Reimagining HR For Corporate 4.0

Each of the industrial revolutions brought changes to society - be it as societal thinking, human behaviour or the concept of work, employment, entrepreneurship. Where does HR fit in the 4th IR world?


The fear that people have of “technological-unemployment” is not a recent one. As early as the year 1589, when William Lee invented a stocking the knitting machine that was a major technological breakthrough, he was refused a patent by the Queen of England. She feared that this technological breakthrough could make her skilled citizen-workers redundant and jobless. For this very reason, it took a couple of hundred years for the first Industrial Revolution to take place!

Managing - Machines, Men & Machinations

The world has seen multiple industrial revolutions in the past few centuries.
  • The first revolution was steam-powered mechanisation in 1784
  • The 2nd had electricity-enabling mass production from 1890
  • The 3rd was the IT and electronics revolution from 1969
  • Currently we are in the 4th industrial revolution, with plethora of new tools as artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology and the Internet of Things (IoT) rapidly evolving into everyday usage commercial applications.
Each of these revolutions brought changes in the larger societal context, be it as societal thinking, human behaviour or the concept of work, employment, entrepreneurship.

The formal human resources ideology has its genesis in the early 18th century Europe. It started with a simple idea of Robert Owen and Charles Babbage during the Industrial Revolution, on the principle that “people were crucial to the success of an enterprise”. Their efforts had the thought that well-being of the worker was critical to worker productivity.

In the early 20th century, the near-simultaneous rise of trade unions and personnel management departments within companies, laid the groundwork for the formal discipline of human resources. The ideas of mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor that explored how to make manufacturing workers more efficient were important underpinnings for the discipline’s development. Unions were important in pressing for employee rights alongside that increased efficiency, and these two principles have continued in the history of HR.

Early terminologies for human resources-like initiatives in the workplace in the 19th and early 20th century included “industrial welfare,” “personnel management” and “scientific management.” Thinkers like Frederick Winslow Taylor explored what he termed as “scientific management”, which endeavoured to improve economic efficiency in manufacturing jobs. He later focused on “Labour” as a concept towards workforce productivity.

Initial decades of HR largely comprised of transactional work, such as payroll, benefits administration, regulatory & labour related compliances. Other fields including organisation management and industrial psychology shaped the present-day Human Resources of today. Over the past many years of globalisation, the onset of technology and global media, HR has evolved to work on talent management, succession planning, industrial and worker relations, culture, diversity, inclusion and equality.

For every HR proponent, there is equally forceful, if not more number of influential (business) critics who question the relevance of HR ! In a world where an organisation’s success is dependent on the skills, attitude, creativity, efficiency of its people, HR should be one of its critical pillar. In today’s connected era, even proactive internal stakeholder communication is becoming an ask from HR leaders. Hence they are expected to bring forth, the best practices in terms of “Contextual HR”.

21st-century’s mainstay

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already blurring the lines between people and technology, and bringing convergence of the physical, digital and biological worlds. Everything that happens in the physical world impacts the virtual, and vice versa. Further more, human interactions seamlessly happen in physical & digital world.

Omnipresent Technology

Cloud-based software, mobile apps, social-media tracking tools and much more are available for every aspect of HR - be it recruiting candidates, running HR operations like payroll and even managing the entire department. It is common to observe usage of web-based HR systems that manage multiple worksites from a single location. Geographical boundaries are no longer a constraint.
Despite range of criticism, Amazon, as an employer, uses machines & algorithms to manage most of its HR operations. It’s software not only manages workers in its warehouses but oversees contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers ! And within next few years, more efficiency of these machines, and with inputs from ML, would kick in.

Data analytics is the mainstay

With digital disruption and hysterical usage of (or even addiction to) social media, the ways in which people-related data are utilised will be critical to mitigating risk, creating business capability and driving outcomes such as employer branding customer satisfaction and business management. Today’s HR analytics tools not only enable managers to gain insights on current workforce performance, costs and services, but to also model “what if” scenarios to anticipate changes in business. They also are critical drivers in recruitment, (digital) onboarding, employee engagement and workforce productivity to off-boarding.

Offering personalised learning

To be relevant to the business, HR is expected to take leadership initiative to foster a culture of lifelong learning; all in the context of declining demand for certain skills, the emergence of new ones and the requirement for talent to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn. With technology, this can be better managed and people better equipped as “jobs of the future” keep evolving.

Increasing importance of work-life balance

Targets to be met, potential threat of layoffs, cost-cutting and more number of increasing pressures on employees to perform and in some cases work overtime in order to make up for the decreased manpower and resources. Stress is a word that’s almost become synonymous with workplace. Covid impact has brought that critical aspect of work-life balance and the need for mental & physical well-being, to maintain a healthy workforce. With usage of every day digital tools like mobile phones, emails, etc, there is a blur between workplace and home life as reports, mails, and even meetings over VC is now available on our mobile phones.

Managing the youngsters aspirations

The millennial & younger generation are thriving at the workplace. They work well in groups and are good multi-taskers. They can shine better with adequate mentoring. The challenge of HR leaders would be to find the right mix to get Gen Xers and Millennials to work together, and to understand their aspirations to help offer challenges and opportunities to move towards their aspirations. Conventional HR processes, sloganeering and approach won’t work with the younger demographics.

Sharing economy

The gig economy is slowly morphing into a sharing economy. One that is built around sharing human, technological and physical resources. Moreover, attitudes relating to ownership is changing substantially, with a strong focus on collaboration through technology. Forecasting future work, economic trends and how to optimise resources with increased productivity will gain importance.

Clicks (Insights) as culture-bricks

Already successful people managers & leaders know that the concept of “command & control” structure of organisations has moved to “influence & impact” led teams and where 360 degree (un)learning approach is the glue.
With technology, it is also possible to tap into & measure employees’ moods and emotions about various policies and daily happenings in the organisation. With relevant 4thIR tools, a sense of anonymity would be available for blunt feedback from the stakeholders, and by adding the right analysis framework to it, these insights could be used as building-blocks to strengthen or to even build the culture of the organisation.

Repurposing HR

If Industry 4.0 represents a major transformation in the way companies approach manufacturing, it has also redesigned human resource requirements, especially through automation. Similarly, the exchange of data & information between different systems has dramatically increased efficiency and decision-making processes related to people management. HR 4.0 would be more automated, focusing its human-intervention activities on strategic issues, and even making HR teams leaner and agile.

It is very pertinent to say that in today’s social media era, we as humans, have become less social and more of media (formats). Conversations that were used by leaders, have become ‘communication’ practised as (an organisational) process. Humans, in the next few years, will increasingly interact more often with machines, bots, and with increase in gig economy, probably even with (unseen or unheard) humans.

Having the spotlight in any organisation, to observe and think of the way humans engage with I2I relationships (Individual to Individual, as well as Individual to Institution) across any aspect that touches that organisation (machine, technology, other humans) would be needed. It could bring back the sense of human element in any form, for the organisation. Otherwise the concepts of culture, values, team building would be mere words.

The oft asked question whether “HR function will survive the Industry 4.0”, is best answered with the view : The purpose of having a human in an organisation is more than just being a (Human) resource !

As long as machines can’t manage people, their aspirations, and influence other humans, HR is here to stay. But HR’s existential importance will be based on their value-add ! In this context, it might be pertinent to rethink HR as “Humans & Relations”.

This should hold true until humans are biologically delivered and not digitally downloaded !

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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