CHRO Smart Work Summit: The human capital revolution is here


The human aspect of transformation will prove to be more challenging than the technological aspects - and HR leaders will be leading the revolution in this regard.

The Mother City’s top HR leaders unpacked the challenges facing the discipline at the CHRO South Africa Smart Work Summit, which focused on how to work smarter, align the workforce with the organisation's technological needs, and balance the adoption of new technologies with the development of essential human skills.

The summit, held in partnership with principal partners Mercer Africa and Old Mutual corporate, executive partner Workday, and associate partner Ayanda Mbanga Communications, took place on 12 March 2024.

Located on the 16th floor, 180 Lounger in the Cape Town CBD, offered the elite group of CHROs unparalleled and uninterrupted views of the city, before the summit kicked off with Lindiwe Sebesho, MD for remchannel at Old Mutual, who spoke about how HR teams can now be the best business partners for organisation in light of this new world of work. 

“In the past, we've always spoken about being a strategic partner for business. This is where we are now, where we are expected as CHROs and human capital teams to bring together leaders that will enable all of us to work very smartly towards the achievement of the evolving problems that this new world also brings,” she said.

Unlearning and relearning

Next up was Zanele Njapha, also known as the Unlearning Lady, who led exercises on effective unlearning and relearning strategies.

Zanele challenged HR leaders on how they view their unlearning and relearning strategies. "The more practised your brain is when it comes to the strategic framework for smart work, the better prepared you are for the task at hand. The future is always changing. My thoughts are that it's not the future that we should be focusing on though, but rather we should focus on us when we prepare for smart work. What is around the corner is always changing. Our smart work approach relies on our capacity to shift.”

Organisations, she added, need to acknowledge that it is not enough to just look once when dealing with new ways of working in today's world.

“There is one reason why the second part of the framework is so important. When we speak about ‘not doing something’ at the brain level, we're working against ourselves, because where attention goes, we drive energy towards that. That is what our brain starts to focus on and we roll those neural pathways, rather than the pathways we want to go,” she said.

“That's why step number two, which is to look again, is so important because our focus needs to shift. When you learned how to drive, did you say to yourself: what do I need to do to unlearn not being able to drive? Unless someone has said that, it's our choice. Generally, that's not what we say, right? Because we understand that the more you learn something, the more you build a particular habit,” she added.

Zanele explained that habits sustain people, whether they are inspired or not

“If you can build a solid habit, you don't have to be excited, you don't have to be feeling really great that day but that habit will keep showing up for you,” she noted.

Adopting a mindset of continuous learning and challenging assumptions is the best way to stay responsive to changes, she concluded.

2024 and beyond

A presentation of the 2024 Human Capital Trends was then delivered by senior consultant at Mercer, Keletjo Chiloane, who said outcomes from the soon-to-be released report showed that from a change management standpoint, there's a significant task ahead.

“We are on the cusp of a revolution in how we work and how we live. Across all industries, we hear organisations talking about how technology continues to impact their business processes. As organisations aim to do more with less, transformation plans are taking ground and are being driven by anticipated productivity gains. Makes sense as AI is believed to drive up productivity. In this report, we find that 98 percent of companies are planning a transformation in 2024, with the primary driver being an increase in workforce productivity,” she said.

Keletjo, however, cautions that with all this transformation there is a human aspect that is hard to navigate.

“The human aspect of transformation proves more challenging than the technological aspects. It's imperative for organisations to proactively enable their workforce to acclimate to the evolving work landscape and bridge any skill disparities,” she said.


No black and white in human ROI

After a networking break filled with delectable nibbles and drinks, the audience had the opportunity to engage with a distinguished panel made up of Diana Johnson, area head of HR for Sub-Saharan Africa at British American Tobacco; Bronwynne Bester, CPO at Oceana and Germinah Nyikana, HR director at Clicks.

The panel discussion, aptly titled The Productivity Paradox, was geared towards exploring how technology adoption can be an obstacle to productivity gains and how to counter those challenges.

Diana, who spoke earnestly, said measuring productivity as an indicator of return on investment is something that can lead to false conclusions, “When you look at the return on investments of any project, regardless of whether it’s tech-based or not, the investment and productivity are not always correlated. Productivity is so subjective - particularly in humans. It varies from person-to-person depending on their mental health, motivation, family situation, self-awareness.”

Germinah added that the productivity paradox is not only about technology investments, but more about bringing the people along on a journey.

“Any change or initiative that has a significant capital outlay attached to it, tends to underperform in comparison to expectations. This can apply at the operations level, and to HR initiatives such as L&D. When we introduced e-learning, we thought it would solve all our skills challenges and training goals. What we didn’t realise was that people had become accustomed to training at a designated time and place where they could get into learning mode,” she said.

Put the learning responsibility back onto employees, she advised, and make them feel like they have to deliver on their work and find time to learn while also handling family and personal needs.

“Then we wondered why employees didn’t buy our message of being committed to work-life integration. It is all about context, right? Not all of us are afforded the same flexibility and luxuries within our roles in organisations,” she explained.

Bronwynne left Cape Town CHROs with a few points to ponder as the panel discussion drew to a close..

“I think this paradox is made worse by the complexities of implementing ERP systems and their associated costs and efforts. The reality is that technology like automation isn’t complete without significant manual intervention resulting in what I call touching work more than once. In order to succeed we need to bring the work back to the work, address the unwillingness by users to change the way they work, better manage the change management or the training,” she concluded.

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