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Improving the employee experience through technology

As a technology leader, you need to be concerned about technology and human beings as human beings are sometimes not as logical as technology: Mr. Niel Nickolaisen, Chief Technology Officer, O.C. Tanner.

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As we meet and talk with our clients’ human resource leaders, it seems that one of their most pressing issues is that of ‘employee engagement’. Employee engagement has long been an important topic for employers. However, if what we hear is correct, it is moving from ‘being important’ to ‘being critical’. As an IT leader I tend to view the world through the eyes of technology and so I wonder if the criticality of employee engagement has its origins in the impact technology is having on the workplace.

Those outside of IT defined business processes and business rules; mostly in the form of various transactions (like payroll processing, hiring, on-boarding, ordering, inventory management, performance reviews, etc.) and enterprise technology, support these transactional needs by developing accounting systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, human resources information systems (HRIS), customer relationship management (CRM) systems and a wide range of other transactional systems.

For a long time, technology in the workplace has played a critical role and has added new systems like eCommerce. But, these new systems came with an important difference – they connected us directly and technologically with people outside our organizations. It is this connectivity that is now fueling the next big change in the workplace and our systems. It turns out that connecting human beings with one another accelerated innovation at an ever-increasing pace. Technology innovations generated new technological innovations, which resulted in the big four changes in our lives and organizations: Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud (SMAC).

-Ponder for a moment the impact that social technologies are having in the lives of our organizations and employees – we gather customer and employee sentiment, we communicate via omni-channel, we form both tight and loose affinity groups in our home and work lives

-Ponder for a moment the impact that mobile has in our lives. Before smart phones there was a clear line of demarcation between our work and home lives. Now, via the smart phone our work and our home lives can follow us wherever we go

-Ponder for a moment the impact that analytics has in our lives. We can micro-segment customers and employees, we can crunch data to find the cause/effect relationships of employee retention, effective leadership, training and employee engagement. Also consider what happens as advances in artificial intelligence starts to handle the work being done by human beings

-Ponder for a moment the impact that cloud is having in our lives. We can all now access enterprise-class services and systems almost everywhere. No longer do we need to go through the long systems implementation projects. We now have the facilities to choose standard functionalities that could be set-up in weeks or months or purchase technology with a subscription

However, what is the connection between the advances in technology and employee engagement? I can think of at least three important connections.

First, rapidly changing times can be unsettling to our employees. How can we do our work and implement the tools we deploy? The skills required in any workplace are changing and feedback loops are minimized as technology makes everything real-time. Gradually, certain jobs are being replaced by technology in a continuous cycle.

Second, the nature of competition is changing due to a low entry barrier in the availability of cloud services. Additionally, our traditional competitors are investing and improving their technologies.

It now seems that no matter the products and services we provide, we are all being judged on the quality of our technology; not just the quality of our customer-facing technology but the quality of the technology our employees use. What we need is our internal systems to be compelling and intuitive to attract and retain the best talent.

Third, advances in technology create new types of service providers who offer compelling technological products. The traditional HR technology space (focused-on-transaction HRIS and HCM systems) are being replaced by a wide range of smaller, niche, focused-on-the-employee-experience systems.

In todays scenarios HR is in the spotlight for investing in new/breakthrough technology that is yet to prove its function and return-to-investment. This raises questions such as how we mitigate the risks or is it preferable to wait for the market to declare the technology winners. This can be further debatable on how we attract and retain talent and put the employee experience and engagement program at risk by waiting for the market?

The HR Leader needs to focus on the four options - understand and improve the culture, define a compelling employee experience, upgrade the quality of middle management and organizational leadership.

As a technology leader, you need to be concerned about technology and human beings as human beings are sometimes not as logical as technology.

I would like to give advice that comes from years of leading large processes and system change initiatives. for the HR leaders of the future:

- Focus on middle management: I have learned through failure and success, that middle managers are the key to organizational change. Sometimes people are in their management roles because of their subject matter expertise and changing technologies threaten that expertise. Sometimes those in management are not that adept to change in tools, processes and business rules and need to upgrade their skills. But perhaps the best reason to focus on middle-management is that improvements in middle-management make the entire organization better – better middle-managers is the “tide that lifts all boats.”

-Have a process in place to experiment with new technologies: For example, to make the business case for us to invest in advanced analytics (machine learning and artificial intelligence) we did a series of experiments by providing some of our data sets to the students of local universities. They used our data in their projects and revealed to us the value of the data that we are now providing our clients. You can use the same cloud services to do low-cost experiments that have lowered the entry barriers to your competitors.

-Work closely with the IT leadership of your organization - HR and IT department needs to work together such that the employee experience becomes intertwined with technology

-Make sure that you focus on the personal touch - Emphasize what we know improves employee engagement; leadership, personal development, opportunities and, most important of all, recognition. Employees need to know that they and their work matters, and it is impossible for you, the middle-managers, the leaders and peers to express appreciation on a timely basis Say it often. Say it publicly. Say it with meaning.


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Niel Nickolaisen chief technology officer

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