This content is part of the Essential Guide: HR mobile apps for employees strengthen HCM strategies

Getting to the payoff of digital transformation in HR

A successful move to a corporate digital environment requires careful planning and a realistic roadmap. HR leaders can pave the way by first getting clear about their vision.

Digital transformation, change management and implementation success are favorite topics of mine. While at Bersin by Deloitte and later at Mercer, I researched the criteria for successful technology projects. Lessons learned: It is hard, there is a high failure rate and despite stellar intentions, best practices in strategic planning, team management, change management, employee training and total project management are rarely followed. The result is that the payback of an expensive and likely time-consuming effort may not be realized. 

Consultants and analysts have been prolific in creating models and giving guidance, from how to create business cases to planning and rollout strategies. Sometimes that accumulated wisdom is too little, too late, or is presented piecemeal to those planning a major software change.

While the idea of transformation or terms like the digital enterprise are vague, the business need to use technology to change the way today's corporations work for the better is clear. Much of the waste of redundancy and inefficiency in organizations -- and HR itself -- can be alleviated with computer-based technology. While there are guides to getting to a corporate digital environment, some are too technical, some are too ethereal and some just illogical. In my search for a roadmap to implementation and successful digitization of business, I read a book titled Digital With Impact: Realizing Transformation Payoffs by Brian Sommer.

What does it mean to have a digital transformation in HR?

HR executives, like their corporate leaders, are touting the need to change and using technology to get there. They know they need to bring their businesses into the 21st century, but often lack a roadmap for how they should approach potential technology-based projects to enhance their chance for success. This step has been missing in much of the literature on the subject: The creation is not of just an implementation model or process, but the development of a broader approach to fostering corporate change and alleviating -- or at least understanding -- the many potential barriers that derail so many transformational projects.

Digital with Impact covers ground that HR leaders must address but often do not as they assess their own companies and the possibilities for impactful change. The issues are varied and far-reaching, and Sommer explores the major strategic and historic sticky wickets that impede positive business change after a new technology infusion. He also levels with readers about the speed of change, technology advances and business model innovation, with caveats on constraints that can provide very real-world guidance to HR executives who may be caught up in a pie-in-the-sky view of business transformation.

Models for approaching technological or business change often seem very complex and appear impossible to follow. However, Sommer's approach is broken down into four aspects:

  • See
  • Think
  • Reconcile
  • Transform

This approach helps businesses move from the vision to thinking through the detail -- including technologies -- to applying the reality lens, and ultimately, the criteria for successful business transformation. For HR leaders, clarity of vision ("See") is critical: What is the role and mission of HR in your organization? What best serves the organization as a whole in terms of employee experience, diversity and inclusion initiatives and the place for AI in the transformed environment?

The next step, "Think," requires just that -- and perhaps some learning as well. Not only has technology changed significantly, but how businesses operate and how employees work and live has changed as well. Sommer uses the example of how campus recruiting has changed, just one of the myriad processes that HR may take for granted that is now radically different that in the past. Your HR team very likely already uses technology to do what they did on paper, only perhaps faster and hopefully more efficiently. But thinking requires a look at the processes -- they may have made sense in an era where alternatives were constrained, maybe by the limits of yesterday's technology itself, and no longer made sense for the flexible, agile organization you seek to evolve to.

While "Reconcile" may sound esoteric, this is where the rose-colored glasses of vision come off as HR leaders look realistically at their own environment: How does change work here? Does it? What is the history of past change initiatives, especially if they involved technology? Do we have the people in place to support the vision? Do the executives really believe in that vision -- enough to sustain their support for what might be a lengthy time? Is the timing right or is a digital transformation in HR competing with other key business initiatives that executives think may take precedence? What external business challenges is the company facing? Required also is very careful consideration of the existing and future workforce: What could backfire? Can I evaluate risk in my plan to better ensure success?

Don't panic. At this point the HR leader is ready to go to work. "Transform" is creating the action plan and executing it. There are many decision points that affect long-term success in this "let's begin" period. Creating the right team is essential and team members need dedicated time away from their day jobs to apply their best thinking to the new initiative. Ensuring that the executive champion is identified and bought in for the long term is also critical.

Additionally, creating realistic timelines is a goal that requires understanding of both business and HR cycles and their impact on the personnel working on the project. It also requires a solid understanding of the technology to be implemented and where it fits and integrates with other HR applications and the ERP, financial or other technology systems across the enterprise. Transition, rollout, employee training and product support strategies need to be created and documented. And importantly, the plan for long-term support for the reiterative new releases that are part of today's cloud tools requires careful consideration. Solely keeping up with the vendor's releases is insufficient to accommodate the innovation that is very likely part of your vision.

The big picture

In planning for a digital transformation, whether in all of HR or in a part of it -- such as recruiting and hiring or succession management -- it is important to understand at each junction where your executives and your team stand: Are they bought in and staying bought in? What do you as a change leader need to know to keep everyone on the same page as the project progresses? Digital With Impact provides a series of exercises that can provide a basis to in-house workshops for you and your team. There are 16 in all, which can prove starting points for understanding the project at hand and pose thoughtful questions which require addressing and can promote valuable understanding helpful in succeeding at the task that HR teams face.

Reading a book won't create a digital transformation in HR, but getting a practical understanding of the journey ahead and how to best think through that journey before you begin is imperative.

Dig Deeper on Core HR administration technology

Business Analytics
Content Management
and ESG