Workday-facilitated panel reveals transformation must be led by number-focused HR executives

Top HR executives share what it takes to lead their company's digital transformation journey at HR Indaba.

Digital transformation of the workplace is one of the most talked-about concepts in HR today. Yet, digital transformation won’t happen without a corresponding evolution among HR professionals. To lead their organisations effectively, HR needs to embrace cloud-based solutions, data analytics and a proactive approach to interventions.  

Facilitating a panel at the 2019 HR Indaba, Zuko Mdwaba, country leader at Workday South Africa, opened with a question on how the HR role is responding to technology. Workday is a cloud-based software provider that delivers financial and human capital management planning, and analytics applications to the world’s largest organisations. 

For Celiwe Ross, CHRO at Old Mutual, the biggest HR shift is that employees now seek a highly personalised workplace experience. They want an individualised approach to flexibility, remuneration, learning and performance. Employees have encountered top customers’ experiences with leading tech brands and they now demand a workplace that reflects what is possible. 

“We have to modernise the workplace. Executives understand the customer journey, so our role as HR is to explain why the employee experience has to match its customer experience,” said Celiwe. 

Vinolia Singh, chief people officer at Adcorp Group, believes that technology equips HR to address age-old challenges in new ways. According to Vinolia, top management is most concerned about retaining key skills and leadership talent. 

“Technology allows HR to be proactive. In a previous organisation, I was able use data to predict trends in the business. I understood where our core talent sat, could consider our possible flight risks and potential burnout. Here, we were able to implement interventions to retain this talent. In other instance, the data – a sudden spike in employees looking up budgeting tools – allowed us to address high levels of over-indebtedness.”  

Vinolia echoed Celiwe’s sentiments on employees seeking a more personalised approach. Adcorp’s workforce is made up of 52 percent millennials who seek to work in new ways. She noted that the permanent job is no longer the Holy Grail it once was – among all ages. 

“Employees may want to work nine months of the year and then take three-month sabbatical. It’s impossible to provide a highly personalised experience manually. You need to automate,” she said. 

Zuko referred to data as being the “new oil”. Both Celiwe and Vinolia agree that HR people can no longer shy away from the numbers. 
For Celiwe, embracing the numbers is welcomed. “At Old Mutual, more than 70 percent of the exco are actuaries and accountants, and have a strong affinity with numbers. They love the analytical rigour that HR is now able to bring to the table.” 

One the biggest opportunities enabled by technology is how it allows HR to consider the forward-looking numbers, and not simply the backward numbers – to be predictive and not just reflective.

Traditionally, the data in HR has been backward looking, measuring factors like absenteeism, performance, productivity and employment equity. As Celiwe commented: 

“An organisation can’t run looking in the rear-view mirror. We need to be forward looking. We need to understand and predict how our organisation will be disrupted in the future. The numbers side of HR has been hugely undervalued in the past.” 

For Vinolia, with a background in software engineering, analytical thinking skills and a passion for data are key attributes of the modern HR executive. “Traditional HR people are not going to transform your business.” In her career, she has found the HR department to be the most resistant to digital change. “The HR team always complain about the paperwork. Yet, when you offer to free them from the paperwork, they are the biggest resisters to change.” 

Much of this resistance stems from fear. Vinolia counsels staff members to be comfortable with change and adopt a more optimistic stance. 
“Don’t ask yourself how you can compete with a machine, but rather how you can partner with and augment a machine’s capabilities. What are you really uniquely good at, that a machine can never do? Machines rely on datasets to operate, but humans don’t.” 

Celiwe believes that technological change in the workplace is inevitable, despite resistance. “Technology is always changing. Your LinkedIn, Facebook and banking app are constantly updating in the background. How can we expect technology in the workplace to remain static? It’s a fallacy.”

Celiwe has been with Old Mutual for just over a year, and in this time she has kicked off the digital transformation journey. When she arrived, the organisation’s HR systems were outdated, underutilised and could be likened to a ‘Toyota Camry from 2000’. 

She selected Workday’s solutions as they allowed the company to shift gears quickly. “We had limited resources and many existing systems. We didn’t want to scrap every other system, and we wanted a vendor who could play in the sandpit with the other children.”