Smarter use of tech can help create “HR superheroes,” says IBM

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Using HR tech, social media and collaborative working can help HR flourish during times of rapid change, delegates at the IBM Smarter Workforce summit in London learned. Michael Carty reports.

“Change is happening on steroids for HR,” according to Debbie Landers, general manager at IBM, speaking at last month’s IBM Smarter Workforce summit in London. “This is an inflexion point for business and for HR,” she added.

The HR profession needs to get smarter if it is “not only to survive but thrive.” HR can increase its influence within the organisation by using technology to drive workforce communication and collaboration.

Landers’ message to the HR people of today and tomorrow who can rise to this challenge is one of inspiration: “You are the superheroes of HR.”

Personnel Today recently reported that user experience is increasingly critical in designing HR systems.

Landers agrees: “It’s no longer good enough for workplace tech, systems and apps to be hard to use. User experience is the common thread that can bring us the greatest value.”

As a first step to creating a positive user experience, Landers recommends using technology to enable workforce collaboration. For her, collaboration is about “collective intelligence, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, enabled by design thinking.”

To enable workforce collaboration, HR should learn from how social media has changed our everyday lives, says fellow IBM general manager Katrina Troughton. To illustrate this, she explains how a typical Saturday with her five-year-old son might include consulting YouTube for cupcake recipes, Facebook for his sports schedule and Wikipedia for help with his homework.

In the social media age, “you learn on the fly when you need to,” she says. “The way we live our lives has changed. What I have to do is much easier and much faster, thanks to the cloud.” But the world of work has not kept pace. “How easily can you get this kind of learning on the fly in the office?”

HR has the opportunity to “create a new way of work” by harnessing social media and placing user experience at the centre of everything it does, says Troughton. This can have a powerful positive impact on workplace culture and on how employees interact.

For example, the onboarding process can be transformed by applying these principles. Social media can be used to create collaborative online employee communities that make candidates and new hires feel part of the organisation before they have joined. Videos can be used to communicate the organisation’s culture and provide essential learning tied to the induction process. “It’s all about enabling engagement, choice and collaboration,” says Troughton.

The potential business value of collaboration via social media was illustrated by a case study from Luis Garza, innovation manager at global cement supplier Cemex. Following the 2008 recession, the company recognised that it needed to change and innovate to survive. Cemex decided to launch an internal social platform – called Shift – to facilitate communication and innovation among its worldwide workforce of 40,000 employees.

Shift “brings social to work and speeds time to market,” says Garza. The platform is user friendly, and has enabled Cemex to become a more agile organisation. Shift also provides blogging facilities for executives, enabling two-way communications with employees. Hundreds of communities have sprung up across the business, resulting in a dramatic increase in employee engagement levels.

Most importantly, the system allows local expertise and innovation to be recognised, communicated and replicated globally.

The platform has helped Cemex make major cost savings and significantly reduce its fossil fuel usage. Its location in Germany pioneered a move from burning coal to using alternate fuels and recycled waste to power its production facilities. This innovation was communicated via Shift, then implemented worldwide. Collaborative internal social networking is now “business as usual” at Cemex. “Shift has created a solid foundation on which Cemex stands,” says Garza.

However, the HR profession is often nervous about using social media in the workplace, a round table discussion for HR social media influencers heard.

“HR as a profession is traditionally not comfortable with new technology and the exposure it brings. Sometimes a bit of handholding is needed to help demystify social media,” says David Green, director at Cielo.

“Don’t just demystify, make them excited about what social media can do for HR,” responded Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, HR director at Stonehage Fleming.

“The challenge is to get HR people interested in and seeking out information and data,” agrees Andy Spence of Glass Bead Consulting, adding that the relentless pace of technological innovation should be viewed as an opportunity for HR, rather than a threat.

“The move to the cloud is creating real opportunities for HR,” says Spence. “Improvements in technology mean cloud computing is finally delivering on its promise for HR. It’s getting better all the time.”

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