Andy Campbell
We live in an era where there’s perhaps more focus than ever before on how an organization treats its employees. Stories about gender-based pay gaps, lack of diversity, and sexual harassment are front-page news around the world. The ensuing outrage from stockholders and the public have pummeled share prices and reputations, with more than a few top executives going from C-suite to unemployment line as a result.

If there were ever a time when HR leaders needed to be more actively involved at the highest levels of the enterprise, it’s now. The value that a great HR executive can bring to an organization is enormous, from preventing that loss of reputation to boosting worker engagement and productivity, to being the moral compass of an organization.

To do that effectively, HR executives will need to develop a deep understanding of technology, both in terms of how it’s changing the workplace, and in how it is changing the nature of the HR function itself.

Technology as a Workplace Driver

Technology is pervasive in everyday life, and that creates expectations on the part of employees that they will have the same convenience and flexibility with technology in the workplace. This isn’t just about ease of use and mobility, either: They expect to have a strong social component as well that lets them see, share, like, innovate, and engage across organization, time and distance.

Much of the time, though, the technology in the workplace fails to measure up to what employees own and use themselves. When people find themselves using technology they find limiting, and that cuts off that constant social contact, it can lead to frustration and demands for companies to rethink workplace technology.

Given the competition for the best employees, it’s important for both retention andproductivity for executives to listen to those demands. After all, these technologies are challenging our established norms engagement, and are the key to making a workplace less hierarchical, more open, and thus more likely to be innovative. HR is the channel for that message to reach executives, along with strong counsel on how to meet those demands (and the consequences for not doing so).

At the same time, some of the cutting-edge technology that’s becoming part of the workplace also creates uncertainty and stress for employees. If you think about what’s going on with artificial intelligence, with robotics, and how those will change the workplace and people’s jobs, you can see why employees would be concerned. They are asking themselves if there will be a place for them in that workplace, how they should prepare for those changes.

Again, the place workers (and their managers) will expect to provide those answers is HR. That means having a solid understanding of the implications of this technology and provide information and guidance to employees.

Technology as a Value Tool

It’s just as important for HR to have the technology it needs to provide the data and insights that will help leaders understand what’s happening with the workforce and how to increase performance.

It’s no longer enough to have a “gut feel” about how things are going – just like other parts of the organization, HR needs to be data led. There are opportunities to gain insights from internal company data as well as by mining things like social media posts, using Oracle’s Human Capital Management products. We’re applying our long expertise in technology as well as working with partners to develop specific tools to help develop, sustain and measure the productivity of great employees.

Because this is becoming a data-driven function, HR directors need to build great relationships with people who know technology in their organizations, and with experts outside as well. They need to have conversations with their peers in IT and operations, so that decisions about technology across the organization are made in ways that ensure HR’s needs are included. In short, the skills an HR director needs are changing, and if you don’t understand data, you’re in the wrong job.

There’s another powerful reason for HR leaders to build those relationships and have those conversations, especially with peers in marketing. Why? Marketing is in the business of listening to customers and using data to do it. HR likewise needs to be in the business of listening to employees and learn how to use data for the purpose – and be as innovative and challenging in what they offer to employees as marketing is for customers.

Maintaining the Moral Compass

Beyond its role in recruitment, retention, and engagement – or, perhaps more accurately, because of this role — HR is the natural provider of the moral compass at the board level.

HR leaders are in a position (and have the obligation) to speak truth to power, and always to be conscious of, consider, and raise issues of ethical behavior. Again, this requires a deep understanding of and ability to articulate the impact of technology on an organization and particularly its people – and asking hard questions about what data we are capturing and how we use it.

Technology can enable companies to monitor productivity with incredible precision, tracking activities to the second. Just because that is possible, though, doesn’t mean that it is either desirable or humane. Do we really want, for example, to be measuring how long people take for toilet breaks and then using that as part of measuring their productivity or value to the organization?. While flexible work arrangements are good for the employee and their work-life balance, zero-hour or on-call only contracts are potentially exploitative – how do you provide ethical flexibility? As we put more robotic devices into place, how do we make sure that how and where we do so are not reinforcing unconscious bias?

Given the importance of HR to keep the organization running efficiently and effectively – and with the tools and data to make the right decisions and demonstrate value — HR directors are now some of the most vital people in the C-suite. With a deeper understanding of data, they can make huge contributions to creating and maintaining a productive and ethical workplace.

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