Dimension Data's Michaela Voller on bots and other applications of HR tech

She says the HR profession is going through a tech-based evolution similar to what happened in the sales industry years ago.

Dimension Data’s HR Executive for Middle East and Africa Michaela Voller has extensive experience with ERP system changes and transitions. As someone who started her working career before the dawn of the internet, her field has evolved quite remarkably. When she worked at Deutshe Bank as a CRM specialist, the biggest project involved the introduction of a new system that streamlined the way clients queries were handled after clients complained about receiving different answers every time they made enquiries.

Years later, when she was with international law firm Simmons & Simmons, the company introduced an industry-specific CRM tool for the legal profession called Interactions. This was a project that required a shift in the culture of the organisation and was one of the hardest moments of her career because litigators are inclined to argue the reasons for doing things and thus more resistant to change. The law firm wanted to change their culture to be more sales oriented and that proved to be tougher than she expected. It did, however, give her an appreciation for the people component of such big systems changes. 

Says Michaela:

“Logically it was all very simple to do. But there will always be resistance to change when trying to tinker with things that people hold sacred within their working environment. When someone does not have a sales-based approach and you suddenly start measuring their performance based on that, it is understandable that they can feel like you have shifted the goalposts on them and that is something that needs to be managed very carefully.”

Sales game changer

When she was at asset management firm Schroders, she was involved in the rolling out of a tool called 'Salesforce', which was one of the first software-as-a-service applications at a time when large-scale ERP solutions were still very popular. All of a sudden, the power was put in the hands of the consumer because, instead of overhauling their systems with customised ERP solutions, customers could get one platform and pick and choose how they wanted to use it. It was a game changer. 

It was the birth of agile ERP and the beginning of a shift away from waterfall ERP systems. At the time, she didn't fully appreciate what a defining moment it was and how much it actually disrupted the sales world. It was the first platform that gave a 360-degree view of a client and was starting to provide insights into data that were never available before and it was followed by the birth of digital marketing. 

HR following suit

“What happened in the sales environment during that period is what is happening in HR today. There has been about a 10-year lag between those sales innovations and the birth of platforms like Workday and SAP success factors, which have put the power in the hands of the individual,” she says. “There is transparency and the data is freely available for all to see, while the interfaces have all made it incredibly user-friendly because they allow for the dragging and dropping of fields to make everything completely customisable. So I feel like I’m having a renaissance with HR at the moment.” 

Michaela believes her sales operations experience has allowed her to apply knowledge on how to make a sales force more effective to a broader audience in terms of getting an entire workforce to become more efficient. The combination of understanding a new operating model for HR, whereby the transaction itself is differentiated from the core workforce and the financial impact of people decisions, has been fascinating for her. 

"Workday is definitely going to be an enabler to do that and I think my understanding of relational databases, along with my appreciation of how configurations and rollouts of such systems work probably gives me an edge in a world where HR has been stale for quite a long time. But things are changing quite rapidly just as they did back when I was working in a sales context.” 

The robots are here

Dimension Data has been involved in understanding which processes can be taken over by robots, which is quite the hot topic in most industries and professions, including HR. However, robots are sometimes difficult to understand in the professional services context. In manufacturing, there are robots that literally build cars and in medicine, there are robots that can assist in performing surgeries and do stitches in places too small for human fingers. But in the HR space, robots are macros, which are less tangible but just as remarkable. 

As an example, Michaela refers to two robots in place at Dimension Data, one called Codey Mits, whose surname stands for ‘Mere ITS (Intelligent Transformation System), and another robot called Pippa, which screens CVs. “We normally get hundreds of applications for our graduate programme and what Pippa does is read all the CVs and pre-screens them, accelerating the processes of shortlisting candidates from one that takes three weeks to one that is done in three minutes,” says Michaela. Codey has an avatar and profile on the company's workday app and can be emailed like another employee. 'He' has a manager who is the company's head of robotics and does all the autonomous work that people don't like doing. There are many different things that Codey can do but, in the HR space, that work will primarily be around payroll.

Making work easier 

“Before we had people looking at spreadsheets, making decisions based on criteria that the organisation has given them an preparing those spreadsheets so that the broader organisation can make a decision whether it is an increase, a bonus or an expansion plan,” says Michaela. She believes that the fear in the market of the robots taking over is unwarranted because what they are actually doing is speeding up the mundane processes that people don’t enjoy doing. 

“The tagline I use internally is that 'we have had a robotic expectation of human performance for far too long'. And the real value of humans is that they have empathy and EQ and can make mistakes. So where we want a process delivered and done by a robot, we want it fast, accurate and it must be scaled. Robots are taking that mundane and tedious work away from people and allowing people to do the stuff they are more suited to,” she says, adding that robots are not effective in isolation and really need to have a human intervention. 

That is what makes the ethical decision-making component of work extremely important. When there is no robot speeding everything up, organisations have the leeway to correct decision-making as processes unfold, but with bots they have had to invest a huge amount of time up front in order to ensure that the robot does what it is intended to do.

Says Michaela:

“If you look at the millennial workforce, so many people long for a more balanced life. Three years ago people would always tell me how 'busy' they were and it was almost something to be proud of but now people are telling me that they are just overwhelmed. It used to be quite cool to say 'I'm so busy', but now it's 'I can't cope. I just want to go to the gym, have dinner with my family and work from eight-to-five like a normal person,' and I think robots have the potential to make that happen by giving us our lives back and allow us to create more human connections."