Spotlight on HR’s role in people embracing technology at HR Indaba Conversations


Panellists discussed how HR can be a catalyst for helping people on the automation journey.

Under the broader theme of ‘talking tech’ a panel of HR experts discussed the challenges and opportunities being faced by organisations as bots and other automation platforms take over day-to-day functions.

The HR Indaba Conversation, was sponsored by Lexis Nexis, and the company’s HR director, Gcobisa Ntshona, pointed out that Covid-19 showed us that the environment we work in can shift and change, and that you can’t always mandate productivity, but you can provide your people with tools to be their best.

Vinolia Singh, Adcorp’s group executive human capital, is a software engineer by training who has worked at Multichoice and Discovery, and knows all too well the struggles of coming into HR with a technical background. She said that people often have a fear or suspicion of technology and even more so when they don’t understand data and analytics or how to make decisions from them.

She added that HR professionals need to be ready to experiment and learn. “There are so many tools and content to help you become more aware and astute around tech,” she said. “Don’t become intimidated.”

Tony Smith, Unilever’s HR director supply chain southern Africa, echoed this. He works in an industry where there are thousands of people along long manufacturing and supply chains, “When introducing automation, immediately people think job losses and unions get concerned. In some instances, at first people don’t think the changes apply to them. But we are already living in the future where tech is part of our lives,” he noted.

He said that HR and leadership need to define what future looks like, and what people can do to prepare. “People need to understand why we are adopting new tools, the role of technology and how the changes can increase our capacity to produce more. It’s not designed to make them redundant.”

He also added that in non-digital environments such as in factories, it was important to tailor communications for the end audience. “We do town halls, set up spaces where people can log into virtual meetings, and set up small training centres where people can access computers.”

Working alongside the bots
However, challenging the issues, Jasmin Pillay, Microsoft’s director of HR consulting, Middle East and Africa, Global, said that only those with a learner’s mindset are going to survive the current and future world of work. She said, “You can’t stay in the same place and work the same way. There is no choice, because the world is changing so rapidly.

“If we stop learning we cut ourselves off from opportunities. The future is already here, and Covid-19 has accelerated five- to 10-year journeys into one year. Jobs will go away and change, they will morph and change. HR needs to figure out which technology is coming at us, how it is going to help us, and what the skills required around that are.”

Vinolia said it was important to help people think about technology as an augmenter and that it’s about running alongside the robots and not being replaced by them. She said that bots still need humans to run the agenda: “As HR the question is, how do we get people ready so they don’t become redundant? If a technology is going to disrupt a process, as HR we need to show how people how the change is going to affect their human capital value and train them to close the new gaps, become more valuable and get reskilled.”

Jasmine admitted that coming from a technology company, they know that it is wonderful to have to tools, but when the rubber hits the road, having meaningful conversations around data and analytics requires human minds.

Vinolia agreed and attributed part of her success to turning technical language into business meaning that others around her can benefit from.

Tony said ‘show and tell’ is a powerful tool. “At Unilever we pilot and test and as part of our engagement, share the success we have had, bring technology to people by engaging on it on a more regular basis and this brings it closer to people and helps to abate fear.”

Making HR and technology come together in a meaningful manner
The experts agreed success occurs when HR tackles real problems and technology offers the enablers, tools, data and analytics to drive effective decision-making.

Vinolia said that in order for HR to reach its full potential, it was time to have a mindset shift from ‘compete to share’.

She said, “As an HR community we have a tendency to withhold knowledge. Now is the time be open about best practices and share lessons. There is no need for us to continue to pay fees for teams that have done an implementation because we are not learning from each other, which will reduce costs and allow us to achieve greater efficiency quicker.”

As an example, Jasmine shared that Unilever and Microsoft had partnered on a skilling initiative. She added that in South Africa with all it complexities, as corporate citizens we have to contribute together, and jointly develop professionals and capabilities that benefit our entire society.

Gcobisa agreed and said that partnerships, whether they are internal or external, are key, saying that we can benefit from alliances where there is an alignment of capabilities and requirements.

Ability to experiment
The conversation revealed that a mindset of exploration is more important. Tony shared that at Unilever, lifelong learning is company value and they have committed that every employee has to be future fit by 2025.

He said, “In doing so, HR needs to understand what the company’s future plans are, where automation is going to be adopted, and aligning people to those changes.”

The company created a €2 million fund to come up with innovative ideas on bringing technology to the factory floor, where the employees themselves would offer ideas on how to build the factory of the future. They also have to outline how they would scale the innovation and whether it can be replicated. The initiative garnered such enthusiasm and input the fund was doubled to €5 million.

Tony says opening up the floor for people at all levels to be architects of the future is part of Unilever’s global commitment to creating jobs.

“Things like equity, diversity and inclusion are important to us and when moving to automation, some of the real work is around addressing technology inequality. In our training we try to identify people who will be champions, share the journey of how their factory made certain changes. This transfers skills across factories, but also tempers the fears that many workers may have.”

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