Is the future of HR, no HR?

HR's fate can go either way in the unknowable future – can leaders keep the odds in their favour?

Is the future of HR, no HR?

Will HR become a strategic or redundant function in the future of work?

As industry leaders pave the way to change the perception of HR from transactional to transformational, concerning studies may cast a doubt on whether HR is doing enough to raise its position in the organisation.

A recent quick poll of 1,200 professionals by TimesJob found that one in five employees believe HR will become redundant with rising automation. HR topped the list of functions ‘most likely’ to become redundant, followed by those in production and operations.

And while upskilling is thought to be a crucial factor to ensure relevancy and increase the success of transformation, HR continues to be prioritised least by leaders for upskilling opportunities.

A study by HubSpot Academy found that only about 54% of HR professionals are encouraged to attend classes and courses to acquire new skills. In contrast, 71% of employees in marketing, 78% in IT and 66% in finance are pushed by leaders to raise their upskilling efforts and remain savvy.

Will automation make HR redundant?
Of course, those are only two limited studies that highlight HR’s ongoing challenges in the quest for genuine transformation: a lack of leadership support and sceptical employees.

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They are by no means a fail-proof prediction of HR’s future in the changing world of work. What’s more, they shouldn’t feed into HR’s fear of being permanently replaced and drive professionals away from adopting vital HR technology.

After all, HR tech should significantly lessen the ‘paper pushing and transaction processing tasks’ of HR, which will in turn empower them to act more like ‘business partners’ and participate more extensively in the strategic side of business, as quoted in a PwC study.

But how much of AI and technology will take over HR? A poll by CareerBuilder found that more than half (55%) of HR leaders believe that AI will be a regular part of HR in the next five years.

Thankfully, most respondents said the thought of AI in HR does not make them nervous, and only 7% believe that a robot can actually perform their role.

However, another TimesJob survey aimed at top leadership found that 26% of CHROs still see technologies like AI and automation as a threat. Just under half (44%) of respondents believe that automation has the potential to displace CHROs in future – but another 42% don’t think it’ll happen in the immediate future.

How can HR become more strategic?
Despite the mixed feelings towards technology, 74% of CHROs still think HR tech will aid their roles. As many as one in three said that CHROs are emerging business leaders who play a vital role in executive leadership.

And if their roles have yet to transform, close to half of CHROs are certain they will become a business leader in the next five years.

Additionally, more than 36% of CHROs said that their roles have evolved from being a talent strategist to functional leaders.

So how can leaders swing the pendulum in their favour?

“In a decade, HR is either going to be the strongest, most important function in the company because strategy, business planning and transformation [teams] will all report to HR, or there will be no HR,” Varun Bhatia, Chief People and Culture Officer at AirAsia told HRD.

“HR will become an administrative function reporting into [another function]. Those are the two scenarios and clearly it will be one or the other. Different companies might go on different paths. It’s not going to be one or the other for the entire [HR] world.”

Bhatia was firm on his stance of how HR can go one way or another.

“I think it’ll really depend on the leadership in HR,” he said. “These are people who are going to change that path. If our leaders in HR can show that they are strategic, that they can partner the business, transform the business, I think we will have a different seat at the table.”

He explained that strong HR leaders can make way for HR to be among executives who define the company’s business strategy along with the CEO. HR will also be able to drive the organisation’s transformation agenda and make crucial decisions on future digital investments.

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However, he warned that if the leader is not strategic, HR will disappear as a function and simply turn into a sub-function in the organisation.

“I think it depends on how we invest in ourselves and in HR, and one of the investments is in technology,” he said. “If we can’t get some of the basic things done through technology, we will be consumed by doing the administrative tasks. We will not be able to do what we [want to] strategically. That’s why it’s really important that we make these investments in technology.”

One of AirAsia’s recent HR investments include Workday’s cloud technology for HCM to its 22,000 employees, called Allstars, globally. Rolled out last year, the system enables Bhatia’s team to uncover workforce insights for quicker and more informed decisions in optimising HR and talent management operations.

The technology will help the team manage AirAsia’s employee data including career information, technical skills and training, and other employee records. Additionally, AirAsia employees will have self-service capabilities allowing them to build their own career paths.

“The business is changing and if HR as a function doesn’t change, you won’t be able to help the business,” he said.

Aptly, he went on to use an aviation safety analogy of putting the oxygen masks first before helping others to explain why HR transformation is vital for the function to remain relevant in the future of work.

“That is my philosophy with HR: if we don’t help ourselves as a function, how are we going to help the business?” he said. “First we have to ‘take the mask’ and help ourselves become digitally more aware, and only then can we help the business.”

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