Humane results: Discovering future HR in a digital era

Monday, 7 November 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

untitled-3I enjoyed speaking at the Annual Conference of the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) recently. The topic assigned to me was ‘Reimagining HR’. I felt it was an encouraging exposure to deliberate the delicate value addition by HR professionals in the digital era. It is indeed significant to see the emphasis on digitalisation in diverse circles including private and public sectors. Interestingly, the annual sessions of the Association of Professional Bankers (APB) also revolved around digitalisation. Today’s column is an attempt to discover future HR in an emerging digital era. 


Technology has always been an enhancer of our work; from the adding machine to the advanced computer. Digitalisation has become a wave spreading across the world, revealing multiple varieties. This power to unveil not only transforms human outreach and actions, but also changes our conceptions; about who we are, our uses and human horizons for sense-making. According to, digitalisation is the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business.

“We are witnessing profound shifts across all industries, marked by the emergence of new business models, the disruption of incumbents and the reshaping of production, consumption, transportation and delivery systems,” observes Prof. Klaus Schwab in his most recent book, ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. As he further explains: 

“We have yet to grasp fully the speed and breadth of this new revolution. Consider the unlimited possibilities of having billions of people connected by mobile devices, giving rise to unprecedented processing power, storage capabilities and knowledge access. Or think about the staggering confluence of emerging technology breakthroughs, covering wide-ranging fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing, to name a few.” 

Reshaping HR

It is pertinent to discuss how digitalisation invites the function of Human Resource Management (HRM) to reshape itself. Having evolved from Personnel Management (PM) to a variety of focal specialties such as Human Capital Management (HCM) and Human Talent Management (HTM), it should be flexible and dynamic as a young profession. 

As Bowerzox observes, the greatest barriers to a digital transformation are not technical or legal. Rather, they relate to prevailing managerial and employee attitudes, practices, and traditions around what constitutes best practice. Most acknowledged best practices were established decades ago using the technology then available to address problems or challenges that for the most part no longer exist. Actions that once were considered best practice are increasingly becoming unnecessary or obsolete. Yet it’s the perpetuation of these traditional practices that thwart significant breakthroughs toward new and more meaningful ways to work. This is the context where HR has to be re-imagined for the future. 

I see triple trends in the field of HR as a response to digitalisation. Let me interpret them as being lean, seen and green.

Be Lean

There is a wave of becoming faster, cheaper, better in an increasingly competitive global scene. HR cannot avoid its influence. Stemming from the Japanese concept of creating value by eliminating waste, lean management has spread its wings to cover both manufacturing and service sectors. 

Gone are the days that HR was ‘humanly rich’ as a department with all sort of people, mostly dumped by the seniors. Efficiency with regard to optimising cadre, in clearly identifying the needs and the specific roles associated is of utmost importance.

Lean management is in fact a philosophy derived mostly from the Toyota Production System (TPS). Some management authors have already coined the term Toyotism to describe this pioneering approach. TPS is renowned for its focus on reduction of the original Toyota seven wastes to improve overall customer value, but there are varying perspectives on how this is best achieved. The steady growth of Toyota was from a small company to the world’s largest automaker. As Toyoda Sakichi firmly advocated, “Quality must be built in during the manufacturing process.”

There is an assortment of techniques available in making the processes cost effective. They can be appropriately adapted by HR for serving the organisation better. For example, there is the use of ‘value stream map’, which shows the current steps, delays and information flows required to deliver the target product or service. This may be a production flow (raw materials to consumer) or a design flow (concept to launch). HR needs to identify their value stream maps regarding the areas such as recruitment, selection, training and performance management.  

One important thing to remember is that HR has to work hand in hand with other functional departments in being lean. In the digitalisation era there is no room for silo mentality.

Be Seen

We are increasingly moving towards a virtual world of work. There are a variety of flexible technologically connected but geographically separated. A global virtual team might have members based in New York, New Delhi and New South Wales. Telecommuting is an arrangement where a person can work from home by connecting through technology without physically coming to work. In fact, digitalization prompts HR to be more tech-savvy in strengthening the connections. 

Based on my research with two US-based colleagues, it was evident that one major challenge in a virtual team arrangement is to trust each other. If you have worked with someone physically in the same office at least for some time, they found it easier to work as a virtual team. The challenge was to interact with relatively unfamiliar members of the team in a distant location.

It is an interesting HR scenario in this context. Each member of the virtual team based in different locations has to be governed by their local labour laws and other local HR practices. At the same time, there is a global HR strategy. Hence, it is a case of think globally and act locally with regard to HR practices pertaining to virtual team arrangements.

Why is the ‘seen’ factor is so important to HR? The answer lies in the nature of virtual teams and telecommuting workforce. They are the new net-centric nomads. Nomads in the sense that their work desk can be a seat in an airplane with laptop or palmtop connected to the internet. For them, what matters is the connectivity more than the location. Their daily HR functions are carried out by a supervisor, also in a remote location. Some of the virtual team members have not seen the central HR colleagues, after their initial hiring discussion. On the one hand, it is good to delegate and to make every manager a people manager. However, on the other hand, the vibrant presence of HR as a guiding and facilitating function is also essential. 

Such a scenario leads to a visibility issue. How can HR show its availability for coaching, training, performance advice and other matters? Is it practically possible to meet all employees scattered all over? What should be the best cost-effective arrangement? These are some of the questions that HR professionals have to find answers.

Be Green

We are living in world where nature has begun to strike back. Chaotic weather patterns across the globe are a grim reminder that eco-friendly practices of work need a lot more attention. What matters is not only profits and people but the planet as well. Obviously the now famous ‘triple bottom line’ concept has had much impact on HR.

Some common green human resource initiatives in the West include, using web or teleconferencing to reduce travel, promoting the reduction of paper use and implementing wellness programs to foster employees’ nutrition, fitness and healthy living.

The important point here is the need to integrate green initiatives with lean and seen initiatives. In other words, they are not three isolated sets of actions but one holistic path. Take paper reduction for an example. Instead of having piles of personnel files in a store room, a well-designed HR information system (HRIS) will do the needful in a much more effective manner. It is a case of been lean and green at the same time.

By being green, HR has to foster SHE, meaning safety, health and environment. A healthy workforce who performs their duties with safety in mind, without polluting the environment is the growing need of our workplaces.

Policy is like an umbrella guiding the practices within. Future HR policies need to be green. So should be their practices. Take recruitment for an example. Minimizing the use of paper, by resorting to more IT based techniques is becoming popular. Training employees on energy conservation and making them more environmentally conscious are also vital actions that HR can do.  Here again, eliminating waste as a way of saving energy appear prominently, highlighting the link between be green and be lean.

Initiatives with insights

One needs to be diligent in becoming digital. This applies to HR as it deals with delicate aspects such as engagement, motivation and satisfaction. High tech and high touch should be balanced with due consideration to employee care. Fostering innovation with intellectual stimulation should be the key. 

Future HR, aptly intertwined with being lean, seen and green should be viewed holistically in the broad context of socio-economic and religio-cultural fabric of Sri Lanka. It should cater for organisational progress as well as societal well being. That is where HR professionals should be diligent as ‘thinking performers’ in the digitalisation era. 

(Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri can be reached through, or