“Every CEO should have had a run through HR before becoming one”: Johnny C. Taylor Jr.

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It’s been less than a year since Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM-SCP, took over as the president and CEO of Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). A practising lawyer and a seasoned HR professional, Taylor has authored a book The Trouble with HR: An Insider’s Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People.

He was in India recently and took out time to chat with Lipi Agrawal of HRKatha. Here are the excerpts of the interview, where he talks about the changing landscape of HR and the role of technology in it.

How is technology transforming the way we work? Are we at a stage where technology will completely disrupt the business of HR?

Technology is in itself a tool. It enables us to be more efficient, productive and strategic. Take, for instance, the sheer volume one had to go through, looking at thousands of job applicants, screening, interviewing and so on, to find the best fit. The average number of days required to hire a resource was really high then, and it kept HR busy in the day-to-day grind, limiting their capacity to be more strategic. With technology, however, HR can now cut through that and just look up the best 20–30 applications to select the ideal cultural fit.

The opportunities technology brings in are way beyond just recruitment. Going ahead, it will help us customise experiences and so on. Ultimately, it will help HR be more efficient and strategic.


 

With life expectancy and workability having increased tremendously, an average person now has two to three distinct 20-year careers in their life. And that is a different world altogether for HR to operate in, as compared to what it was before the fourth revolution set in. 


 

Will technology be able to take over human judgement?

The ‘H’ (read Human) in HR can never go away. Rather, technology will help augment human experience. No matter how smart a machine becomes, nothing can replace ultimate human judgement. I don’t think we’ll get there, not in my lifetime at least, or until the next two or three decades to witness such a change.

 

The current times are so dynamic that although we need to change and adapt fast, it is the fear of change and adoption of technology that seem to be the biggest challenges for HR in the current times. What is your opinion?

This holds true for all professions and business functions and not HR alone. All people — even those in the assembly lines— are afraid of technology replacing jobs, but what we have seen over time is that while jobs do change, they do not really go away.

The implication of technology on HR is that instead of looking at multiple job applicants, HR professionals now get to look at only the top 20 or 30, and from among them, find the best cultural fit. Again, this is something a robot or machine may not yet be able to do. Technology helps deal with the volume in HR.


 

There is an increasing need for HR people who know more than just HR. HR professionals now need to have cross-functional exposure, so that they come with a broader understanding.


 

The nature of jobs may be changing but technology is not replacing them. With such changes, what is the role of HR in helping people and businesses adapt?

Digital is a mindset and HR has a huge role to play in helping businesses adopt and embrace that mindset such that it becomes a part of the culture.

Frankly, it is just the fear of change or resistance to change that holds people back from adoption. For instance, if someone asks me to move to the next room, it could be because the next room is more beautiful. But the very thought that it is different from where I am currently, generates angst.

Therefore, HR has to play a role in helping organisations build a culture wherein employees embrace change. This is, in fact, an opportunity for HR, as technology is incapable of it. Technology cannot make one embrace change. People have to be convinced to do that. This is where HR can step in to get people to buy the idea and persuade them by explaining the benefits of adopting technology.

 

What should HR do to be seen as a close associate to the CEO?

The HR function is important and critical to business. I haven’t met a CEO who doesn’t see human capital as her/his number one priority. I’ve had CEOs tell me that the most important thing they can do is to find a successful human capital strategy, because they don’t have a problem accessing financial capital, but human capital is a different ball game.

There is no debate about the importance of the HR function, but the question is whether or not the HR professionals are the right group to carry out that function. The question is whether businesses have confidence in them to execute the HC strategy. 

I see that there is a huge opportunity for people in HR. We have got to upgrade the talent that comes into HR and ensure that they have the right skills to operate and deliver as per business expectations from HR.

The problem is that we often confuse between the HR professionals and the HR function. I will tell you that CEOs do agree that the HR function is critical but they’re not sure if the HR professionals can manage that function.


 

I haven’t met a CEO who doesn’t see human capital as her/his number one priority. The problem is that we often confuse between the HR professionals and the HR function. 


 

Should HR heads or budding HR leaders then, mandatorily have a business exposure through cross-functional roles before they get into the role of a CHRO?

I think the future HR leader is going to be cross-functionally trained anyway. I don’t think it’s limited to only HR. The best marketing professionals have other experiences too.

I believe that’s the biggest problem with our profession. Most HR leaders have been in the HR profession for 25–30 years and so they naturally have limited perspective of business. On the other hand, if we bring people into HR through rotations over their career, including in HR, the outcome can be totally different.

In fact, every CEO should have had a run through HR before becoming the CEO. It’s not that only HR professionals need to experience the business role, rather all other functional leaders should also have HR exposure. In fact, we’re seeing HR leaders now taking over as business heads or CEOs.

At the core of everything are the people, and therefore, one can be a brilliant subject matter expert. But if one cannot motivate people and develop them, then one is not ultimately solving the needs of the organisation. If the top executive—no matter what the function is — doesn’t know how to build teams, then she/he is limiting the organisation’s success.

 

CHROs as CTOs – Is it an emerging trend?

Though I think there’s some natural connection, it is not just technology roles merging with HR alone. The HR skillsets are broader than pure efficiency or technology adoption.

There is an increasing need for HR people who know more than just HR. This is also why HR professionals now need to have cross-functional exposure, so that they come with a broader understanding.

Even at SHRM I’ve struggled with the idea—whether I should add more responsibilities to the plate of my HR professionals to prove that they are capable enough. HR is the most critical function in an organisation. It should not be such that I have to add responsibilities to the role to make it look more important. What is needed is for HR to have different experiences so that their perspective is not just limited to HR. The role of HR is too important to mix it with other functions, especially in a knowledge-driven economy.


 

There is no debate about the importance of the HR function, but the question is whether or not the HR professionals are the right group to carry out that function.


 

Industrial revolution 4.0. How is this new world of work?

I like to think of the beginning of eras—the hunter and gatherer era—where the skills required were speed and strength to eat and survive.
After automation came in through industrialisation, there was huge focus on efficiency and productivity. Then came in the next era, where we had cell phones and such technologies that helped us enhance productivity, but we needed even more.

Then came the augmented era where we had enough productivity and efficiency, and the focus had moved to augmenting human experience. The focus was on creativity, agility and adaptability. These are very different skill sets from what we started with.

In the fourth revolution, we are now trying to find a different type of talent, which is also why the focus, instead of academic qualifications or degrees has moved more towards certifications, credentials and so on.

If the talent profile is changing, then HR implications are huge. For instance, the L&D department is now even more crucial to businesses, than it was two decades ago.


 

The ‘H’ (read Human) in HR can never go away. Technology helps deal with the volume in HR.


 

With life expectancy and workability having increased tremendously, an average person now has two to three distinct 20-year careers in their life. And that is a different world altogether for HR to operate in, as compared to what it was before the fourth revolution set in.

Increasingly now, we’re looking for smart people, who are open to learning. Learnability is a multi-faceted concept that depends on two major attributes— the capability to learn and the willingness to learn.

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