there may be great value in integrating your HR and L&D systems, automating basic tasks, or at least ditching the Excel datasheets for something more secure and accessible.

What will your HR roles look like in the next few years? How much of a role does HR technology already play?

Zoe Wilson is director of Rethink HR. She has more than 15 years’ experience in in-house and HR consultancy roles, and specialises in HR systems projects. Hear more from her at a networking and learning event hosted by Corporate and Cocktails on 25 September in London. Click here to register, using password ‘cocktails’