Bersin: Massive Disruption for HR

Companies are living in a paradox right now: Brilliant new technology is flooding the workplace and changing business models, and yet, employee productivity and engagement levels are going down in the U.S. and around the world, said Josh Bersin during his closing keynote at this year’s HR Tech Conference.

“Within the last two years, 90 percent of companies have said their business models are under disruption by technology and the problem isn’t the technology—it’s the people,” said Bersin, principal at Bersin by Deloitte. Employees lack the skills to use the technology properly and companies can’t find the people who do, he said.

A big part of the problem, said Bersin, is “the overwhelmed employee.” “One of the most popular pieces my team has ever written is about this phenomenon,” he said. “Technology is doing things to us. It not only affects our productivity but our personal lives as well.”

Employees are being bombarded by emails and texts, at all hours of the day in some cases, and are suffering from FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” said Bersin. They’re stressed over which message to respond to first. All of this is undermining productivity and engagement. The solution, he said, is to find ways to help employees be more productive in the face of this constant change. But how?

The structure of work must be changed, said Bersin. The most cutting-edge companies, like Amazon and Cisco, are doing away with hierarchy and replacing it with teams. At Cisco alone, he said, 20,000 different teams are working on a variety of projects. What’s notable, he pointed out, was that none of this was reflected in the company’s HR database. HR departments—and the vendors that serve them—aren’t adapting their services and tools to support organizations that will increasingly resemble a network of teams.

“This really concerns me,” said Bersin.

Automation is also remaking the nature of work, with Deloitte research showing that 38 percent of companies expect to be fully automated within five years, he said. Seventy-seven percent of companies anticipate that automation will result in “better jobs,” while only 20 percent expect it will result in job reductions. More than 50 percent of companies plan to retrain their employees to work side by side with robots and artificial intelligence. The problem, he said, is that in 65 percent of those companies, HR is not involved in these efforts at all.

“My message is this: You guys have to be involved in the recrafting of work around automation,” Bersin told his audience.

The HR tech vendor community has plenty of tools to offer in this and other areas, with money pouring into the sector from venture capital funds, he said. “HR tech is now a hot marketplace—since 2014, VCs have invested $5.5 billion in HR tech start-ups.”

Meanwhile, more established vendors are investing heavily in making their core HR products more appealing to end users, with ease of use a primary objective. “We used to rate HR software on the number of features it had,” said Bersin. Now, he said, it’s judged based on how quickly employees can master it to become more productive.

The hottest area of investor interest is talent acquisition, said Bersin, with new funding and innovation making it “an incredibly dynamic space,” spurred by record-low unemployment rates that have led to “an arms race among employers to arm themselves with data and create a wonderful employee experience.”

Video interviewing is seeing some of the biggest strides in innovation, he said, with vendors like HireVue creating tools that “can capture a million data elements from one 15-minute interview.”

These tools can analyze candidates’ “micro-expressions” to determine, for example, whether they’re unsure about their answers to questions and assess their micro-expressions against those of the company’s top-performing employees, said Bersin.

Another area that’s seeing lots of disruption is performance management, with “continuous assessment” replacing the annual year-end reviews that Bersin jokingly referred to as “drive-by shootings.”

“I’ve been through around 46 of those myself, and out of all of them, maybe one was a pleasant experience,” he said.

A number of vendors are building tools for continuous assessment, coming at it from “a number of different directions, and the question of how to select the right one is going to be an ongoing challenge for you,” Bersin told the audience. The good news is that continuous assessment—although it can initially feel disruptive to employees—typically leads to increased engagement, he said.

Learning is another sector of HR tech that’s become a hotbed of innovation. “I’m heartened to see that after a period of stagnation, there’s a lot going on, especially in the areas of micro-learning and continuous learning,” said Bersin.

He predicted that the market for employee well-being tools and services “will explode,” noting that “well being” has been steadily trending upward as a Google search term since 2004.

“The idea of corporate well-being has been around for 200 years,” said Bersin. “But it was previously focused on things like safety and reducing insurance rates. Yet as we’ve become more overwhelmed as employees, we’ve changed the issue to be one about human performance—as in, help us learn how to be healthy and well and productive at work.”

“There could be an entire HR tech conference just on well-being—that’s how huge it is,” he said.

From people analytics to performance management, HR technology is being brought to bear on the employee experience, said Bersin: Giving employees the tools and knowledge they need to be productive and well in a period of sustained change.

“The bottom line is, HR tech is reinventing itself,” he said.