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At SHRM conference, HR prepares for the next crisis

The SHRM conference this week took stock of the economic challenges facing HR managers, as well as some business policies and tech moving up in importance.

The Society for Human Resource Management's conference in New Orleans began with a stark assessment that after managing COVID-19, HR managers must now prepare for the impact of an economic downturn. More than 15,000 were at the New Orleans conference, also held virtually, to hear about what's ahead.

Johnny Taylor, president of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a professional association with more than 300,000 members, was unsparing in his assessment of the next challenge.

"In some ways, we replaced one crisis for another," Taylor said at the conference this week. "What appears to be a recession or a serious slowing of the economy is coming." Despite 11 million open jobs and a 3.6% unemployment rate, "employers large and small have begun announcing layoffs." 

"Our employees are scared," he said. 

In his keynote speech, Taylor quickly pivoted to the increasing importance of HR in a time of crisis. 

"COVID actually presented a once-in-a-lifetime value opportunity for the HR profession: to show our value and be valued," he said.

The changes to HR seem to be arriving rapid-fire. One area getting attention is the rising interest in alternative credentials, such as skill certification, versus college degrees. Taylor called the emphasis on skills in hiring "one of the most striking changes I've experienced in my entire career."

In one session, BMW Manufacturing Co. described how it uses AR and VR to train workers and how it is testing the use of machine learning and image recognition to improve safety on the manufacturing floor. Attendees also heard about more mundane tech at the conference, such as the importance of a good camera in video meetings. 

AR and VR training "can offer opportunities that we never had in the past to produce both scalable and engaging training," said Joe Ziska, manager of HR planning and steering at BMW, during a presentation at SHRM.

BMW began its AR and VR efforts in 2016 by working with a vendor, Strivr Labs Inc., to provide some basic training that instructed manufacturing employees on how to keep their work area free of clutter. It then began more sophisticated instruction on parts assembly. In 2020, the automaker decided to move AR and VR training development entirely in-house, ending the vendor partnership. 

A sampling of the SHRM benefits survey findings
Benefits offered by HR during a time of crisis.

Advice for HR

Ziska's advice to HR managers interested in launching their own program was this: If you are creating AR and VR training for just a handful of team members "it may take more time and energy" to develop the training "than you're getting value-added out of it," he said. 

BMW's HR department also uses AI and machine learning technologies to create safer facilities. It uses camera image recognition to identify areas of risk, such as interactions between a forklift and a worker. The system will determine the distances between two moving objects to uncover potentially dangerous situations, Ziska said. They are now doing targeted pilots in warehouses.

"Once we have enough information, we can build a statistical model," Ziska said. "Based on this, we can identify where are the most commonly trafficked parts of the floor." If the system identifies a problem, it may trigger a siren or strobe light to warn someone that "there's a risk for you here," Ziska said. 

I wouldn't be surprised if SHRM 2032 is held in the metaverse.
Joe ZiskaManager of HR planning and steering, BMW Manufacturing Co.

"Many industries are going to be disrupted by these technologies in the future," Ziska said. "I wouldn't be surprised if SHRM 2032 is held in the metaverse." 

BMW's HR department is doing a lot with cutting-edge technology, but that's not always the case for HR managers. 

"We have to be involved with technology," Valerie Grubb, an executive coach and trainer, told SHRM conference attendees. "HR can't leave the technology for others in the organization to deal with." 

HR should be proactive in asking, for instance, whether it's possible to automate something. "You don't need to know all the technology," Grubb said. "It's about being able to have those conversations."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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