Interview with expert trainer Tom Talbot Between HR and technology: Big Data, IoT and the future of the human factor
The vigorous pace of technology has managed to catch up with the most organic of human functions. What once was a fundamentally social role, is feared to be reduced into a set of 1s and 0s, advanced hardware and fearsome equipment. Yet, professionals disagree, pointing out the relevance of recent trends in actually aiding the human factor. Such seems to be the case with HRM, a discipline subjected to various tech innovations, ranging from Big Data to IoT. Expert trainer Tom Talbot, a professional with international training experience in the US, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, explains this correlation, arguing on behalf of the constructive consequences such tendencies might have. Furthermore, Tom debunks the myth of emerging markets lacking behind, leading us to recognize the inclusive nature of digital modernism.
Recent news shows a huge rise in the popularity of the Big Data concept in HR. It is a globally accepted trend in the corporate world and IT, but seems to play a very important role in human resources also. Could you explain this rather new notion to our audience? Is Big Data in fact, a means of automating the role of the HR department or should it be viewed as a beneficial tool solely?
If we begin with the concept that ‘data’ is simply information then the more ‘data’ we have, the more information we have available for consideration and better decision making. As an example in HR, we record the details of holiday entitlement for an employee to decide if someone can take paid holidays or not. In this example, the data relating to the ‘holidays’ is known as the ‘data set’ and in many companies, this ‘data’ is collected and processed on a computer system with the result presented using their HR systems. Big Data is the term given when there is so much data collected that the resulting ‘data set’ is too large, or too complex for the analysis to be carried using standard analytical techniques or processes. It is easy to see how this can be applied commercially when understanding customers. Capturing information on customer buying habits has always been vital to commercial success as it enables companies to understand their preferences, how and why they buy, stock control is linked to this for seasonal goods. This information enables companies to make significant business decisions that drive business sales and commercial success. In a similar way, Big Data as a concept can provide more information that enables HR to make better decisions to help drive the business forward. There is already an element of automating HR in use today when we use any computerized system to capture and present information for us. Big Data extends this as a beneficial tool to enable better decisions to be made.
Speaking of Big Data, there have been certain allegations to portray it as an Orwellian big brother. With the huge amount of data that companies have on their staff nowadays, data analytics is able to quickly penetrate many aspects of user experience. Do you think such monitoring could lead to infringement of privacy?
Individual privacy is always a key concern. My view is that it is the main concern should be of the security of the systems and protecting the information from external hackers or cyber-attacks that should be paramount. The data that is collected currently on staff, their personal details, home addresses, and banking details are all valuable information to the criminal fraternity. This is a key issue for anyone moving to a Big Data environment. The aspect of infringing privacy is more complex. If we are clear on the purpose of capturing the information in the first place, and only use the data for that purpose, then privacy should not be an issue particularly in a work environment. If employees are seen as just a production unit in the machine, then a command and control structure is likely to exist inside the company, and I would be more concerned over potential infringements of privacy. If staff are valued and seen as part of the company, with a role to play to contribute to the success of the company then an open communication policy likely exist. Any potential privacy issues would be raised and discussed long before they become a problem. Even in the book 1984, the human spirit overcomes Big Brother!
Moving away from digital trends to the human factor in HR, how are practitioners nowadays being affected by professional training? Any notable experience from a recent nature to aid us understand professional drifts in this field and the role of educational development in this direction?
The requirement for professional training is being driven by the expectations of our customers; the CEO’s and directors of businesses that we work for. Their expectation is that that business partners and senior level HR executives need to have business acumen and commercial awareness if they are to influence organisations at a strategic level. The UK based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, (CIPD) report on Learning and Development (2014) highlighted the issue that: “Business acumen and interpersonal skills are important for success in the L&D/OD profession – business knowledge and commercial awareness, working collaboratively and the ability to influence the organisation are most commonly reported to be among the top three factors that contribute to the success of L&D/ OD professionals.” This ‘ability to influence’ at a strategic level is seen by the HR Professionals Association (HRPA) of Canada as a key requirement of senior HR executives. In my last interim role as HR Director, I found that my role often went beyond the traditional role of HR. This was a result of being able to give insights into the business that informed business decisions.
Another thing that comes to mind is the recent popularity of the Internet of Things (IoT). Just like Big Data, it is said to play a major role in the further development of HR, and has even been speculated to displace HR. Is there room for HR in the IoT or are these two concepts non-compatible with each other?
The Internet of Things is an exciting concept that will still take some years and more technological development to become embedded across all elements of our lives. The IoT is already being used in some industries; from the office lights that use sensors to turn themselves on or off depending on movement, to the automatic billing when an item is removed from the minibar in the hotel room. At an industrial level, one example is an aircraft manufacturer that monitors engine performance in flight, reducing down time by planning maintenance whilst the aircraft is still in use. Training can be delivered now on a just in time basis for engineers whilst they are onsite and faced with a problem via their PDA. The recruitment process and onboarding could be carried out in the same way. What the Internet of Things means for HR will become clearer in time. I do not believe it will replace HR; however, our challenge is clear. Our role will be to manage the human implications of the process. With the growth of personal wearable devices and external linking of other data capturing equipment, security and safety will be a key issue for HR. Talent management and skills sets for business will change as mobile apps and technologies will impact on the wider business environment more dramatically than ever before. Our role will be to ensure that policies and procedures are in place to give guidance when it impacts on the work place. Our role will be to manage the human interaction and implications wherever they impact of the organisation, and wherever judgements have to be made.
Are emerging markets, such as those in the UAE and KSA more needful of HR strategies than their western counterparts or have they been equally hit by the wave of transformation?
My experience of working across emerging markets is that there is a level of sophistication and perception of the value of people that equals that in western counterparts. There is an element of ‘catching up’ required in some companies, particularly where a more traditional approach to business and people management exist. Common to everyone however, is the wave of modernization. The changing expectations of people and generations are similar in every country and the pace of change is equal, even if the start point is different. HR departments and practitioners can ‘surf’ this wave by adapting and changing or be overtaken by it. What we can’t do is ignore it.