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Becky Norman


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HR technology: an interview with Marc Coleman, CEO and Founder of UNLEASH


Ahead of UNLEASH World Conference & Expo 2018, we caught up with Marc Coleman, CEO and Founder of UNLEASH, to find out what’s been happening in the HR tech space over the past year and how HR should be preparing for the future.

We spoke with you a year ago ahead of 2017’s HR Tech World in Amsterdam. What’s been happening in the HR tech space since then?

For us, the key change was rebranding the company and show to UNLEASH. ‘UNLEASH your people’ has been our mission statement since 2011, and we felt this was an important next step in our evolution after an exciting journey from a start-up to the world’s largest community on the Future of Work and HR Technology.

This year there are some new belles to the HR Tech Ball – a third wave of HR tech and service vendors are coming through, from the established players on the fringe to the exciting start-ups with the next generation of work solutions.

Those pioneering functions, which HR teams have spent the last couple of years innovating, digitising and transforming, are now looking at what is next while others play catch-up.

Indeed, certain tech trends (such as HR analytics) are moving at a snail’s pace and I fear we are trying to grasp onto new solutions without having grasped the previous one.

HR is slow and last to the table, and still struggling to drive innovation from an HR perspective. Most people innovation in organisations comes from other departments, teams and countries.

What excites you about the HR tech industry right now, and what concerns you?

What excites me the most is that we as a community have the opportunity to change the world of work.

What perhaps concerns me after a decade of research on global HR are the current levels of long-term financial wellbeing for many employees and the wealth distribution of the capitalist model being on its knees.

AI will create new industries and jobs, however against the population/exponential trajectories that are out there a jobless future for many is realistic, as it has been today for young generations in Southern Europe.

It’s more important than ever for companies to focus on their basic unit of worth – humans.

Other concerns include that of social media. I have always been a social media fan; however, like many friends in the industry, I see it increasingly being weaponised for trolling and profit, and the tech industry, which is making us addicted to these platforms, is stealing away a lot of happiness and productivity.

Do you think organisations are getting better at responding and adapting to digital disruption? Or do we still have a long way to go?

I believe it’s important to differentiate between digital disruption and digital transformation.

Digital disruption is probably best described as the process whereby existing business models are effectively broken or irrevocably altered by new technologies, often delivered by start-ups or new entrants into the space. For example, think what Apple did to the mobile phone industry or what Uber has done to taxis.

Digital transformation, on the other hand, is the process of adoption that established businesses go through because of competition from disruptors, or through the introduction of new technologies that best suit that organisation.

The established businesses that fail to adapt – to transform – will be disrupted by start-ups or established rivals that make the leap. However, a lot of established businesses are still wary of making the investment in technology and organisational change required to really transform themselves.

Conversely, the other factor is that as people and business leaders, we tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term but underestimate the impact in the long term. We expect everything to happen overnight when really, it’s more of an evolution. The message is ‘embrace change but be ready to play the long game’.

Why is it so important in today’s climate for businesses to be human-focused?

The fact that we have access to all of this transformative technology – from collaboration tools like Slack to machine learning and fledgling AI – is a double-edged sword.

It means we have the potential to run businesses more efficiently and to enable workers to collaborate even more effectively than it was possible before.

But it also means that mistakes or poor management decisions can be amplified more easily than ever. One tweet (think President Trump’s challenge to local businesses in U.S. like Harley Davidson), or one poorly worded email message (think the emails that used to go out from Stephen Elop at Nokia vs Satya Nadella at Microsoft), can damage morale or cost a company business.

If you look back a decade ago HR departments were all about trying to look good.

So, it’s more important than ever for companies to focus on their basic unit of worth – humans (whether they be customers, partners or employees).

Tech will help automate, enable and optimise. But, more importantly, the right people, with the right skills in the right seats will UNLEASH people’s real potential.

What questions should HR be considering today to help them prepare for an uncertain future of work?

What does my CEO need? What do our employees need? What does the business need immediately vs the nice to have? Do we have the company culture that will allow us to be successful in the future/through transformation?

What will HR transformation look like for the next three years? What kinds of talent, strategies, tools and agile frameworks does our business need to enable our people to thrive? How will the business change in the next five years and what skills, culture, leadership and competencies are needed to succeed?

I always think of my friend Nick Holley, Director of Henley Business School’s Centre for HR Excellence, when I hear this question. So to quote Nick here and give a sense of perspective of what we have experienced in the industry. Try not to be the “HR function that has solutions looking for problems that don’t exist”.

If you look back a decade ago HR departments were all about trying to look good: HR served HR and systems were designed for HR by HR and not for the employees, leaders or front-line managers. That’s all changed and is continuing to change. Happy days!

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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

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