Tools, skills or collaboration – what’s the hierarchy of priority during automation?

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What is digital transformation all about? Is it easier said than done? What does it really take to be able to ride the waves of automation? Is the impact of digitalisation same at all levels of the organisational hierarchy?

These were just some of the innumerable relevant questions for which answers were provided by the panel of experts from the HR fraternity who graced HRKatha’s Automation.Nxt. This was the first ever conference in the country where HR leaders shared their automation-related experiences and the challenges they posed for the HR function in particular.

The panel comprised Sanjay Bose, EVP-HR and L&D, ITC Hotels; Pradyumna Pandey, CHRO, Mother Dairy; Manoj Kumar Sharma, CHRO, Aarti Industries; Dinesh Menon, head of people and strategy, Onsurity; Rajeev Singh, CHRO, Solara Active Pharma Sciences; and moderator, Vipin Sharma, head – talent acquisition, Tata Steel.

“Advancement in technology will not affect employment. It is a myth”

Pradyumna Pandey, CHRO, Mother Dairy

The event was powered by Tata Steel Industrial Consulting. UKG was the workforce management partner, while Onsurity was the SME healthcare partner, with NHRD as the community partner and Open Offers as the Lanyard partner.

Vipin Sharma —who moderated the session — rightly said, these are exciting times for digital enthusiasts as most organisations are at some stage in their digital-transformation journeys. The challenges that emerge in the journey, the extent of involvement of the various functions in this transformational process and the impact on human resources will all vary from business to business and industry to industry, depending on various factors.

Traditional vs new-age organisations

Sanjay Bose rightly pointed out, that the stage at which an organisation is in its lifecycle plays an important role. For a new-age or digital organisation, things are fairly easy as such organisations have digital in their DNA. Therefore, in such firms, the need to bring about a change of mindset does not arise at all. In traditional organisations, however, the story is different. Time has to be devoted to first impart digital literacy because the majority of the members of the organisation fear change. Only when the employees are ready to accept the change can technology be introduced in traditional setups.

Nature of industry & generation gap

Then there are differences in the processes from industry to industry. For instance, the way hotels function is far different from the way call centres do. A higher level of digitalisation or automation may be possible in the latter, as compared to the former where success requires ‘human touch’. Another important factor is the generation gap in the workforce. While the Baby Boomers are scared of technology, Gen Z are born with technology. When such a diverse mix exists in the workforce, a segmentised approach becomes essential.

“Adoption of technology brings with it cost efficiency, operational efficiency, quality of data and valuable insights”

Rajeev Singh, CHRO, Solara Active Pharma Sciences

Change in mindset vs selection of right tool of transformation

Pradyumna Pandey did not think that a change in mindset was really required. According to him, post pandemic, the mindset of people has already undergone change. They have come to accept that technology is a must, and that it is no more an option. Even farmers are relying heavily on technology today. Therefore, according to Pandey, the most important step is to select the right tool in the automation journey of the organisation.

Dinesh Menon was of the opinion that it is the change in mindset and skillset that should be focussed on first before looking at the right tool. He rightly pointed out that even big IT firms that have invested in fancy products have failed due to the lack of the right mindset and skillset.

Manoj Kumar Sharma felt that the manner in which technology is adopted is what really matters for an organisation. According to him, success does not come easily unless the base is strong. Therefore, brilliant basics need to be in place, and the entire team needs to be in sync.

Rajeev Singh listed out the three distinct waves of automation that organisations must ride in their digital transformation journey. In the first wave, the base is created for automation, while in the second the actual work on automation is implemented and the third wave is all about skill transformation in accordance with the automation.

“While it is necessary to ensure and monitor the financial return on investment — which is the hard RoI — the focus on the soft part should not be lost”

Sanjay Bose, EVP-HR and L&D, ITC Hotels

Top-down approach

Pandey emphasised that transformation is not just about modifying processes but also the culture of the organisation. Therefore, a top-down approach is a must. The leadership has to be committed to the transformation, and they are the ones who should set the pace for it too.

Learning & listening culture

Pandey drove home the point that a culture of learning has to be created in the organisation. This will lead to innovation and creativity, which is essential for digital transformation.

Dinesh Menon introduced two interesting terms to the discussion. He said that the success of the transformation journey will depend on the emotional quotient (EQ) and the social quotient (SQ) of the people involved.

Sharma who is rather happy to see the adoption rate of automation, rightly added that along with a learning culture, there has to be a listening culture, and that digital transformation will grow deep roots only if both co-exist.

Generation gap

Training on technology should be imparted to the employees based on their age. As Pandey rightly pointed out, the older generations that are apprehensive about embracing technology cannot be trained along with the younger lot who are already tech savvy, as their level of interest, existing knowledge, degree of acceptance and even pace of learning / grasping will vary. Therefore, they have to be divided into suitable groups for tech training.

