Digital Transformation: A Must for the Future of Work, Panel Says

By Aliah D. Wright May 23, 2016
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Are you prepared to meet the needs of the digitally transforming workforce? Many businesses are not.

 In fact, research firm Gartner reports that by 2017, 25 percent of businesses will lose their position in the market because they fail to understand the significance of a “digital business” and because they don’t understand how employees want to work.

But what exactly is a digital business?

It is one that embraces the wave of digital technologies that has transformed industries, the shop floor, our offices and our homes.

What role does HR play in this transformation? A big one.

In a discussion May 17 at SAP’s Sapphire Now conference in Orlando, Fla., Mike Ettling, president of SAP SuccessFactors, joined a panel of HR executives to discuss the needs of a digital business. The software company’s conference was held in tandem with the Americas’ SAP Users’ Group (ASUG) conference. ASUG is an independent, nonprofit organization comprised of SAP customer companies and third-party vendors.

More than 30,000 people were in attendance at what SAP billed as the largest global business technology event in the world. SAP has more than 78,400 employees in 190 countries, with more than 310,000 customers including Google, Uber, Starbucks, PepsiCo and American Airlines.

The panelists said that digital transformation is going to drive and be driven by workers and will impact how companies recruit, engage and train people.

Human resource professionals will lead the charge.

“HR has never been more important,” said moderator Sherryanne Meyer, ASUG HR community advocate.

Loral Blinde, vice president of people and employee services for American Airlines, said, “We have 40,000 employees—mostly pilots and flight attendants who all have iPads now and they’re getting a lot of their … information right there with them,” he said. “Employees want to live the life at work that they live at home.”

Increasingly, this means they want an Amazon- and Google-like experience with the technology they use for work.

“We have over 200,000 employees in 80 countries,” said Shakti Jauhar, senior vice president, global HR operations and shared services for PepsiCo. “PepsiCo is always transforming itself. With the advent of digitization, what is happening is the way employees want to manage their work is changing,” he said. “More and more of the decision-making of how they manage their work is shifting to the employee. How do you enable that transformation in a way that you can bring a community of employees across 80 countries to communicate and engage?”

If companies fail to address the needs of the rapidly growing younger workforce and the ways in which they expect to work—using the latest technology, accessing their social networks from work, using new apps to get work done—this will definitely impact their ability to succeed, panelists said.

HR must lead the way.

“If you don’t get the journey of HR transformation right, you’re going to fail,” Ettling said. That journey includes shifting HR processes to the cloud. “The journey today in the cloud is so fundamentally different than the journey we had in the on-premise world,” he said, referring to a time when almost every company housed its HR data onsite rather than virtually. “The HR function is a graveyard of failed projects in the on-premise world.”

For example, in past years, companies would try to customize HR technology processes globally, which didn’t work. “The whole approach for applying cloud is different,” Ettling said. “Now you’re in a world of fit-to-standard. That requires a massive cultural change and you need a methodology and approach of what is standard” for all workers so everyone is using the same processes to get work done.

“We looked at all of our processes,” Jauhar added. “And then we said, ‘Everybody gets the same exact process—no matter where you are in any country—unless there are legal issues.’ And everybody needs to understand this is your global process.”

But be prepared to handle complaints.

“Yes, there will be noise,” Jauhar said. “You have to hold the line on it.”

And empower teams working on standardizing HR processes. “You can’t do it by counsel and consensus,” added Robert Arbogast, director of HR strategy and systems for the Timken Co., a manufacturing firm based in St. Louis.

Jauhar added that HR and IT are beginning to work more closely together when it comes to making software decisions concerning people management.

“The function of HR is starting to own the processes with a lot of support from IT teams,” he said. “In some companies the chief information officers are forward-looking and they understand that trend, and in some companies they’re holding back. So there’s this battle. But these two functions are changing,” he said of HR and IT.

“Where HR used to make the decision, now it’s not about on-premise software—it’s about how are you going to do the processes and how are you going to make it all work?” Jauhar said.

HR is now making a lot more decisions with the help of IT than it has in the past, he added.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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