Ambient HR – the next revolution of HR Technology

In today’s world, the challenges and requirements towards HR are manifold and changing on an almost daily basis: Customer expectations, our social and cultural environment, technology – everything is changing more fast paced than ever. And that of course has a big impact on companies well. HR has to find the right answers to this changing environment – of course. But today I would like to write about a very old topic that is still very much present in our daily business and HR lives: The actual connection between HR and the business – or in more concrete terms, the connection between the people or line managers (at all levels) and what HR has to offer them to support.

There are many different areas of potential connections of course, and one specific connection that is especially frustrating and truly very rarely working seamless. The administrative pieces of people manager work.

I believe we all as HR professionals understand and advocate for people managers to be the owner of the people relationships and people management – and this ownership means that they should manage their teams and employees end-to-end. This actual accountability is today not really a big debate anymore. It is understood and accepted – but the debate starts where the act of actual management of people, the conversations, decisions, recommendations have to be turned into action – the act of initiating a pay raise after the conversation with your employee, the act of initiating recruitment after you have reached agreement with your manager about that role. This is where it often gets clunky.

Of course, modern HR systems like Workday or SuccessFactors make it easier than ever before and also very often straight forward. But: As a people manager you still have to:

  • Log-on to the system
  • Find the right process/ action
  • Understand what needs to be done
  • Fill in all required information (hopefully you have them or know where/ how to find them)
  • Send the request off… and wait

This does not feel right in today’s world. And this is where Ambient HR as an idea comes to live.

HR processes should only be there for two reasons:

(a) to support the business in what it needs to achieve
(b) to adhere to local legal regulations

(b) is something we cannot really change. But (a) is something where HR technology and processes need to seriously upgrade to toady’s technology possibilities. I imagine Ambient HR as a way to overlay the actual work that people managers are doing with the required HR actions. Let’s take the above cases.

A pay increase for example, should be initiated based on a conversation between people manager and employee. Ambient HR is connected to all systems people managers use in their daily work and so also to the calendar account. It notices that the people manager has set a career conversation with his/ her employee and automatically does two things:

(1) before the conversation happens, it pops up on the people managers computer and asks what this career conversation is about (e.g. new job, performance improvement, promotion, etc.) and based on the people manager’s choice, provides on the spot, just in time support (e.g. what needs to be taken into consideration, how the process works, how long it takes, what exactly needs to be done by the people manager  – all in context of the employee the manager is seeing) and recommendation (e.g. how high a pay raise could maximum be).

(2) after the conversation, the people manager receives the next pop-up window, asking for action with a pre-completed form based on the employee the manager has seen as well as the choices the people manager took in the first step (e.g. it is a promotion conversation). The manager just has to review and send off. All work done.

With such an integration, the administrative part for the people manager’ job to set in action what he/ she has discussed or decided to do becomes a simple, not time consuming and effective process. And similar integrations are possible with other systems at work like Time & Attendance, like your Sales System, etc. – and because of AI, contextual information and actions are easy to realise – it is like Google Now for work. Ambient HR is immersive in your day-to-day activities, not a nasty add-on, but an integral part of how you work – you don’t have to remember what, when how – it will tell you. And it will learn throughout your work day to be better every time it supports you.

Of course, you need to trust this system as it has access to all your data – but hey, you trust Google or Amazon or Facebook at home with your private data and at work such a system already houses your most sensitive data: people data. So why shouldn’t you trust it to listen in to your daily activities as a people manager?

Ambient HR is the future of HR Technology and it needs to start today.

Digitalisation of the workplace – further differentiating our workforce…and society

The future is bright and shiny – AI, RPA, IoT will make our lives easier and will help us getting into a more balanced way of work and life. – does that sound familiar? Right! The same claims were made with the introduction of computers into our (work-) lives and later with the online economy. And what was the result of both? – you know it: even more work and less freedom for those who still had a job – and an even more growing number of people w/o jobs. Sure, each revolution has also created new jobs – but not for everyone. Each revolution created jobs for a smaller and smaller talent pool. Why? – the skills, the requirements, the capacity one needed to have to fulfill these new jobs were more and more difficult to have or build. Many employees were just not able anymore to learn these new skills or to even think in the new categories that these new business models required.

At first – during the early revolutions, this was dealt with by early retirements – but this gets more and more difficult as employees need to work longer to be able to have a life as retirees, as well as there is a growing number of middle-aged employees too far away from retirement that cannot meet the requirements.

Don’t get me wrong – I am all in for the digitalisation of the workplace. I am a big fan of digitalisation and the chances it opens up at the workplace (and in private lives). But we need to change the way we handle the implementation of such revolutions.

In the past, businesses, the econcomy as a whole had always the same reaction: “Way we work”-revolutions led to new employees that can fulfill the demands of faster and more (let’s face it – besides many great outcomes, the recurring theme is that with each new revolution, workload increased, turn-around times decreased) while many old employees were squeezed out (and old not necessarily being used for age, but for long-standing). Companies used the easy way out. The pool was big enough and the outcry of the ones squeezed out was sufficiently small. Now, my thesis is that we are reaching an inflection point where this way of working – the way we actually do business is coming to an end.

