Can CHROs and Chief Digital Officers Get Along?

By Dave Zielinski April 8, 2019
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​A company's success in going digital may rely heavily on the relationship between two unlikely partners: the chief human resources officer (CHRO) and the chief digital officer (CDO).

CDOs function as change agents and often work alongside chief information officers (CIOs) to implement new technologies across functions to modernize operations and create new business. About 25 percent of medium-size and large organizations now have a CDO, according to a survey by KPMG and Harvey Nash. 

CHROs can be natural partners to CDOs because of the cultural and talent implications of digitizing legacy processes. Experts say if companies can't get employees and customers on board with the use of next-generation technologies—and if the right talent isn't recruited or developed to drive these new digital strategies—efforts to move away from manual processes toward digital ones will fall short.

The challenge is to get CHROs, who are focused on the employee experience, and CDOs, who are more invested in the customer experience, to embrace the symbiotic relationship between their goals and work together for the common good.

Natural Synergy

While CDOs and CHROs have separate missions, there should be areas of mutual interest, said Jason Averbook, CEO of Leapgen, an HR consulting firm in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

"Digital transformation involves a combination of mindset, people, process and technology," Averbook said. "A CDO oversees all four of those areas, but today most are more focused on the customer experience than the employee experience. Not many make the correlation that an improved employee experience can lead to an improved customer experience."

CHROs can play a pivotal role by helping make the decision to "build" rather than "buy," Averbook said.

"The big dilemma now is do you decide to reskill existing employees to meet digital talent needs or recruit externally to fill those gaps?" he asked. By creating a real-time profile of existing competencies in the company, providing data-based insight on the availability of external talent, or forecasting the resources and timelines needed to retrain employees, CHROs can help CDOs and CEOs come to a decision.

Collaborating around talent needs makes sense for CHROs and CDOs, said Mark Stelzner, managing principal of IA, a human capital advisory firm in Nashville, Tenn. "One of the CDO's biggest challenges right now is the fact that digital talent is in high demand and short supply."

Digital enablement is another area where HR leaders can help CDOs, Stelzner said. HR can make sure nonexempt hourly employees have access to the devices and network systems they need to efficiently get work done. And CDOs will need to consider compliance issues, such as wage and hour laws, when digital transformations create new options for nonexempt employees to work beyond standard employer-defined hours.

Yvette Cameron, founder and principal analyst of NextGen Insights, an HR technology research and advisory firm in Denver, said CHROs, CDOs and even CIOs should be "joined at the hip" when implementing new digital processes, applying a mix of their expertise to bring the right people, technologies and data-security controls to these initiatives.

"Oftentimes a CDO will arrive with a great understanding of data and technology, but if he or she doesn't understand the amount of employee involvement needed to design various technology experiences across the organization, that can hurt change efforts," Cameron said.

HR's Own Digital Journey

One sign that companies are placing greater importance on digital transformation is the emergence of new HR leadership titles. At Cisco, the San Jose, Calif.-based technology company, Jason Phillips now carries the title of vice president of digital HR—a title change specifically requested by his CHRO to reflect the digital focus. "I am accountable for our road map around the digitization of HR and how that knits together with initiatives in the broader enterprise," he said.

Changes made to Cisco's performance management process are among the ways digitization has been implemented. Previously, employees would have weekly or biweekly hourlong check-in meetings with their manager. In the new digital process, employees send a short, online summary to managers containing three data points:

  • Their likes and frustrations from the previous week's work.
  • Goals for the upcoming week.
  • Any specific requests they have of the manager.

"That not only creates a digital 'paper' trail, but the conversational flow can happen online when it is more convenient for employees, as well as for team leaders," Phillips said.

A closer relationship between CHROs and CDOs drives the digital transformation of the HR function, experts say. "A CDO needs to understand the overall HR technology landscape as well as the many 'swim lanes' in HR to decide how digital technology can best support processes in those areas," said Michael Rochelle, principal human capital management analyst with the Brandon Hall Group in Delray Beach, Fla.

Budget issues present one of the biggest challenges to HR in its own efforts to go digital, Rochelle said. "Many of the digital transformations going on in other organizational functions have the benefit of more head count and budget than HR has," he said. "A CDO needs to consider that a digital transition in HR may go slower and need to move more incrementally because of that. If I were a new CDO, I would approach the CHRO by saying, 'We are not going to force things on you in this digital transformation, but rather work at your pace to make needed changes.' "

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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