UNLEASH London – technology comes second to putting people first

For all the talk about AI and digitalization, the big takeaway for me from last month’s UNLEASH conference in London was that people are back in fashion. The tone was set early on from the main stage by no less than Google’s Chief Decision Scientist, Cassie Kozyrkov, who reminded us:

“It is always the human that is driving it. Yes, our tools extend our ability to do stuff, and some tools can extend us a lot. AI is just another tool.”

The new emphasis on people was not limited to our responsibility for managing the use of AI. It also came up in discussions of change management, recognizing that technology can only bring benefits to an organization if the people who work there are ready to take advantage of it. And in the midst of digital transformation, we must beware of dehumanizing our interactions, as Samantha Woods, VP of HR Innovation at Orange Business Services pointed out:

“The more we are working on digital solutions and accelerating our transformation, the more you have to make sure that people get together and have great moments of sharing.”

Collaboration therefore became one of the big subthemes of the conference – and one of the surprising findings was that HR technology vendors are not keeping up with the trend towards more agile teamwork and people-centric tools. But before I expand on that point, let’s stay with collaboration for a moment. I had an interesting chat with Barbara Zesik, HR Director Europe at Cognita Schools, where collaboration had been an important goal of the roll-out of a global HR system from CornerStone OnDemand:

“One of the reasons for putting in an HR system was, how do we connect all of our schools across the globe, and give them that sense of belonging?”

The main stage conversation with Cal Henderson, co-founder and CTO of fast-growing enterprise messaging platform Slack, also emphasized the importance of communicating and reinforcing shared values when undergoing organizational change:

“In order for an organization to be able to adapt to change, you need to build organizational alignment. You need to make sure that everybody in your organization has a shared set of goals they’re pursuing, that they are aligned around not just what your organization is doing, but why as well.”

The more an organization relies on distributed teamwork to manage its response to change, the more important these shared values become. This was touched on in my last UNLEASH blog, where I wrote about the trend towards more agile team structures in many organizations, citing the example of the power tools division at German engineering giant Bosch.

At UNLEASH London, Deutsche Telekom provided another illuminating story of agile teamwork and putting people first. Dr Reza Moussavian, Senior Vice President of Digital & Innovation at the European telecommunications giant, emphasized the importance of adopting agile methodologies within the HR function:

“Rethinking the way HR works is applying agile methods and applying innovation and UX techniques in the daily work … it’s changing the way we collaborate, changing the mindset behind it, bringing in a lot of new technology capabilities and supporting and coaching our own HR organization on this path towards transformation.”

The big surprise of his presentation however was the revelation that Deutsche Telekom had built its own HR tools because it was so dissatisfied with what was available from the incumbent HR technology vendors. In part, this is because traditional HR processes need rethinking to become much more people-centric – instead of being built around the needs of the process, they should be built around the needs of the individual user, he argues:

“It’s really thinking through, how does it look like, what’s the user experience … How do you create a seamless experience based on technology? … [How do you] have all the basic administrative services as easy, as seamless as possible, without giving the employee the feeling we are offloading work that is supposed to happen in HR or in the HR shared services?”

The good news is that the mobile application that came out of this design process is already in active use by 25,000 Deutsche Telekom employees and will ultimately reach over 100,000. This is strong validation for the principle of putting people at the center of technology design and using agile practices to deliver better HR tools. It may be technology that’s driving change, but it’s people who must live with it.


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