Things really aren’t that bad

These days, HR has a golden opportunity to exercise its strategic chops

The pundits tell us we live in a world changing at an unimaginable rate — they say we suffer from data overload; we work longer hours than ever; we’re stressed out with work-life balance problems; new unpredictable technology is hitting us at lightspeed; and artificial intelligence (AI) is altering or eliminating jobs, making future planning impossible.

Ironically, not one of those points is true. Our grandparents experienced two world wars, an influenza epidemic in the 1920s that killed 50 million people, the Great Depression, the rise and fall of communism, the invention of the automobile, airplanes, antibiotics, microchips, the internet, genetics, radio and TV, the creation and use of nuclear weapons, and astronauts landing on the moon.

Today, there is nothing remotely comparable:

•We do create terabytes of data every day; however, search engines manage this and we can find information at the flick of a finger. Twenty-five years ago, we needed days or weeks in a library ploughing through microfiches.

•As for our “unpredictable future,” every single thing that significantly affects our lives today was invented at least 10 years ago. Apps, Google, robots, the internet, smartphones, Uber — they go back, in some cases, up to half a century. So our future is not as unpredictable as we think. What we see today is an accurate picture of what will impact our lives in the next 10 to 15 years.

•As for long work hours? A century ago, the average person worked more than 100 hours per week. Those numbers have steadily dropped to the point where the average workweek is now 42 hours. Generally, complaints about work-life balance mean an individual has picked the wrong job.

•In looking at the impact of AI, the highest number of job losses predicted is about 480 million in the next 20 years. It’s a big number, yes, but that adds up to about 10 per cent of the global workforce. That means we have to deal with 0.5 per cent of our workforce changing each year — much lower than the workforce turnover rate organizations manage today.

•Over the last 20 years, globally, we have created between 40 and 50 million jobs per year — despite automation, the use of computers and huge reductions in some sector employment. There is no reason why this should stop. We may not know exactly where the new jobs will come from, but we can be sure they will be there.

Does all this mean we should sit back and let things take care of themselves? No. We need to be proactive, and have plans and programs in place to deal with the changes that are foreseeable.

To be relevant in the future, HR must step up and be the custodians of their organizations’ future. So, how do we do this?

Look at the customer: We must define our organization’s role from a customer viewpoint. Instead of basing it on what we make or sell, we need to describe it in terms of what customers are buying. Doing that will not only future-proof organizations but provide visibility into potential competition from outside the industry.

For example, Toyota’s customers are buying the ability to get from A to B as cheaply and efficiently as possible. In the past, that may have meant owning a car but Uber understood what customers wanted, as do the makers of autonomous vehicles.  And Blockbuster felt customers wanted to watch videos but really they wanted the ability to watch or listen to entertainment wherever and whenever they wanted — which is why Netflix has succeeded.

Understand AI: There is no question AI and robotics will impact jobs down the road but the basic questions are: when, how and how many. In most cases, there will not be a direct one-to-one replacement but an integration of human skills with AI skills.

That means every company should have an AI task force to monitor and track developments and the implications for people in the organization. Some companies have these today but see them as a technical function and assign them to IT. In reality, they’re more about human capital management and should be an HR activity.

To benefit from these changes requires ongoing audits of skill sets at an organization, including those that will be needed down the road and a talent gap analysis. With planning, missing roles can be filled efficiently at a lower cost by developing and training the current workforce rather than last-minute, costly external hires.

Be ruthless: Finally, organizations have to be ruthless about dropping what is not in their future, and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the things that are. The question “Why are we doing this?” should be asked constantly by every employee.

Strategy is not so much about what is included but hard choices about what to leave out — and HR must upgrade those skills. Simply saying, “We are strategic now” is not enough. The profession must act and redefine its role to base it not on what it does or sells but on what customers are buying.

The employers that will survive and prosper in the coming years are those that are the most adaptable, aware, proactive and willing to take the necessary risks that accompany change. It is a golden opportunity for HR to exercise its strategic chops by looking closely at the business its organization is in, clarifying its mission to reflect the customer viewpoint, and proactively managing the impact of change on the organization’s most critical area — talent.

Bill Greenhalgh is president and CEO of business management consultancy Stratx in Toronto, and former CEO of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Ontario. Phil Wilson is director of corporate services at DST Consulting Engineers in Toronto and past chair of the HRPA.

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