Levels of transformation

Pandey drew attention to yet another important fact — that digital transformation at the CXO level will be different from that at the shop-floor level. Therefore, the language of communication will also have to be different. The way to communicate the need and process of change to a shop-floor worker will differ from the way it is explained to someone high up in the organisational hierarchy.

“Success of the transformation journey will depend on the emotional quotient (EQ) and the social quotient (SQ) of the people involved”

Dinesh Menon, head of people and strategy, Onsurity

Is rapid advancement in technology affecting employment?

Not at all. “It is a myth,” said Pandey, who maintained that ‘adaptability is the success mantra. Therefore, he advised organisations to focus on how to adapt to technology and reap the benefits.

In fact, he pointed out how people no longer need to flock to the urban areas for employment. Technology has made the same jobs available in the small towns today. Technology has become location agnostic. In addition, there has been a huge spurt in skilling and vocational courses everywhere, making more people, even in the remote areas, employable.

Going forward, the area of focus for organsiations should be specific skilling and updation of skills.

What’s in it for me?

Vipin Sharma who moderated the session asked the questions that are uppermost in everyone’s mind today. Why automate? How will it benefit? What’s in it for me?

Oneness: Rajeev Singh stated that adoption of technology brings with it cost efficiency, operational efficiency, quality of data and valuable insights. That is why, organisations are rushing to embrace automation. However, while doing so, employers should also ensure that a uniform culture is created, and a sense of ‘oneness’ prevails throughout the organisation. If the transformation is done the right way, this uniformity can be easily achieved.

As he pertinently stated, “everything cannot be about hardcore RoI”. There has to be a combination of tangible and non-tangible benefits. Failure happens when the focus is on financial returns alone.

“The manner in which technology is adopted is what really matters for an organisation”

Manoj Kumar Sharma, CHRO, Aarti Industries

“If the vision is clear and a growth mindset exists, everything is workable,” said Sharma encouragingly.

Transparency: Pandey mentioned that technology has brought about transparency in processes and systems. The idea of automation has to be sold with the right focus and in a transparent manner.

Hard & soft RoI: Throwing light on the types of return on investment, Sanjay Bose stated that there is hard RoI and soft RoI. While it is necessary to ensure and monitor the financial return on investment — which is the hard RoI — the focus on the soft part should not be lost. In other words, equal importance has to be given to ways of engaging the employees, which, in turn, will ensure better customer service and better delivery. Expanding the reach and touching more segments of customers is a significant RoI, pointed out Bose.

What does the future workplace look like?

Globalisation of talent: True globalisation of talent will happen said Dinesh Menon who reiterated how the workplace has already transformed with so much buzz around gig work, contract work and moonlighting.

Segmentation: Pradyumna Pandey pointed out the need for segmentation of the workforce as different policies will be required for different segments, with Millennials working under the same roof as the older generations. The good thing is that a lot can now happen online in the digital era, including mentoring sessions.

Simplification: Working with technology will be fascinating in the coming decades. Sanjay Bose cited the example of 3D printers being used to construct houses in merely 15 days. More technology only means that work will become simpler. A few simple clicks will give huge results. However, the transformation will happen in short cycles and will require human touch, pointed out Sharma.

“As most organisations are at some stage of their digital transformation journey, the challenges that emerge, the extent of involvement of the various functions in this transformational process and the impact on HR will all vary from business to business and industry to industry”

Vipin Sharma, head – talent acquisition, Tata Steel

Specialisation: Rajeev Singh rightly pointed out that the future workplace will have more specialists than generalists. Multiple skills will co-exist as people will be required at the back end to drive all kinds of process automation. The workforce will evolve and continue to do so, but at the end of the day, each individual will need to possess core skills.

Proximity with employees: Irrespective of the level of automation, the organisation must ensure proximity with the employees, warned Pandey. Technology will fail if the organisation does not capture the aspirations of the employees. It is essential for leaders to talk to the employees and understand their needs.

Will the level of transformation be complete or gradual?

The panelists uniformly agreed that the level of transformation will depend on the organisation’s appetite for taking risks. Also, bringing changes in the compliance-oriented processes will naturally require more time than others.

The HR experts on the panel unanimously agreed that no digital transformation should be done with the aim of reducing manpower. All of them felt that the level of transformation and automation will differ from industry to industry and the stakeholders involved. While fighter pilots can be replaced with drones, commercial flights cannot do without human pilots and their judgement, as the safety of so many lives depends on them.

Digital transformation is the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business, and therefore, it requires fundamental changes in the way businesses operate as well as in the way they deliver value to customers. And when this volcano of changes erupts, it is the HR that rises to the occasion. After all, who understands people better than the HR?

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