The CIO-CHRO winning team of automation – How do the two complement each other?

The illuminating second session of the Automation.Nxt Conference witnessed a confluence of diverse views about the winnability, conflicts, trends, and obstacles in the CIO-CHRO relationship

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The role of the CHRO has been reimagined in recent years. Organisations now task HR with driving the digitalisation of the workforce and operations to ensure that the chosen technologies and processes prioritise people and work culture. Likewise, according to a 2021 Adobe report, 9 out of 10 CIOs are expected to play a leading role in the digital transformation of their businesses. But what role can the CIO-CHRO combination play while spearheading the automation of their organisations?

The question threw up several interesting answers from senior HR leaders at the second session of the Automation.Nxt Conference, organised by HR Katha. The glittering, 4-session event saw a number of CHROs elucidate the challenges, obstacles and takeaways of guiding the automation of their organisations.

The event was powered by Tata Steel Industrial Consulting. Other partners included UKG (workforce management partner), Onsurity (SME healthcare partner), NHRD (community partner) and Open Offers (lanyard partner).

“We are working on multiple initiatives within our organisation. From a traditional leave portal, we have shifted to a leave portal that appears with automated nudgers to the user about how many leaves remain and what time of the year to preferably utilise those”

Shankar Bharadwaj, head – IT projects, HRM, Tata Steel

The second session panel consisted of Poonam Bharti, executive director & CHRO, Shriram Pistons; Ramesh Mitragotri, CHRO, Ultratech Cement; Shankar Bharadwaj, head – IT projects, HRM, Tata Steel; Kapil Mahajan, global CIO & CTO, Allcargo Logistics; and Amaresh Singh, CHRO, GE South Asia. The session was moderated by senior HR leader, Ashish Anand.

COVID-19 & the CIO-CHRO combination

Ashish Anand began by correctly pointing out how the power of technology truly kicked in at the time of the pandemic-induced lockdowns, placing the burden of the company’s effective functioning on the shoulders of the CIO-CHRO combination. On a lighter note, he recalled a joke about how a virus had triggered automation in 6 months’ time – something CTOs had been unable to do for decades!

According to Ramesh Mitragotri, earlier decades had witnessed the HR and IT departments collaborating to oversee large-scale change management, but the pandemic had accelerated the process of an organisational shift within a brief period.

Armed with years of experience in operational execution of digital technology, Kapil Mahajan opined that the Coronavirus pandemic necessitated the CIO-CHRO teams to get on to a collaboration platform. He spoke at length of how even formerly ‘old-school’ employees were exposed to unprecedented methods of work and interaction. “While HR played an important role in communicating with and persuading employees to deploy digital platforms, IT demonstrated the use of the tools at hand for effective work and engagement”. He further added that the pandemic came as a blessing in disguise, propelling, as it did, the digital transformation of Indian workplaces. “I see a continuation of this trend with both the power of tools and CIO-CHRO combination becoming the key drivers of change in organisations”.

“The CFO, CIO, and CHRO combination is going to redefine organisations in the times to come”

Ashish Anand, senior HR leader

Elaborating on the CIO-CHRO relationship, Amaresh Singh said that their responsibilities included servicing the employees and creating experiences for them. “The IT leader looks at creation of technology and productivity, and communicating the analytics and service-level agreements to improve the talent engagement, on-boarding experience, talent management process and so on,” he said.

On the other hand, the HR leaders, Singh said, consider the human experience and end users, ensuring that technology is simplified for people to use. “They must build it into the company culture, train, and explain the benefits of technology to employees,” he opined. He suggested that mutual trust was intrinsic to a successful CIO-CHRO partnership. “Automation cannot take place without both working shoulder to shoulder,” he stated.

Automation & the manufacturing sector

On being asked about her oversight of the digital transformation of her organisation – a manufacturing conglomerate with a workforce that primarily consists of digital aliens – Poonam Bharti explained how her organisation had been keen to automate the shop floor and broader work environment with the help of a CTO even before the pandemic. “But we were thrown off guard by the COVID situation, slowing down the automation-related activities we had planned for a while,” she explained, detailing how other HR requirements such as training, employee care, and engagement underwent prompt digitalisation.

“As far as automation processes are concerned, it is an on-going transition. We aren’t still there, but have made significant progress in the last two years. We have already identified the processes we wish to automate – the supply chain part, for instance,” she said.

