Off message: New technology – the final frontier

Has the internet sparked a software revolution that will lead to HR jobs being pushed to the outer limits?

Predicting the future can be troublesome. Take bearded Osama bin Laden lookalike Nostradamus, who tried a lot harder than most. But did he predict the motor car, airships, rockets, solar power, organised labour or even the internet? No he did not. But then nor did anyone else.

Strangely, classic TV series Star Trek has come a lot closer than most. There were sliding doors, mobile phones, fast food, tight-fitting clothing, big-screen presentations – but no sign of cyberspace. Just lots of stars to stare at. And when they weren’t staring out into space, fighting Klingons or falling in love with semi-transparent megalomaniacs from another dimension, they were hunched over their screens, damaging their spines and getting RSI, while staring at flickering lights on a computer screen.

As Captain Kirk said, we need to “boldly go where no-one has gone before”. Apply that to the workplace, and the most dramatic advance in recent years has been the internet and its impact on the development of workplace software.

In HR, the latest change to scare the pants off the personnel profession is the idea that, as a result of advances in technology, all the administrative aspects of HR will be shipped abroad, to be carried out by low-paid non-specialists following a script.

The response to this perceived threat has been much chest beating about becoming more strategic and the need to be taken more seriously by the board.

Change is as good as a rest

However, while change is inevitable, the reality of transformation is that it happens ever so slowly. Working practices do not change overnight.

When humans discovered fire, that was pretty much the end of gazing up into the stars. When the printing press was developed, pamphlets spelled the end for scribbling monks and the religious monopoly on the written word. When books were developed, pamphlets were going to be so much pulp newspapers signalled the end of books 78s the end of live music records the end of 78s radio the end of records film the end of radio TV the death of cinema video the death of TV DVD the death of videos. Then there’s the internet. The death of all life as we know it – radio, TV, cinema, music, chat, books, etc. The internet is widely accepted as the ‘next big thing’, in much the same way as the automobile did away with the horse and cart. And the internet has led to the rapid development of all kinds of software that enables all of us to do tedious administrative things much quicker and with much less fuss.

In HR, there are now computer-based systems for managing absence, payroll, staff scheduling, performance management, recruitment,e-recruitment, homeworking, talent tracking, pre-employment screening, HR self-service and much more.

Much of the focus has been on outsourcing and offshoring admin, but in the pages of this magazine, Duncan Brown, the former deputy director-general of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said that HR had nothing to fear from technology as the profession has always embraced technological advances.

Nothing to fear

And he’s right. HR has nothing to fear from outsourcing or being offshored – there’s no need. For HR is being insourced… into your laptop. Policies, procedures, employment law updates will all be available on a screen near you. If not right now, then very soon indeed. DIY HR will be the new black. Line managers will take on more of the HR role than ever before.

Well that’s the idea that the software sales teams would like you to believe. But technology is their god, and, as we all know, god moves in mysterious ways. The trouble is, people move in stranger ways still – just look at Kirk and his crew.

And while HR certainly needs to look to the future, it also needs to learn from the past, as do many other industries.

Only a few years ago, in the mad rush to embrace the internet, many organisations lost their shirts and their credibility as they rushed to jump on the internet bandwagon. Alas, the bandwagon didn’t have any wheels and was going nowhere fast. Things have moved on, the internet is now more robust, and companies have once more donned their blindfolds in the latest race to benefit from cyberspace.

The end of the beginning

Yet the fact that a billion people now have access to the internet does not mean we’ll all be looking at our screens all day long, every day of the week – even in HR.

When cinema was in its prime, billions of people poured into theatres to watch the latest celluloid offerings, much in the same way that millions now spend their waking hours looking at clips on YouTube, MySpace, YourFace, MyKnee or whatever other trendy name the internet community has come up with in the past 30 seconds.

The internet will not be the end of newspapers, books, TV, film, walking in the park, talking to people. Video did not kill the radio star. There is even a place in the world for the horse and cart.

So is MySpace the final frontier? Will there be new life for HR after all the new technology?

The hope is that technology will free up HR to be more strategic. The fear is that it will free up HR practitioners to ‘spend more time with their families’.

The reality is that it will be a bit of both. And as the HR director of the Metropolitan Police Service, Martin Tiplady, told Personnel Today: to survive HR needs to manage the changes.

It will be HR, Jim, but not as we know it.

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