the business case: can you afford to? can you afford not to?

Inevitably, there is a great deal of hype surrounding digital HR. Yet, it can’t be ignored. And as workforce expectations change and talent demands become more complex, digital HR may soon be essential.

So how can digital HR improve your capabilities and is it cost-effective?  

1.    more for less – harnessing automation and self-service options for routine operations such as payroll, expense claims, onboarding and holiday requests can save money and free up your HR teams for more valuable tasks.

2.    keeping pace with workforce expectations – as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) move to the heart operations and consumer engagement, HR needs to keep pace – at the very least, it will be difficult to justify the time and cost of continuing to rely on labour-intensive manual processes.

The benefits of digital HR include improving your ability to support a workforce that’s increasingly mobile and in which a growing proportion of your staff are contingent and flexible. Moreover, people don’t just use mobile devices and social media to connect with friends, but also within their day-to-day work. The new generations coming in to the workforce expect that same responsive, on-the-move interaction with colleagues across the organisation, including HR.  

Developments in onboarding highlight the digital potential. Lengthy and cumbersome paper-based instructions and form-filling can create a poor first impression of the organisation. To make the process speedier and more accessible, much of the guidance and key steps can be made available on online portals. Some companies are taking this further by seeking to create a compelling digital experience in areas such as virtual tours or interactive apps that act as personal ‘buddies’ navigating new recruits through the organisation. Further developments include using gamification to help explain and inculcate the values and culture of the organisation.

Once in the organisation, digital HR can improve the value and experience of areas ranging from learning and development to performance review. For example, artificial intelligence can help to personalise training and provide interactive support in applying what’s been learnt within their day-to-day work, while developments such as gamification can help to create a more immersive experience.

3.    one step ahead of disruption if effectively deployed, digital HR can put you in a better position to respond to market disruption. This includes the forward-looking analytical insights that would improve your ability to anticipate and respond to changing business and workforce demands. Digital HR can also help you to reach out to more talent, including flex-workers and people who aren’t actively seeking a change of employer.

4.    working anytime and anywhere digital HR enables people to collaborate from anywhere and at any time. Within today’s more diffuse operations, that brings huge benefits in terms of efficiency. It also helps to integrate permanent, contingent and service provider personnel more closely and create greater cohesion and equality between people working in these different ways.

5.    it’s more accessible than you think  if you’re an SME, you may think that HR Tech is just for bigger companies with sizable IT budgets. Yet just as small and start-up companies have led their larger counterparts in the deployment of advanced consumer engagement and analytics tools, SMEs are well placed to be at the forefront of harnessing HR Tech.

If you’re an SME, you’re unlikely to have the same legacy deadweight that can make implementation and transition so challenging within larger enterprises. In turn, the availability of cloud-based and open source tools means that HR Tech is becoming increasingly affordable, flexible and easy to use.

changing the face of HR

As implementation of these technologies gains ground, digital HR is providing a catalyst for a shift from HR as a service function to HR as a business partner. This will have important implications for talent selection, training and career development within your HR team.


The risk of ignoring digital HR is being marginalised by the business, either by being automated out of existence or seeing divisional teams and line managers deploying the latest HR tech without bringing in HR.


However, digital HR is no panacea. If existing processes are poorly designed, insufficiently streamlined or riddled with errors and duplication, no amount of digitisation can resolve that. Simplification and standardisations are key foundations for eventual digitisation. Similarly, digital technology is only as good as the data that goes into it. These challenges can’t be sorted out by HR on its own – overhauling processes and managing data require considerable understanding and support from across the business.


Moreover, technology can only go so far. It can even make people lazy by letting them think they can rely on the machine, even though human input and oversight remain vital. The key question for all HR teams is what can we do that a machine can’t and how can we make the most of this? It’s also important to think about how humans and machines can work together in the most effective way. Indeed, as HR becomes increasingly digitised, distinctly human attributes such as empathy, creative thinking and strategic understanding are going to become more important than ever.

the challenges and opportunities ahead

If self-service, screening tools and data analytics represent the first generation of digital HR, then AI and, specifically, machine learning are the future.


The advantage of these next generation HR tools is not only their ability to draw analytical insights from volumes of data beyond human comprehension, but also continually learn and adapt. The benefits range from accelerated talent selection to simulating human behaviour and hence enhancing employee experience.


AI is currently used to assist and, to some extent, augment human decision making. Eventually, it will be able to make judgements and respond without human intervention. These developments not only open up technical application issues, but also ethical and reputational challenges – how much do you trust your tools?


Naturally, there are anxieties that chatbots and other AI-driven tools will take the ‘human’ out of human resources, resulting in an impersonal experience for job applicants. Another fear is that advanced automation will eliminate HR jobs.


It’s therefore important to develop a forward-looking strategy for next-gen digital HR. While recognising and optimising the potential to strengthen areas such as recruitment, workforce planning and talent retention, the strategy should focus on how HR Tech can augment rather than simply replacing human capabilities. HR is ultimately about people, and therefore people need to take the lead.

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