Let me tell you why:

(1) More and more western countries are starting to have social uproars, to a great extent due to rising unemployment and increased social jealousy – the haves and the have-nots

(2) Even the part of the population that still has a job (the “Haves”) is struggling – struggling because of workload, increasing speed and required new skills.

(3) Job related illnesses that are psychological/ mental nature are raising and have surpassed physical illnesses (see here). Psychological triggered missed-work-days are having a higher negative impact in companies than physical triggered missed-days.

The next revolution of digitilization is quickly approaching and the populare opinion on what needs to happen is the usual: work faster, build up new skills. Problem is: Humans are NOT bots, cannot just as easily be reprogrammed or get a new, father processor. As after each work-revolution there will be loosers – just that this time I am afraid the added loosers will bring the system to the tilting point. The part of the workforce that will still be able to follow and be the winners of each revolution will be too small to stabilize the system – a system where the average age of employees in western countries is rising. And with rising age, adaptability and speed are decreasing – this is fact. Another key message from last years INSEAD “The Global Talent Competitiveness Index” reads “Low-skilled workers continue to be replaced by robots, while knowledge workers are displaced by algorithms”  (see here for the detailed analysis of our global workforce). – another group of losers. Also, just look in many of today’s boardrooms (and let’s leave the Silicon Valley out for a moment) – how many boardmembers are truly immersed in today’s ways of working? Social Collaboration, Social Media, “Appinization” – these are for many of them interesting concepts, but that is it. There is still a very large number of senior leaders that ask there assistants to “print their emails” so that they can “reply”. And they are supposed to lead us into the next revolution? – but this is a different story for a different post…

My statement is that we need to drastically change the way we do business from “employees that serve the company” to “companies that serve the society”. The solution is not to stop the future (although this is currently very much a popular theme in Trump-America), the solution is though to actively shape the future in a way that it serves society – and I mean each and every member of it. And not how we did it in recent industrial-revolutions: In a way that it serves the Shareholder alone. We must understand this now – or we will face the consequences of the path we are on – and although I am repeating myself, the signs are more evident than ever: Brexit, Trump-America, Alt-Right and other popular extremists on the rise.

The societal impact: Shared Services 4.0

One of the big themes and big discussions today is Industry 4.0 – what is meant is the next industrial revolution via IoT (Internet of Things) and further integration, communication and automation of machines. You can read more about it here. It will for sure have another big impact on worklife, culture and society.

What I would like to talk about today though is Shared Services 4.0 – which I believe is going down a similar route like Industry 4.0 – and therefore the same naming convention 😉

Shared Services 1.0 – 3.0

When you think about Shared Services from its origins in the early 90ies till now, it was about the following themes:

  • Process standardization
  • Process rationalization
  • Self-services
  • Near- or off-shoring of work

And subsequent near- or off-shoring of jobs. Because of Shared Services, many former colleagues in HR (or in any other (back-office) function) have lost their job, were in need to find a new job. Some of these colleagues had luck and found a new job – some of them for longer, many of them for short periods only. Why that? – quite frankly it was not one company that implemented Shared Services, but many – and with it 10.000s of jobs, all the same kind of jobs were near- or offshored. And only some former employees of these jobs understood it right and found their work-future in upskilling towards jobs that could not (at least for a period of time) get near- or offshored. A big majority though did either not understand that “rule” of life-long learning or – and no offense – were not capable to perform the next higher-level job. These former colleagues have lost contact and access to their job market – they are the lost people of globalization, being not unhappy anymore, but angry – don’t see any perspective other than turning back time. And as we all know, you actually cannot turn time back (at least not yet ;)) – and even if, there are sufficient people that don’t want to do that. In any case though, there are winners and lost people that now rather fight against each other than try to repair what has been damaged for the greater good of all.

If you think in broader terms though and at a global scale, you must admit that the majority of the jobs were not made redundant, they were just relocated. And so, the Shared Service economy has born new winners – countries like India, Costa Rica, the Philippines, a big portion of the Eastern European countries have “received” 1000s of jobs and with it managed to catch up with western countries, created new middle classes and brought young people into great starting jobs – with big potential for international careers.

Shared Services 4.0

The new waves of innovation and thinking in the shared services industry though will have different effects. Nothing will really change with the losers of the first waves – except that the distance between their knowledge and capabilities and the job requirements is growing. It is more and more unlikely that these former colleagues find a new job similar to their old one – they either stay unemployed or go for 2-3 parttime jobs which still cannot feed their family at home.

What is worse though is that the winners of waves 1.0-3.0 will turn into losers as well. – and the upskiled colleagues from the first rounds will lose their jobs, too. RPA and AI are the keywords.

Robot Process Automation (RPA) will slowly but surely eat away the lower qualified jobs in Shared Service Centers. Robots are getting sufficiently smart to execute without break, without mistake most of the standardized work within centers. Recent studies show that by now 80% and more of standardized work can be transfered to bots. And in turn, 80% of new colleagues will lose their jobs.

