Remote Work Necessitates HR Technology Acumen

By Dave Zielinski September 28, 2020
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man working remotely

​The emergence of technology platforms as a lifeline for remote workers has exposed a lingering problem in human resources: the need for HR to develop new technology competencies to serve the evolving needs of their organizations—a need underscored, experts say, by the growing dependence on apps, collaboration networks, conferencing tools and other systems to replace in-person transactions.

This mushrooming role of technology in our daily work lives has many HR leaders asking a similar question: Do I need new or broader technology acumen on my staff? Among the many new hats HR has been asked to wear during the pandemic is technology liaison, consultant and trainer. HR has been tasked with creating communication and compliance policies during the COVID-19 crisis to help keep sensitive health and people data safe; mastering coronavirus-related tech tools, such as contact tracing apps and data dashboards; developing new virtual hiring and remote onboarding practices; and helping to train remote workers in the use of new technologies.

Couple those growing technology-support needs of virtual workers with the rising number of technology platforms used within HR, and experts say that technology acumen—once considered a subspecialty skill set in HR—has become a front-burner competency for business partners and generalists.

Beyond HRIT: More Tech Knowledge for Generalists

Most technology expertise in the HR function has long resided with human resource information technology (HRIT) specialists. They serve the administration, configuration, reporting and data-security needs of the burgeoning HR technologies in such categories as employee record keeping, benefits, recruiting, learning or performance management.

The 2019-2020 HR Systems Survey from the research firm Sapient Insights Group found that HRIT professionals are playing a larger role than ever in addressing the growing data-security and privacy challenges that organizations face. In HR functions that rely heavily on cloud technologies, HRIT specialists are now three times more likely to be responsible for governing data privacy and content security than those in general IT department roles.

While the need for HRIT expertise remains high, experts say an even bigger need for technology acumen often resides elsewhere in the function: with HR generalists and business partners who need to be more conversant in issues like data security, the impact of technology on the employee experience and how to analyze workforce data to make quicker business decisions.

Roy Altman, an HR technology systems consultant, longtime HR technology practitioner and CEO of the consulting firm Peopleserv in New York City, said the need for technology knowledge in HR is perhaps greater than it's ever been.

"HR generalists and business partners need a deeper understanding of the workings of technology platforms because they and their clients use them more often than ever now," Altman said.

Brian Kropp, group vice president specializing in HR issues for research and advisory firm Gartner, also said there's a growing need for more technology know-how in human resources.  Kropp said that need doesn't translate into creating "shadow" IT departments in HR; rather, it refers to HR business partners and generalists expanding their technology knowledge bases.

"HR needs more people who understand the IT landscape from an employee-experience perspective and how technology can enhance or detract from that experience," Kropp said.

"Technology know-how hasn't rested only with IT for a few years now," said Guillermo Corea, managing director of ParagonLabs, SHRM's workplace innovation lab. "The proliferation of SAAS [software-as-a-service], as well as other technologies, has made it necessary for other functions such as sales, marketing and HR to be tech-savvy. HR professionals that succeed in the future will be those that explore and understand how disruptive technologies such as AI and blockchain will impact the creation of better workplaces."

Josh Bersin, a longtime HR industry analyst and founder of the Josh Bersin Academy in Oakland, Calif., said the need for technology expertise in HR has "ramped up considerably" during the coronavirus pandemic and will likely continue.

"Most of the HR leaders in bigger companies I've talked to about their response to the pandemic have had digital teams in the group working along with them," Bersin said. HR needed this expertise as it aided in the rollout of tools to track COVID-19 infections and technologies to facilitate employee safety and work scheduling, he said.

"We've seen companies lashing together different technologies during the pandemic and using things like existing onboarding tools to roll out COVID-related training or learning experience platforms to deliver training around remote work," Bersin said. "The consumption of digital tools is growing quickly in HR, and functions need people who understand or specialize in these technologies."

Finding a Mix of IT and HR Skills

Stacey Harris, chief research officer and managing partner of the Sapient Insights Group, an HR research and advisory group in Atlanta, said one of the biggest challenges for HR continues to be staffing.

"The issue is finding people who have the HR experience and business savvy but can still do the technical work," Harris said. "From the HR organizations and industry associations I talk to, it seems it's still easier to transfer the technical skills to someone who already has the HR experience and background rather than vice versa."

Harris said data from her organization's soon-to-be-released 2020-2021 HR Systems Survey shows the growing role technology is playing in organizations' push to improve productivity and efficiency, even amid the COVID-19 outbreak. When survey participants were asked what major actions they took during the pandemic, increasing technology spending was among the top five most common measures.

Harris said technology discussions are becoming a bigger part of HR professionals' daily work lives. "We're all working from home and using more technology than ever, so, right or wrong, technology becomes a bigger factor, whether you're a recruiter, a benefits specialist or an HR generalist."

Understanding Data Management and Workforce Analytics

Peopleserv's Altman works with client companies as a liaison to IT in implementing human resource technology platforms and testing, for example, system integrations. "During system implementations, companies often need expert help from the outside," Altman said. "But after the implementation, rather than keep consultants around, they usually need HR to step up and take more responsibility. That means HR business partners often need to become system administrators and to better understand the workings, flow and terminology of technology systems."

Altman believes HR generalists and business partners would be well-served by learning more about data management and workforce analytics, as well as by receiving more-thorough training in the administration of HR technology platforms.

"Data management is a huge part of this," Altman said. "People tend to sweep that under the rug, but before you begin a system implementation, you need to get your arms around your people data, which means getting it all in one place and doing data cleansing. When you get most of the heavy lifting of data out of the way before you do system implementation, it enables HR to focus more quickly on the business needs for that people data."

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

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