HR in a World of Droids

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Cyborg HandFor the past fifty years or so HR has struggled with where it fits in the firm. Everyone was fairly sure it had a place – somewhere. Managers have always accepted that managing people is their single biggest challenge. Managers universally believe that people are important to a firm’s success and therefore HR certainly should have a role. It’s just that as a function it’s neither accepted nor rejected at the Board Room table. Today it’s left in a corner, often just picking up the nasty bits that managers don’t want to embrace like discipline and absence.

In the beginning it was called ‘personnel’ management and that seemed a good name. It was quite defining. It dealt with the whole business of personnel; every activity associated with employing people.

Then as businesses strove to optimise all their ‘resources’, personnel management changed from being human to being more inanimate, referred to as ‘human resources’ management and now abbreviated to HR.

It didn’t help either that specialists intruded the HR domain – specialists in areas like recruitment, training and benefits. All were areas embraced by the traditional personnel department.

Demise of HR

The opening for external specialists came about through the decline in UK manufacturing and the reduction in size of business units. Most people-activities are required only periodically in all but the largest firms. Pay becomes an issue maybe once a year. Training plans are made once and reviewed periodically. And performance appraisal needs only to be managed occasionally. Between flurries of activity, it’s care and maintenance.

Size reduction and fragmentation of organisations has made personnel activities ripe for outsourcing, stripping internal people-generalists of job scope in favour of external specialists. Those external specialists now often work directly with senior managers

So just at a time when personnel management was on the rise, its replacement, HR, has been denied its value. HR is struggling once more for identity.

And unfortunately, the profession’s problems don’t end there.

People and Technology

In the future, businesses will succeed or fail on their exploitation of technology and people. Both technology and people are changing dramatically. Technology and people are a duality – in any job done, business can exploit more or less of each. But there was a time when only people could join the dots and communicate. There was a time when machines enabled complex and difficult human tasks. Then, humans were in control. Soon, computers will talk to other computers and that duality is now being dramatically challenged as machines slowly but certainly replace people in the workplace. Gone are the times when technology could be considered only to aid humans in their endeavours.

But come what may, people and technology will always be a duality. It’s just that the balance in the partnership is shifting in favour of computers and machines and away from people.

Someone, though, must understand this duality in each firm. Someone must manage HR in a world of Droids.

Understanding the Duality

People are social animals. Their behaviour, and hence their performance in work, depends on their personality and intelligence and on the social environment that they find themselves in. People are described in psychological terms.

Machines are described by their function – and by what they enable their human users to do. Together in the duality, humans and machines give capability. In the future that capability might often be by machine function alone.

So the decisions in the firm of the future will involve balancing that duality. Pay and benefits, training and development and leadership and motivation will all need to be considered in a business sense alongside investment in machines. If more machine and less human is needed, there must be investment in plant. If more human and less machine is needed, there must be investment in people.

And in the future, the human element will either be critical and instrumental in achieving competitive advantage – or near non-existent. If it’s critical and instrumental, firms will compete for the best high-skill staff. Those that win will be the ones that have got their high-skill, high-value, high involvement HR management right. If the human element is non-existent, people will be employed only in low skill, low pay jobs that computers just can’t do and HR will be a rather more pedestrian function.

The Future HR Function

But all this is futurology. There is only one trend that matters right now. People are loosing middle-ground jobs to computers. Middle ground, white-collar jobs are being de-skilled. The good news is that many high-skill jobs are being made, though not enough to replace those being de-skilled.

This means that personnel or HR, or whatever we choose to call it, must rise to understand this new world of the shifting duality.

So what of HR’s future role?

As the work done by workforces bifurcates, splits into two distinct types, high-skill and low-skill, the role of HR must depend case by case on the firm’s strategy.

HR in a World of Droids

Those HR managers providing HR support to senior managers in high skill environments will embrace the range of HR competencies, perhaps adding organisational development and change to their mix. Those HR managers who are capable of embracing technology and psychology and their application in business will fly, driving their high-value firm’s future.

Those providing support to managers driving low skill, highly computerised organisations will work to maintain the HR status quo around the HR cycle from recruitment to termination in a low-skill, low pay workforce.

In a future world of Droids – machines and computers – there will be a distinct split in work type and in the support that HR will need to provide to managers.

There’ll be no opportunity to proclaim that ‘these aren’t the Droids you’re looking for’ and return to the good old days of full-scope, personnel management!

A galaxy far, far away? Well maybe ten or twenty years away, but the change has started and it’s only a question of how fast that change now happens.

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