Digital and HR: collaborating for digital transformation

By Richard Gold, Associate Director at Transform UK

“Really enjoyed the day. One of the best workshops I’ve been to in a while.” (Event attendee)

Feeling privileged to have spent a day with a passionate and engaged group of HR and digital executives at Transform’s We Need to Talk: a Digital and HR Summit which I co-hosted along with Steve Hearsum from Roffey Park.

The event was based on the idea that greater understanding and collaboration between digital and HR people could be the key to unlocking the next level of digital transformation; the detail of what to talk about was up to the participants and we figured out the agenda on the day*. The objective was to generate shared insights that would stimulate participants to go back to their organisations to continue a cross-discipline conversation. The people who accepted the invitation were a wonderfully eclectic mix of Digital Operations, Digital Change/ Transformation, HR and Learning & Development executives from private, public and third sector.

As might be expected given the profile of people there, the discussions tended to be focused around culture: how to engage people across the organisation; how to ensure everyone in the organisation has the right skills for their roles in the digital age; and how digital and HR people could work together more practically.

But one thing that stuck out for me was the value (even amongst disparate organisations) of simply having a high-level discussion across two different disciplines — not just about specific transactional issues, but around creating alignment around context of what needs to happen and ambition for change. It seems to be something that doesn’t happen very often.

There was reassurance (and some terror) in realising that the concerns they felt were mirrored and not addressed in other organisations; even just posing the questions with colleagues from a different organisational silo increased confidence in going back to their organisations with a shared sense of the complexity of the challenge and the need intentionally to work together.

Some of the common themes that emerged during the day were:

  • Culture: perhaps it’s not helpful to talk about ‘Digital Culture’. Either it’s just about being forward looking; or perhaps it’s about shifting to an outward facing “Customer Culture”.
  • Vision: do we do enough to get clear on the long term goal and identify the indicators of progress along the way in the cultural and behavioural shifts that will get us there?
  • Engagement: can making digital refuseniks into digital champions be a way to drive adoption — there’s no better advocate than the converted; can you upskill an entire organisation (as AT&T is attempting to do) or is there a generational shift that needs to happen so that you focus on hiring for attitude more than skills
  • Decision making: how do you encourage leaders to delegate more? The different pace of decision making in digital (often Agile) environments causes tensions between digital teams and those working more traditionally in other parts of the organisation; and it means leaders need to know when to delegate and when to intervene within a whole new process
  • Collaboration: there was discussion around how HR has access to the wider business and the ability to pull many of the levers that would drive change; but also a sense that HR people needed support in understanding which levers to pull

Most tellingly, there was an acceptance, while they had a lot of issues in common, that there was a need for each organisation to create its own narrative; for participants to go back and develop a cross-functional conversation to fit their specific needs.

Naturally, there was also a yearning for answers, examples of where organisations were doing the right things. But perhaps taking the time to engage with and explore different perspectives — with ears and minds, rather than mouths, open — is the right first thing to do.

* This was a ‘different’ kind of event with no agenda, no presentations — only a topic and a desire to share — agreed in advance. We used LEGO® Serious Play® to rapidly build a sense of team among a disparate group of people and to stimulate and surface thinking about the issues they individually faced and wanted to discuss; then we collaboratively set the agenda and ran the discussion as an Open Space session, surfacing the issues that the participants on the day wanted to talk about.