HR in a digital workplace

HR in a digital workplace

Posted by Mark Bowden, Rajesh Attra, and Greg Vert on July 21, 2017.

Ever since the first industrial revolution, humans have needed to support processes by performing mundane, rule-based work. Now that technology is catching up in the digital revolution, humans can be released from those clerical and transactional roles to deliver the value of which we are capable. We see many examples in HR where this transition is already occurring. But the real opportunity is for HR to take ownership for blending and enabling a workplace mixed with human and digital talent, while leading the organization toward the augmented workforce of the future.

Instead of considering robots and cognitive technologies as a way to reduce the need for humans, HR should be thinking about how to take advantage of the capacity created by automation to reskill and redeploy talent. The good news is that it appears many organizations are already heading down this path. According to the 2017 Human Capital Trends Report only 20 percent of surveyed organizations are using robotics as a way to reduce workforce numbers, with the rest retraining employees to work alongside the technology or redeploying displaced resources to higher-value activities.

Many articles are written about the processes most commonly automated and the leading technologies available on the market. But what aspects of HR need to change? How will the future operating model adjust to an augmented workforce? What will HR resources be doing? Let’s look at each of the primary components of the High-Impact HR Operating Model and discuss some of the shifts and opportunities on the horizon.

Business HR
Business HR works at the intersection of business and HR strategy. It is also the component of the operating model with the most potential to add value in a digital workplace. Business HR advisers will be uniquely positioned to help the organization move toward and harness the full capability of emerging technology and to help leadership address a new set of management challenges. As a result, Business HR may represent a larger portion of the HR function in the future, as demand for HR services shifts away from administration and more toward consultative and strategic work. Here are a few areas where Business HR may need to rethink its focus to take advantage of the opportunity:

  • Workforce Solutions – Business HR should advise leaders to view robotics and cognitive capabilities as a potential workforce solution. Leaders should be coached to consider the full mix of resources available to solve talent needs, including traditional full-time employees, contingent workers, outsourcing, and automation. Establishing a set of talent sourcing guidelines could help managers make the right decisions when evaluating different workforce solution options.
  • Organization Design – Designing and implementing organizations of the future was identified as the top priority for a second year in a row according to the 2017 Human Capital Trends Report. A staggering 88 percent of respondents indicate the trend is “important” or “very important” in the survey. Business HR has a significant opportunity to help the organization transition toward structures capable of moving faster, learning rapidly, and embracing the dynamic careers created as a result of digital proliferation and increased automation.
  • Change Management – The continued adoption of digital solutions will likely cause disruption for many organizations, and Business HR should play a lead role in navigating the change. The simplest measure is for Business HR to serve as a role model and advocate, especially with employees and leaders struggling to make the transition to a more automated workplace.

In addition to the above, Business HR should use data and insights along with cognitive and other intelligent solutions to support the business in achieving strategic objectives. This approach can position Business HR as innovative and forward-thinking, while helping leaders address some of the more significant human capital challenges facing organizations today and in the future.

Communities of Expertise
Where the digital revolution drives us ever further into a technology coupled world, it also promotes the importance of the customer. Whether inside or outside an organization, customer experience is critical to brand loyalty and employee engagement. Communities of Expertise (COEs) have been responsible for providing relevant, simple, and research-driven solutions and programs to help drive business imperatives. These should now be centered on the customer as well as the business, which will likely require a new approach to solution development.

COEs will likely remain of similar scale to their present form, but should consider adding new capabilities to support the workplace of the future. Alongside the need for customer capabilities, we will likely see marketing professionals, data scientists, organizational psychologists, futurists, and service design skills at the forefront of COE offerings.
There are several areas in a digital workplace where these new COEs should focus:

  • HR Strategy – There is a clear action for the HR Strategy COEs to take advantage of robotics and cognitive technologies within the function to enable reporting, analytics, and business process execution. The hard part, is deciding where to invest in technology versus where to deploy (or continue to develop) human talent. Establishing a clear strategy, guiding principles, and governance processes can help to identify the optimal augmented workforce for HR.
  • Total Rewards – The Total Rewards COEs should focus on aligning programs and policies with emerging digital strategies to reinforce desired behaviors. Incentivizing managers and employees to identify opportunities and deliver automated solutions can help increase adoption. But, it is important to make sure any new plans do not inadvertently motivate the wrong actions, such as focusing only on driving down costs and reducing headcount, potentially at the expense of other strategic objectives like quality and customer service.
  • Talent – The concept of talent management takes on a different meaning in a workplace blended with human and digital resources. Talent programs and policies for workforce planning, talent acquisition, performance and succession, and learning and development should focus on the skills required to operate the new technology and the competencies humans possess that technology cannot easily replace or automate.

Getting ahead of these changes can help COEs position the HR function as a strategic enabler instead of a barrier to modernization and progress.

HR Operational Services
HR Operational Services is naturally an area to focus on automation opportunities. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can provide the ability to automate transactional and administrative activities while chatbots and other forms of intelligent technology create an alternative to labor-intensive HR contact centers. As a result, the human components of HR Operational Services are likely to reduce with the adoption of robotics and cognitive technologies. It may take time for some organizations to embrace the investment required to change, but HR Operational Services, which typically makes up 45-55% of the HR headcount, will likely reduce its footprint in the future.

As technology replaces jobs of the past, new roles will likely emerge for humans that emphasize process knowledge and problem-solving skills. Process design and functional depth are required to effectively implement automation technologies in HR. Once deployed, the robots should be able to handle programmable scenarios, but human experts are likely to be retained to resolve anomalies and escalations. A fleet of robots should also have human “managers” to evaluate performance and to drive continuous improvement initiatives.

HR Operational Services has traditionally dedicated most resources to address the basics of HR, such as data administration, process execution, and inquiry resolution. In a world where these activities can be largely automated by technology, HR Operational Services should also focus on elevating its role and building new capabilities to enable the business, such as expanding knowledge-based activities, delivering workforce insights, and building the services to manage large-scale business events like mergers, acquisitions, and new market expansion.

Time for HR to lead
There is no doubt the increased adoption of robotics, cognitive technologies, and artificial intelligence can impact businesses and workforces alike. With HR no longer bogged down by transaction volume and other administration, there is an opportunity to take a lead role in transforming the organization into an augmented workplace. Our point of view is that this disruption is an ideal opportunity for HR to establish a more sustainable role in driving the business forward, but only if it is willing to be bold and start preparing for the future now.

What will define the HR operating model of the future? What role do you see for HR in the emerging augmented workplace? Do you think HR is capable of taking the lead in the digital revolution? Please post your comments below to join the discussion.

Rajesh Attra is a managing director in the US Human Capital practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP. He focuses on helping large global clients develop the operating models and delivery capabilities required for leading practice global shared services..

Mark Bowden is a director in the Human Capital practice at Deloitte Australia. His background as an HR professional and brings insight to his transformation projects, helping ensure that HR functions are set up to support the business in delivering its strategic objectives and are flexible to the changing demand of HR professionals.

Greg Vert works with his clients to improve overall HR service delivery through the design and implementation of leading practice HR processes, shared services, and enabling technologies. Greg has contributed to each phase of HR Transformation, from strategy formulation to post-live improvement, and brings a strong combination of operational and functional expertise to address complex business issues.


1Karen O’Leonard and Jennifer Krider, HR Factbook 2015: Benchmarks and Trends for U.S. HR Organizations, Bersin by Deloitte, January 14, 2015..

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