But it does not stop with RPA – AI, the next evolution is already on its way. Today mostly too expensive to replace low-cost country colleagues, but tomorrow (and it is almost literally tomorrow) this will change and not only standardized work will get automated but even more complex work where situational assessment and decision making are required. I know that most of the readers cannot wait to have AI in their life – me, too – but in their private lives, not at work. At work, this will lead to the next “let go” of colleagues – now though again in both western countries as well as low-cost countries. New losers of globalization are created.


Of course, this is great for the bottom-line of a company’s balance sheet and maybe for its Shareholders. But what about the rest of the country? rest of the world? – it will only further grow the difference and distance between the “haves” and “have nots” and it will further spur societal conflicts that are already on the horizon – or already in our lives like Trump and Brexit.

It is on us to change this, it is on us to make sure that we take everyone with us on that journey. Again, it is not the solution to stop time, but it is time to stop spreading the difference between winners and losers, generating more losers than winners. It is on us – we in HR are the ones closest to our workforces. We need to listen and come up with a plan.

That time of the year (again)- Performance Management (still)

Yes, that time of the year again – no, I am not talking Christmas or New Years. I am talking Performance Management – it is the time of the year again where thousands of companies demotivate their staff by still holding on to an antiquated process that – and this is a fact – just does not what it is supposed to do (or what it is named). Performance Management you would think is about managing performance of employees towards joined goals and to motivate them to bring out the best in them. However, still way too many companies are holding on to the outdated process of: Objective setting – Mid-year Review – Calibration – Year-end Review and send their employees off for a demotivated Christmas. Is your company doing the same? How do you feel after your review? – check out this post

Technology Disruption in the workplace – the societal impact

In the aftermath of the US elections, but also seeing what is happening in other countries like Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, the UK, I believe that we need to reflect on what we as Human Resources Practitioners are doing every day in our workplaces and what the effects are (supporting business reorganizations, restructurings, outsourcing, as well as our own HR outsourcing or low-cost job placement, automation, etc.). I don’t believe that anyone should now complain about a single election outcome in the US or of raising right-wing parties in European countries or of Brexit. Are we and can we really be surprised about that? – maybe if we have lived in our own bubbles for the last few years, but not truly when we think about what we in HR have done, supported, paved the way for in the last years: In essence, more and more lower qualified jobs have become obsolete or moved to low-cost countries. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to say that we have done things wrong or are the sole cause of what has happened in society – and I don’t believe that we need to justify what we have done. I believe we had sufficient supportive reasons for it. However, I believe that we are an integral part of the picture – and can and need support making it right again.

Now, what I want to say is that we probably have not looked at the societal impact of what we were doing. I strongly believe that we are splitting the workforce every day. Splitting it into the ones that can participate and the ones that can’t or are even ousted. Technology is a great enabler of our every day life – also at work. It is though also an instrument to split the workforce.

Let’s take the rise of the computer as one example with which the current revolution started – slowly at first, but now more rapid than ever. With the “normal” PC coming into the workplace, more and more activities could be dealt with via Computer – and you did not need an employee for it anymore. The normal computer has taken workplaces and transformed employees into unemployment.

But it is not only about “losing” your job. Let’s take Social Collaboration as another example – Social Collaboration is how we get things done at work now, or at least when we are young and grew up with it. But what does Social Collaboration do to Baby Boomers or Generation X colleagues? – No offence, but they are truly used to different ways of working and have a hard time to adjust, if they can. Social Collaboration can in fact alienate from the workplace. If you cannot participate, you are separated and slowly lose touch with your workplace, with your work.

And there are many more of these examples where I believe that for good reasons, we in HR changed the way our company operates, but maybe did not always think about the colleagues that we leave behind. And after all, I believe that being left behind at work or even losing your job is one of the main impacts or factors that places people on the losing side of Globalisation. It is explainable – it is man-made, and now we should not complain that these former colleagues or still colleagues that have lost touch and connection are unhappy and protesting. Inclusiveness at work is not only about the usual topics, it is also about technology.

BUT, in the same way we moved these colleagues to the other side, we can and should and need to move them back onto the winning side. This is the only way to keep us all together as a strong society where everyone can participate. This is the way civilised societies deal with these kind of things. It should not be about who screams louder or who is stronger – the elite (and yes, this is us) the elite needs to be the smart party here and needs to start listening and acting. Further separation and ousting of colleagues does only further nurture the fire that is burning. Globalisation, the way we live today, the way we work today, how small the world is, what we have achieved is worth fighting for – and we should fight for it. Just not in the way that these right-wing parties are doing it, not in a way that further alienates and makes people aggressive. But in a way that brings people together again – and this needs to start at the workplace. And we as HR are the ones that are responsible for the culture at the workplace, for how we work and for how we create inclusiveness.

And with this, I will start a new series of posts around how technology has shaped our workplaces in the recent years and future years to come and what the impact on workplace culture and society have been and might be. This is a topic that I believe needs more attention and explanation as it has such a big impact on our every day lives. And only when we understand, we can change something, and we can get back on a path of an inclusive society.