Dr. Eddie Obeng delivering a keynote at ReimagineHR in London (Gartner)
At the start of his keynote session at Gartner’s ReimagineHR summit in London last week, British organizational theorist, educator, and author Dr. Eddie Obeng offered a glimpse of the fast-arriving virtual workplace. A wearable mouse attached to his wrist, Obeng gave the audience a tour of a 3-D classroom projected on the screen, walking to different chalkboards and interacting with his colleagues present in the virtual room while actually participating from a remote office. In this way, Obeng illustrated the potential of flashy new technologies in shaping the future of work.
In our HR research practice at Gartner, however, we know from hundreds of calls with HR leaders and professionals that when many of them see this flashy technology, they say: “We’re not Google, we’re not Amazon; we simply can’t afford this level of digital enhancement.” They want to know what the future of work means for them: What can they actually do with the resources they have? When Obeng asked the audience to share some of their fears about the digitally-enabled presentation he was showing them, they said it would be “impractical,” “too techy,” and “too expensive” for them to implement.
But Obeng very quickly challenged the audience by telling them to forget about technology, that we’re using it all wrong. New technology, he asserted, is of limited value if we don’t rethink the processes by which people work. Technology may be changing around us, but our habits and behaviors have not. Our habits and practices are deeply ingrained, and as a result it is difficult to imagine what the future should look like; instead, as he put it, we “imagine the present, but shinier.”
Relating his topic back to HR, Obeng noted that everything about our organizational structure and talent processes, from compensation and benefits to learning and development to the hierarchical org chart, is designed for the world as it used to be, when organizations were able to see what was coming. Today, that’s impossible: Change happens faster than we and our processes can adapt. A senior leadership team making all decisions for an organization, Obeng said, can process about the same amount of data in an hour as our mobile phones can in a minute. Rather than trying to simply move faster, we need to reimagine the way we move.
“Writing a check,” Warren Buffett famously quipped, “separates a commitment from a conversation.” This used to be true of submitting a job application as well, but not in today’s increasingly competitive, digitally enhanced recruiting environment, Gartner Principal Executive Advisor Dion Love explained at Gartner’s ReimagineHR summit in London on Wednesday. The path most candidates take through the recruiting process has fundamentally changed, which means organizations must also change their approach to recruiting in order to remain competitive.
Prior to the digital era, the typical candidate’s journey looked something like this: They researched companies to find out whether they wanted to work there, narrowed down their choices to a shortlist of preferred employers, applied for jobs, and finally spoke with recruiters. This candidate usually only made it to the interview stage with organizations they had already researched and were certainly interested in joining. Recruiters could assume that a candidate who sent in a résumé was committed to seeing the process through to the end.
Yet whereas the job application used to come toward the end of the candidate journey, it now often comes at the very beginning. Here’s what the journey normally looks like now: A candidate casually applies to a number of jobs they may or may not want, speaks with recruiters, then researches the employers that are interested in hiring them and narrows their choices down to one.
This shift in candidate behavior creates a whole new set of challenges for recruiters.
At a recent meeting, a select few heads of HR at global companies were having a high-level discussion on digital business models when one participant from a big consumer products firm brought the conversation back down to earth: “On a practical level,” he asked, “what is the value of having a chief digital officer?” He went on to explain that he was the only executive in his C-suite who had experience in a digital company and was trying to figure out how to drive digital business transformation at his organization.
This is a question that many experts and pundits have weighed in on over the past several years, with some predicting the demise of the role, while others believe it can have tremendous value. Our own data at CEB, now Gartner, suggests that about 1 in 5 companies has a dedicated leadership position for digital business transformation. Just slightly more (1 in 4) have an overarching digital strategy for their entire enterprise. (CEB CIO Leadership Council members can read more about what we expect the digital enterprise to look like by 2020 and how organizations are getting there.)
Many organizations are asking this question: Do we need a chief data officer? The broader question, however, is what governance structure best enhances the focus, speed, and scale of your digital transformation initiative—and there’s no one right answer. This was an important takeaway from the discussion at our meeting: All participants seemed to agree that organizations need some sort of dedicated digital governance structure, but having a single leader (other than the CEO) in charge of it isn’t necessarily the right solution for all organizations.
The HR leaders whose organizations had decided against appointing chief digital officers said they had done so because they tended to be more centralized in both structure and leadership philosophy. They were more confident in being able to set a consistent tone throughout the organization that digital business transformation was every leader’s responsibility. That said, these chief HR officers were careful to note that they did have some governance structure in place to ensure that the right people were making the right digital strategy decisions at the right time. These structures ranged from having leaders who were digital champions across the organization, to a small committee reporting to the CEO on digital matters, to standalone digital business operations where there was a team incubating new digital business ideas.
When it comes to making judgments based on large data sets, machines are often superior to humans, but many business leaders remain skeptical of the guidance produced by their organizations’ data analytics programs, particularly when it comes to talent analytics. That skepticism derives largely from doubts about the quality of the data the organization is collecting, but there is also a natural tendency among people who make strategic decisions for a living to reject the notion that an algorithm could do parts of their job as well as or better than they can.
