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Kate Wadia

Phase 3 Consulting

Former Managing Director

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HR past and future: time-travelling at HR Tech World in Amsterdam


We are all obsessed by the future, but get stuck in the past and can’t move forwards. Our obsession with the future is generally thought to be a pretty good thing, but getting stuck in the past is seen as something to be avoided at all costs.

Attending industry events gives us space to notice our fascination for what’s next, rather than what’s now.

I was lucky enough to travel (geographically!) with Jamie and the HRZone team to HR Tech World (now Unleash) in Amsterdam recently. HR Tech World treats HR delegates to the very best of new HR systems and their potential, themed this year as the ‘Future of Work.’

Some of the highlight features for HR look excitingly close to a new reality, including:

  • Interactive, natural-language chatbots for HR admin – more than a YouTube vision video and now available for demo
  • Platforms opened to partner “ecosystems” – and ready to work with multiple providers
  • Learning libraries achieved through content curation systems
  • Automated coaching and tools for talent-tapping of passive candidates , to help us manage internal progression, as well as to win that old war for talent.

This without touching the start-up stands…

But one of the lesser knowns did stand out to me. I spotted an app which captures bio data to report on mental and physical stress and strain through the day – an example of the ironic deployment of digital to stop itself from taking over.

And I suspect I join an overwhelming audience majority taking true inspiration from Arianna Huffington’s story of her own “unleashing” from technology.

With this came her new company, Thrive Global. Thrive sets out to offer the leadership, capabilities and culture model to redefine measures of success to recognise that productivity results from wellness, creativity and innovation rather than a relentless power trip.

Heartening, holistic and human stuff.

Artificial Intelligence feels futurist to HR too, continuing to dominate press and marketing agendas. But notice subtle redefinitions of AI as the now-available technology, which includes some capability we defined some months ago as that of the future.

The bit we’ve achieved we relegate out of AI scope, as if we risk devaluing something whizzy as it moves from potential to actual technology.

By the way, analytics is not the future: that’s now. David Green, of IBM, showed us how the UK and Europe lag so very far behind the States in this regard and points to some of our local concerns for the ethics and securities concerns with data that are also so very topical.

So the showcase event of the year in HR systems feeds futurist fascination: with keynote leaders Arianna Huffington and Josh Bersin showing us the way ahead.

Developers, you make my jaw drop. Halfway. Because herein lies the rub:

Our two-day time-travelling with people technology inspires our sense of awe at what’s next and for happy moments we imagine we’re there!

You may have felt similar at CIPD or the like, returning perhaps then to an inbox that was far too much of ‘today’ for your liking.

Johnny Campbell’s opening of the HR tech stage at the conference signposted delegates to the case study sessions, pointing out that those stories are all about the now. I sat amongst an HR/IT practitioner round-table, hosted by Jason Averbook.

The questions these leading practitioners want answered are back-to-basics on HR systems:

  • how do we get the best foundation platform?
  • Should we integrate? What place should payroll take?
  • Which workers need to go into our master data model?

We’re assuming AI and “big data” are about the future. Or among the present if you’re one of the leaders.

Let us accept this: big data and intelligent learning systems rely on the past. New capabilities take huge volumes of the micro-stories of recent history and learn from them to derive insight.

At HR Tech World I’d guess delegates view futuristic HR vision with some mix of fantasy or fear.

Either I suggest is best tempered with an acceptance and appreciation that where we move to relies both upon knowledge from the past, plus practical steps to take based on the here-and-now.

Time travelling backwards takes place at the professional events in another way too. The keynote leaders (and yes, Arianna Huffington was staggering! Do read her books) offer a role model to copy from what’s gone before, which brings professional comfort.

A clue is that I was asked to write for the conference organisers about trends in business psychology, where the big thing is mindfulness.

To be mindful could not be more present. It could not be further than big data if it tried (which it must not!).

I feel sure that Arianna Huffington would agree.

To whizz back to the future, a glimpse of the latest HR systems stuff leaves me looking forward to a personal end-of-year take on the trends that I reckon will really come to digital life within our businesses in 2018 and soon after.

Josh Bersin, just as impressive on stage as on Bersin by Deloitte paper, underlines one key point:

No longer do our employees and businesses expect less than people technology can provide. Software providers now need to work hard to keep up with that demand. And if HR lag still further, behind the providers, then we do need to get our time-travelling Tardis out. Or at least take HS2.

We are captivated by the future, comforted by the past and consumed by the present. I’m no Doctor Who, but I do suggest that HR need to join up some dots.

I leave Amsterdam emboldened that it’s the right thing to do to learn past lessons and use those to look ahead towards ambitious things in HR.

Make real that strategic plot via informed steps to take forward from where we are today.

Author Profile Picture
Kate Wadia

Former Managing Director

Read more from Kate Wadia

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