Saturday, August 8, 2020

CEO Insider

Will HR Become Irrelevant in the Digital Age?

Business People walking

The Digital Age, with the convergence of several advancing technologies, will fundamentally change how we live and how we work. Automation will significantly reduce the number of human employees, because human beings will be needed only to do the tasks that technology can’t do well. At least for the near future, those tasks will include: being creative, imaginative, and innovative; exploring the unknown; engaging in higher-order critical thinking; making decisions in environments with lots of uncertainty and little data; and emotionally connecting in positive ways with other human beings in the collaborative creation and delivery of services and products.

All of those tasks are heavily influenced by the uniquely human way we approach and engage in learning. Contrary to the bits and bytes fueling smart technology, human thinking, engaging, and learning are driven by a complicated and integrated interplay of our minds, brains, emotions, and bodies.

How well we think, learn, and engage in the human tasks of the future depends on how well we manage and optimize what’s going on with our minds, brains, and bodies—for example, how well we leverage the power of our subconscious, imaginative, and creative minds and how well we connect emotionally to other humans through the creation of trusting, caring relationships.

Those human tasks are complex and require on a daily basis the highest levels of human cognitive, emotional, and behavioral performance. For many organizations, that will require a “New Way of Working” that enables human beings to attain the highest levels of human performance and a “New Way of Being” because many people have never been taught how to manage and optimize what is going on in their minds, brains, and body—cognitively and emotionally.

HR’s Challenge

HR is a relic of the Industrial Revolution era, when factories needed large numbers of people to perform the same tasks every hour of the day, every day. Its mission was essentially to create “human machines” that could produce reliable, predictable, and standardized results day in and day out because of command-and-control managerial oversight.

Well in the Digital Age, technology—not human beings—will do that type of work. Humans will be needed to do the more complex cognitive and emotional work. Organizational systems designed to drive compliance by command-and-control leadership and managerial models will not enable the types of human behavior that will be needed in the Digital Age. You can’t effectively command and control or dictate someone to be innovative – or to think critically – or to collaborate – or to emotionally engage with others.

Likewise, a workplace that embraces a survival of the fittest, individualistic, highly competitive approach to daily work will not enable the highest levels of human collaborative performance, which the Digital Age will require.

To perform in the Digital Age at the needed high levels of human performance will require most employees to improve these skills: managing one’s thinking, managing one’s emotions, and managing one’s ego; reflective listening; positive emotionally connecting and relating to others; emotional and social intelligence; and effective collaboration that occurs through the creation of “Caring, Trusting Teams” that can consistently have “High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations” that optimize “Collective Intelligence.”

That will require a human development program that is integrated into the daily way of working through practices that are behavioral based. That means that every organization will be in the human development business in addition to its core business. The organizations that flourish in the Digital Age in most industries will be those that have the most employees who have learned how to achieve the highest levels of human cognitive, emotional, and behavioral performance.

HR Should Be Transformed Into HD—Human Development

I believe that every organization whose success will be dependent on human beings excelling at the tasks that the technology will not be able to do well will have to transform itself into a Human Development Organization. If technology becomes as ubiquitous and commoditized as predicted, then the primary strategic differentiator in most industries will be the “quality” of human cognitive, emotional, and behavioral performance.

Why will organizations have to get in “the business” of Human Development? Because we human beings generally have not been trained to excel at doing the types of thinking and emotionally engaging that we will need to do in order to add value in the Digital Age. We will have to develop those skills in the workplace because an individual can’t develop those skills by taking an online or a weeklong executive course. Human development requires daily work for long periods of time. Human development has to be ingrained into the daily way of working and embraced by every employee, irrespective of rank or compensation.

Why Will Humans Need to Develop?

The science of adult learning clearly shows that we all are suboptimal learners. Our brains are geared to be fast, efficient processors. Put simply, our brains do not experience reality, they construct it based on our past experiences. We naturally seek: to confirm what we already believe and what we expect to see and feel, to protect our egos, and to strive for cohesiveness of our mental models. Add to that a long list of cognitive biases and emotional insecurities, and you have major obstacles that hinder the types of human performance needed in the Digital Age.

And we all struggle to manage two big inhibitors of human learning: our egos and our fears. A big ego can lead to close-mindedness, arrogance, defining oneself by what one knows, poor listening skills, and competitive collaboration. Fear hinders learning because people are fearful of making mistakes, fearful that they will look bad or not be liked, or fearful of offending someone by asking hard questions.

The reality is that we all are suboptimal thinkers and most of us do not excel at being emotionally and socially intelligent, which is mission critical to effective collaboration, which will be mission critical to creating high-performance teams. The science is also clear: No one achieves excellence by themselves. We cannot overcome our ingrained reflexive ways of being by ourselves. We need others. And a highly competitive or survival-of-the-fittest workplace inhibits otherness.

This New Way of Working will require embedding self-development into the daily ways of working in the pursuit of individuals achieving Inner Peace: A Quiet Ego, A Quiet Mind, A Quiet Body, and a Positive Emotional State. That will be a key determinate as to whether employees will excel at the complex thinking and emotional tasks that will give an organization a competitive strategic advantage.

Humanizing the Workplace

The Digital Age will require a work environment that enables the human behaviors needed to excel at performing the cognitive and emotional tasks that technology will not be able to do well for the foreseeable future.

It will require a humanistic, emotionally safe, and emotionally positive environment (based on culture, leadership models, behaviors, measurements, and rewards) based upon the science of adult learning. A work environment based on the principles of Positivity, Psychological Safety, Self-Determination Needs, an Idea Meritocracy, and Hyper-Learning—continuous high-quality learning, unlearning, and relearning. A work environment that is team-oriented and highly collaborative, not an individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest, competitive environment.

A work environment that liberates people to think, listen, emotionally engage, and collaborate at their highest levels.

Old Way of WorkingNew Way of Working
Command & control leadership           Humanistic leadership
Individuals compete & winTeams win
FearPsychological safety
Individuals play cards close to the chestTransparency & candor
“Yes, but …”“Yes, and …”
Highest-ranking person dictates An idea meritocracy
Listening to confirmListening to learn 
Advocating/tellingAsking questions
Always knowingBeing good at not knowing
Internal competitionCollaboration
Big MEBig WE (the team)
Money dominatesMeaning & purpose
HierarchyDistributed power
Sameness (clones), homogeneityDiversity
Human machinesHuman uniqueness
Output measurementsBehavioral measurements
Survival of the fittestHelping others be successful
DefensivenessTrust & vulnerability
Seek powerSeek to empower
Linear thinkingCritical, creative, innovative, & emergent thinking
CYASpeaking up
Leave your Best Self at homeBring your Best Self to work

The Digital Age Winners

The Digital Age Winners will be those organizations with the most highly developed human beings. That will require, in many cases, a complete transformation of traditional HR functions. That is how HR will stay relevant in the Digital Age.

Edward D. Hess
Edward D. Hess is Professor of Business Administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change”, which will be published by Berrett-Koehler in August 2020. Edward D. Hess is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Amazon or connect on LinkedIn