While this may be true of executives and high-level professionals, some recent research suggests that most people are actually comfortable with the decisions algorithms make and even more trusting of them than of judgments made by humans. A new study from the Harvard Business School, led by post-doctoral fellow Jennifer M. Logg, finds that “lay people adhere more to advice when they think it comes from an algorithm than from a person”:
People showed this sort of algorithm appreciation when making numeric estimates about a visual stimulus (Experiment 1A) and forecasts about the popularity of songs and romantic matches (Experiments 1B and 1C). Yet, researchers predicted the opposite result (Experiment 1D). Algorithm appreciation persisted when advice appeared jointly or separately (Experiment 2). However, algorithm appreciation waned when people chose between an algorithm’s estimate and their own (versus an external advisor’s—Experiment 3) and they had expertise in forecasting (Experiment 4). Paradoxically, experienced professionals, who make forecasts on a regular basis, relied less on algorithmic advice than lay people did, which hurt their accuracy.
Our colleagues here at Gartner have also investigated consumers’ attitudes toward AI and found that these attitudes are more welcoming than conventional wisdom might lead you to believe. The 2018 Gartner Consumer AI Perceptions Study found that overall, consumers are not skeptical of the potential usefulness of AI, though they do have some concerns about its impact on their skills, social relationships, and privacy. The study was conducted online during January and February 2018 among 4,019 respondents in the US and UK. Respondents ranged in age from 18 through 74 years old, with quotas and weighting applied for age, gender, region, and income.
The digital age has its pros and cons for the workforce. Technology provides employees with faster, easier access to information and data. It also allows for greater personalization and more interaction between employee and employer. Yet the digitalization of the workplace does have its downsides. Consider smartphones, for example: They can be alternately distracting and distressing; they can create barriers to action like information overload and decision fatigue, as well as work-life balance issues stemming from an “always-on” mentality.
Some managers, frustrated with the ubiquity of these devices and their ability to distract employees, are banning phones from meetings or otherwise limiting their use in the workplace, the Wall Street Journal’s John Simons wrote in a feature last week. Simons points to studies indicating that executives and managers consider smartphones “the leading productivity killers in the workplace” and that the presence of a phone can harm people’s cognitive performance, even when they are not using or holding it. He also notes Google’s recent announcement that the next version of its Android operating system will introduce a feature enabling users to see how much time they spend on their phones, which apps they use the most, and how often the phone gets unlocked.
Our recent research at CEB, now Gartner, also underscores these downsides of technology at work. While solutions to help employees minimize time wasted on tech, like Google’s forthcoming Android time tracker, might be helpful, our research suggests that no technological intervention can have a meaningful impact on employee performance or the employee experience by itself. The limitations are striking, given the large investments organizations (and HR functions in particular) are making in technology to support employees. But the challenges employers face are human and organizational, not just technological—and the same must be true of any solution.
LinkedIn is developing a major new training program to teach its employees about artificial intelligence, which it predicts will be a part of everything they do in the near future, GeekWire’s Nat Levy reported last week:
The AI Academy program will start with classes for engineers, product managers and executives, but the company hopes to expand it so every employee can gain some degree of AI expertise. The first cohort from LinkedIn engineering just started going through the program, but the company is already looking at making the AI Academy part of its onboarding process for all new employees. There are four levels of classes, each one a deeper dive than the last. When participants are done, LinkedIn wants them to have an understanding one of the most important issues in the field: which problems AI can solve and which ones it can’t.
LinkedIn’s Head of Science and Engineering Craig Martell writes in a blog post about the program that AI is “like oxygen—it’s present in every product that we build and in every experience on our platform.” There it has common ground with parent company Microsoft. Like LinkedIn, Microsoft has infused AI into many of its major initiatives, and it offers an online training program for developers.
Microsoft has made huge bets on AI and sought to position itself as a leader in the field, hiring thousands of scarce and expensive AI experts and building AI functionality into its suite of enterprise products—with which LinkedIn is also becoming increasingly integrated. In that context, it’s no surprise to see LinkedIn make AI knowledge a priority for its own workforce: They’re going to need it.
In a recent overview of gamification technologies at Employee Benefit News, John Soat looked at the growing number of ways in which organizations are gamifying HR processes. Soat highlighted three areas in which gamification is most promising: pre-hire assessments for recruiting, training programs for current employees, and encouraging participation in wellbeing initiatives and other benefits programs. Game-like tools are popular and effective because they are fun and engaging, so employees are more likely to use them voluntarily, even outside working hours. This impact on engagement, Soat hears from vendors, is part of the often intangible ROI their clients see from gamification.
This is a trend we’ve been following both here at Talent Daily and in our research at CEB, now Gartner, for several years now. Looking at how various organizations have gamified their processes, we’ve discovered some surprising use cases for this approach and developed a robust understanding of what makes gamification initiatives most likely to succeed.
In the training space, it’s interesting to note that companies aren’t just using gamification for entry level or technical skills. In 2014, we profiled GE’s Experienced Leaders Challenge: a week-long, immersive development session for experienced GE leaders designed to help them develop a leadership mindset aligned to today’s inherently unpredictable business environment. A key part of the program is a simulation that lets leaders practice navigating common challenges and observe the unexpected consequences of their decisions or actions. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can check out the full case study here.)