Virtual HR: the Irresistible Force? – Part 3

Jamie Liddell
Posted: 07/09/2012

To read Part 1 of this article, click here.

To read Part 2, click here.

Of course, the possibly increased disconnection between end user and practitioner/provider – and therefore between employee and the organization – is only one of the new challenges thrown up by the emergence of "virtual" HR. The shift in emphasis from "traditional" "Personnel"-type HR operations to the new horizons opened up by automation and self-service signifies the replacement of old headaches with new ones (in the hope, obviously, of reducing the overall headache quotient). Some of these headaches (such as an increased focus on data protection with regards to confidential employee information) have clear counterparts in the wider business environment, and thus are accompanied by a number of time-honoured and established approaches for risk-reduction. Others, however, are specific to the discipline of HR itself and to this period of extraordinary change it is experiencing.

Alongside the aforementioned disconnection, Tim Palmer of PA Consulting outlines four of the most awkward challenges which he sees as arising from the accelerating trend towards "virtualization".

Palmer points first to the issue of data protection alluded to earlier: "If you are capturing or giving out sensitive or important information," he says, "such as might be required when recording a health and safety issue, you cannot rely on this to be done accurately, without the intervention of a qualified professional who understands what is required."

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This challenge in particular is likely to remain a thorn in the side of many working within the field, since ever-shifting data-protection legislation (across multiple legislations, to boot) and the occasional media storm resulting from any (usually state-sponsored) lapse which enters the public domain, renders it unlikely in the near-future at least that any technology will emerge which could remove this burden from human shoulders to the complete satisfaction of the organization’s movers and shakers. Legally speaking, to do so at present would be at best careless; more relevantly, practically speaking the challenges being faced by organizations lie not around removing the human element completely from this equation but around how to streamline the process sufficiently to keep human involvement minimized, while optimizing the systems framing that involvement.

"Technical and data integration is a second issue," highlights Palmer. "The more clever toys that people buy to capture, present and analyse data, the more difficult and costly it is to integrate data and ensure data quality. HR needs to learn new skills in maintaining an appropriate architecture for its processes and tools."

The appropriateness of that architecture, of course, is currently colored in almost every instance by the peculiarly negative global economic environment and the desires of savings-hungry boards for improving steps which don’t take a vast chunk out of the bottom line. However, even at the best of times HR has a responsibility to keep costs down and the emergence of more and more "clever toys", as Palmer explains, threatens the ability of the function’s practitioners to keep at the cutting edge while keeping within budget. As anyone will testify who’s struggled to keep the acquisitive natures of their IT boffins – to take a stereotypical example - in check, the natural tendency of practitioners to want the very best, newest and flashiest kit can often result in clashes; HR needs to find a happy medium and remember that the needs of the business, rather than any one department thereof, need to be driving any ultimate decision on investment.,

"A third issue," continues Palmer, "is process integration. There's no point having clever software, if the business process that underpins it (for example learning content fulfillment) lets the process down."

The need for process purity should of course be familiar to anyone working within a shared service-type or outsourced environment and is a field where HR has been able to learn much from other areas of business. A variety of process improvement methodologies have of course been at play within HR for some time (another apparently radical departure from traditional "core" HR activities but, as such, another indication of the strength of the wind blowing towards virtualization) and as more and more of the work currently carried out by the human actors within HR becomes automated, new process-facing roles will emerge. From which elements of the business they will be filled (ie, will they be roles for a new breed of HR specialists, or for next-generation process wonks) has yet to be decided.

Finally, Palmer believes, "a fourth issue is access… Most self-service tools work well in environments where people have daily and private access to PCs. But in blue-collar environments, or with mobile workforces, they can be wholly inadequate."

This may in the end prove to be one of the most intractable challenges – but also, perhaps, creating an arena in which "traditional" HR practices can – indeed, must – still thrive. Many of the jobs upon which modern industrialized societies are founded simply aren’t suited to a hyper-automated, virtual HR environment. Furthermore – and at the risk of venturing into an area of very urgent and often aggressive sociological debate – it remains the case in every society that a proportion of those moving from education into employment do so ill-equipped to make the most of tech-heavy HR systems. This is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future – as is the requirement by modern economies for the kind of labor which doesn’t "have daily and private access to PCs", in Palmer’s words. As such, the need for "traditional", human-resource-heavy HR is unlikely to disappear completely. Indeed it may well be the interaction in the nebulous space between "traditional" and "virtual", or "old" and "new" HR, which sees the greatest and most revelatory leaps forward in the discipline over the next decades.

To read Part 3 click here

Jamie Liddell
Posted: 07/09/2012

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