“Automation cannot take place without CHRO & CIO working shoulder to shoulder”

Amaresh Singh, CHRO, GE South Asia

Shining a spotlight on digitally transforming Tata Steel – part of a sector perceived as ‘orthodox’ – Shankar Bharadwaj made a clear distinction between the CIO and CHRO. “The CIO should be keenly aware of business insights and what the business wants. Tools and solutions may come in later. In order to address this, we have organised BRD workshops, engaged with external consultants, and bench-marked our processes against those of other companies”. But the CHRO, in Bharadwaj’s opinion, must effectively capture the business functions in the digital platform. He further observed that the CIO-CHRO engagement had deepened as a result of the aforementioned steps, accelerating the adoption of automation.

Presence vs. Productivity?

Asked about presence versus productivity at a time when the hybrid work model is rapidly becoming a norm, Mitragotri pointed out that presence at the workplace was taken for granted until 2020. “Experiments with remote working were rare,” he observed. He further noted that there was no scope for WFH on the manufacturing site for employees at Ultratech Cement but there were experiments in other areas.

“For instance, we tried to co-locate the multiple control rooms where engineers regulate the process and operations, so fewer engineers would be needed. We also tried to adopt AI and machine learning processes to remotely manage the functions being physically carried out by engineers. Periodic work measurement checks underwent a digital alteration,” he explained. He informed that a large number of individual contributors continued working in the hybrid fashion. “Although we are location-agnostic, the investment in relationships is a must. Hence, our existing hybrid operations include bringing people together occasionally at a common location to get them to interact with one another,” he said.

Interestingly, Mitragotri underlined that the shift to a remote model immediately saw a jump in productivity in which deadlines and deliverables were met in a timely fashion. “Productivity has remained the same,” he opined “But what has changed is the fact that individual workers now have more flexibility, enabling greater productivity in the long run,” he observed.

Offering a different perspective, Mahajan opined that the bigger issue was to devise mechanisms to measure employee performance in the WFH era. “I think HR would play a big role in measuring and redefining the KRAs,” he suggested.

“I see a continuation of this trend with both the power of tools and CIO-CHRO combination becoming the key drivers of change in organisations”

Kapil Mahajan, CIO & CTO, Allcargo Logistics

Inherent conflict

Anand pertinently pointed out how there is an inherent conflict between the roles of the CIO and CHRO by virtue of the fact that the former owns the digital assets of an organisation, and the latter is entrusted with ensuring their confidentiality.

“Any mature organisation which has data governance in place would always carry out data abstraction in a way that is only visible to the people by whom it is supposed to be viewed” answered Mahajan. “That said, many companies nowadays put some kind of technology roadmap around data so it goes into a data lake from where there are abstraction tools that mask the data. There is an analytics platform on top of this from where one is able to visualise data, building insight for the respective audience, be they HR, operations, or sales,” he explained, noting that this strategy could unlock and leverage the potential of data to build new products and offerings.

People, mind-set, or utility of tech?

Responding to a question about which had the greatest importance – digital mind-set, people, or utility of technology in a CIO-CHRO partnership – Singh gave precedence to collective mind-set, underlining that shaping the right culture was key to getting future-ready and preparing for potential disruptions.

Likewise, Bharti attributed the greatest importance to mind-set, mentioning how COVID-19 acted as a catalyst for the digital transformation of her organisation. “Moreover, this shift to digital broke barriers. For instance, there were virtual meetings with the senior management at which there was no seating order, hierarchy, or protocol; all were on the same online platform interacting with one another,” she noted.

“As far as automation processes are concerned, it is an on-going transition. We aren’t still there, but have made significant progress in the last two years. We have already identified the processes we wish to automate – the supply chain part, for instance”

Poonam Bharti, executive director & CHRO, Shriram Pistons

Emerging trends & obstacles

Bharadwaj noted that an emerging trend in digitalisation was that of hyper-personalisation. “We are working on multiple initiatives within our organisation. From a traditional leave portal, we have shifted to a leave portal that appears with automated nudgers to the user about how many leaves remain and what time of the year to preferably utilise those,” he explained, citing an example.

Likewise, according to Mahajan, for effective implementation and adoption of technology, companies needed to focus on creating a personalised, simplified, unified user experience — be it for their customers, employees, HR or operations segment. He added that while a few sectors such as manufacturing and logistics were going to continue to be people-intensive, there was a need to ponder how automation would help engage and motivate those workers on the work premises.

“Decades had witnessed the HR and IT departments collaborating to oversee large-scale change management, but the pandemic had accelerated the process of an organisational shift within a brief period”

Ramesh Mitragotri, CHRO, Ultratech Cement

“The CFO, CIO, and CHRO combination is going to redefine organisations in the times to come” concluded Anand, wrapping up the thought-provoking session.

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