Does HR need to change in the Digital era? Back to the future, or to the past?

The famous Dutch chess player Jan H. Donner said, “The only way to fight a computer is with a hammer.” This statement from the 1980’s summarizes what many say to those who debate the impact and evolution of computers, followed by the internet and now the full digitalization of our private and business lives.

The evolution of humanity has always been based on war and the advancement of work. War has been won by nations with great leaders; successful companies are those managed by great leaders who represent the cream of the crop within our societies. Just as successful nations stayed in the gene pool, successful companies continue to operate after decades if not centuries. The oldest company in the world, Kongō Gumi, a Japanese builder of Buddhist temples was founded in the year 578 and lasted until 2006. It had basic leadership principles that are not too different from what we have come to value in management such as: successful cooperation; applying common sense to problem solving; ensuring long-term stability for employees, and; maintaining the work – life balance which supports families.

HR people often fantasize about new and better ways to accomplish corporate goals or to support the business. Every decade has a its own buzzword – over the last 7 years it’s “digitalization”. Marketing and sales started to focus on the application of digital tools, followed by the rest of the departments and entire corporate organizations sought a “digital way” to work.

Over time, we have learned that such buzzwords distract us from following the basic company goals and the fact that successful organizational management does not change. Tools can change, and certainly we would be foolish if we do not take advantage of better tools, but that does not change the way how leaders should act, or how organizations become successful.

Microsoft is one of those organizations that recently arose like a phoenix from the ashes. This first age “digital” company has revolutionized the way how we work but it nearly lost the battle a few years ago and was at the brink of failure. Microsoft appointed a new CEO, Satya Nadella. Nadella turned the company around, put a simple integrating strategy forward, and above all, as Kongo Gumi since the 6th century, started to ensure long-term stability for employees. Recently CEO Nadella was recognized as an outstanding leader in the high-tech world, based on employees’ feedback. The summary shows that Nadella listens to feedback, is competent and knows the business. He projects a compelling vision and above all, is regarded as very trustworthy. And guess what? These are the exact leadership competencies that are universally found in successful leaders in every industry.

Digitalization of organizations does not mean that we must create and evaluate new competencies or knowledge areas. It means we must support the vision and strategies of the same great leaders who possess the above-mentioned characteristics with the best possible ways and technologies. Certainly, it means we should use more data in HR. Use big data and assessment of the workforce to select the best and develop them in the best possible way. To give data to leaders who listen to feedback, to make better and faster decisions. To make the impact of HR visible and measurable. To sell and show what we do in HR is very valuable to organizations. It’s the first time in human history where we can make the invisible visible, the unmeasurable measurable. Let’s take advantage of tools, focus on what we need to focus on, and nothing else.

Kongō Gumi went out of business in 2006 because their leaders shifted the strategy away from people and became greedy. Microsoft stayed in business because their new leader possessed those competencies that always make good leaders become great leaders.

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