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Technology Enables Strategic HR

By Paula S. Larson, EVP and CHRO, Newell Rubbermaid

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Paula S. Larson, EVP and CHRO, Newell Rubbermaid

When a Human Resources organization, like ours at Newell Rubbermaid, is transforming from a transactional model to a strategic service delivery model, the role of technology cannot be overstated. Technology not only enables the transformation, it’s the most important gateway to data that in turn allows us to make strategic decisions. It’s a game changer.

“You may have the best-of-breed technology or application, but if you have to build additional layers of “wiring” to connect it to other current systems, it can make the technology cost-prohibitive”

But when we talk about the role of technology we have to be careful not to suggest this enabler is ‘the answer.’ It is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Shifting from one model to the other means freeing up time so people can do the necessary work with far fewer intervening layers that makes usability an imperative. You have to take the work that often has people opening up old statistics books and old research books and wire that into the technology so they are more focused on value-added analyses and insights. This falls on great developers of new technology to truly understand and be accountable to the fields for which they’re designing. Listening to the ‘wise sages’ of those industries allows developers to support organizations with best-in-class solutions.

Another imperative that becomes financially and pragmatically important is the ability to connect new technology to the technology ecosystem that the rest of the business uses. You may have the best-of-breed technology or application, but if you have to build additional layers of “wiring” to connect it to other current systems, it can make the technology cost-prohibitive. HR is expected, like any part of the business, to show a return on investment for any new systems. We have to make the case that the new technology makes us more efficient and effective. So, we look for technology that, by producing streamlined, repeatable processes ensures a leap forward in HR capabilities; the result is that people spend less time in HR on manual processes such as performance reviews via ‘spreadsheets on steroids,’ and more time on analyses and insights to enable meaningful forward-looking conversations. Doing our Talent Roadmap (succession planning) historically required HR professionals to compile intense amounts of information manually. Of course that seems archaic today, but that’s because technology has made the process more efficient, saving us more time for understanding the data at hand and proposing more high-impact solutions at all levels in the organization. That’s the payback…but there’s a flip side.

In an effort to ensure fairness, ease of use for people leaders, and overall calibration of raters, you could over-engineer the process. When that happens there’s a tendency to think you can just rely on the data. But, frankly, you can’t just take the data on face value. Looking at scores alone, for example, won’t give you the whole story. You have to know how to pull in qualitative data so you end up with a fuller profile rather than a one-dimensional report of numbers. You still need human analysis. When you’re ranking someone in performance systems, for example, are you going to take a 4.2 or a 4.6 on face value? Are you going to assume the data had more rigor than it was supposed to have or that the leader used consistent behaviorally-based rating scales to carefully arrive at these ratings? It may look like it’s measuring what it’s supposed to measure when it’s really false precision or the variance between raters calls for much more scrutiny.

Perhaps two of the most significant advantages that technology has brought to HR as well as other functions, are intimacy and immediacy. Together they make the world smaller, and that makes it easier to support global leaders. Technology that easily and quickly connects people around the world ‘face to face’ allows us to get far richer analyses; we’re not only hearing from the team in the room or in the building, but from far-reaching parts of the world. The implications cannot be overestimated. The ability to bring guests to the table virtually, from Atlanta to London, London to Shanghai, Shanghai to Sao Paolo, absolutely allows us to find the best HR solutions because we’re getting voices from different constituents and thus improving our analytical accuracy as well as a higher trust in the data being utilized.

Because technology is allowing HR to make such a dramatic shift in the way we support our organizations, the profile of an HR professional is changing. Strategic HR can be a challenge if the only reason you do HR is the classic “because you like people.” We do want strong people advocates, but we absolutely need people who can interpret data and connect the dots between analysis and solutions. I’m hopeful that students who are studying HR in their undergraduate and graduate courses are learning how to work with the new technologies that power HR today. They need to master data analytics, good research methods, and continuous improvement, all within a technology ecosystem supported approach. The HR professional of today is tech-ready, business-savvy, and hungry to add value, whether it’s cracking engagement opportunities globally, or challenging leaders when a default solution to manage cost is to cut headcount when the data analysis may point in the direction of a huge potential to increase productivity in the short-term. A ‘reflex’ to cut headcount, in this case, left unchallenged means a big hit on workforce planning and more cost even a year later.

Whether it’s better wiring for the business, better data for the function or the ability to make a global business a close-knit neighborhood of stakeholders, technology enables conversation. We need to spend more time having informed conversations with people if we, as an HR function, want to provide better service than we’re able to provide to date in many companies. That’s the future of HR underpinned by technology and here, at Newell Rubbermaid, the transformation is happening now!

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