Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
August 5, 2019

Lessons from the Intersection of HR and Technology

By Spencer Stuart's Human Resources Practice

We’re not always aware that we’re in the middle of a technological revolution. We now take for granted that our entire lives are on our phones and that anything we want — from takeout to laundry detergent — can be at our doorsteps with just a simple swipe. We know that technology is similarly changing how we work. At our 12th Annual HR Leaders Reception in New York, we talked with human resources leaders who are at the leading edge of bridging digital with the people side of the business:

Nalin Miglani, CHRO and Executive Vice President at EXL
Christine Pambianchi, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Verizon and former Executive Vice President of People & Digital at Corning 
Brian Welle, Vice President of People Analytics & Performance Management at Google 

They shared their learnings from applying technology to address some of the most critical HR issues from boosting employee engagement to tying talent to outcomes.

Feeling connected requires planning
When you have thousands of employees around the world, just coordinating a conference call can be a challenge. Technology has made much of that easier (e.g., videoconferencing, instant messaging platforms, etc.), but additional effort is required to foster a personal connection. Google did a project to examine how distributed teams could work better. The learning: It’s about much more than the technology. “What we found is the principles that make in-person teams effective — psychological safety, dependability among your colleagues, clarity of vision and goals — matter even more when people are distributed,” said Welle. “It's like there's a multiplier for people being distributed. All the things that we take naturally being face-to-face, you actually have to put a plan around it because the natural stuff doesn't translate well when you don't actually get to see a person close up.”  

Lessons from the Intersection of HR and Technology
(from left) Tom Scanlan of Spencer Stuart's HR Practice moderates the discussion with Nalin Miglani, Brian Welle and Christine Pambianchi.

Purpose is a major motivator

Another key component of helping people feel connected is to underscore the purpose of their work. While many tend to look at employees by functional roles, Miglani found that people do not come to work viewing themselves by discipline, but as part of a bigger picture: “They are not thinking of themselves as HR people or analytics people or marketing people. They are thinking of themselves as problem solvers.”

According to Pambianchi, a major role of HR leaders is to help ensure that people understand the overall goal of their work — or risk undermining progress. “Do people understand the real goal of your company? Is it to make money? Is it to hit a certain gross margin? Is it to hit a certain customer level and go public? You'd be amazed how many of these problems go downstream because at the end, there just aren’t three simple sentences that everybody walks around and says, ‘This is what we're actually trying to do here.’”

Data can tie people to business outcomes
Data can help connect business performance and people, as well as point to obstacles to high performance. EXL leveraged its HR analytics team to evaluate segments of the company’s population and their contributions to the overall business. “What we found was that our answers were mostly in the business areas,” said Miglani. “We didn't find answers such as this leader is better than that leader, or these guys have a better program than that one. We found that this segment was creating more value because it was working at a different level of technology, or that segment was creating more value because it had a different pricing model.”

Don’t overlook the emotional side of performance management

One of the main roles of HR is to help employees set objectives and evaluate their progress. “Performance management is a tool,” observed Welle. “It's a very powerful tool because the things that matter the most to us are attached to that: emotions and compensation.”

While the approach of stack ranking individuals has drawn criticism, Pambianchi observed that people will compare themselves to others regardless, so it is up to HR to establish a more effective system: “There is an inherent pre-wired element of our psyche where people want to know ‘how am I doing and how do I stack up?’ If you choose to not have a system, don't think for a minute your managers and your employees aren't making up their own buckets.” It’s the role of HR leaders to help establish a consistent methodology for measuring individual performance and setting goals — and aligning them with the overall strategic objectives of the organization.   

Reminder: Technology doesn’t solve everything

When it comes to people, algorithms can only go so far. “Even if you can do something, it doesn't always mean it's the right thing to do,” said Welle. “HR still has the ‘H’ in it.” HR leaders will need to continue to ensure that the “human” element of the function is better served by technology. Pambianchi posed an important question for all HR leaders to consider as they look ahead: “We’re sitting on HR principles that were designed 30 years ago. Is that still a good idea in 2019 when there are so many other ways employees can express their interests and their capabilities can be assessed?”