Pip Penfold is on a mission to educate HR professionals about new and emerging technologies. Having spent the majority of her career in HR, Pip became concerned about how technology was changing the profession and what it would take for HR to remain relevant.
Passionate about all things tech, Pip shares her views on the technologies likely to impact HR both now and in the future, top tips for teams looking to evaluate their tech stack and her take on bias in Artificial Intelligence.
Technology is changing HR, here are Pip's thoughts.
Let’s start with a bit about you and your background.
I started in HR in the late 1990s. HR was quite different back then. Process and compliance dominated everything. At university you could either learn about psychology or industrial relations, nothing directly HR related. Dave Ulrich had just released his third HR competency model, and everyone was busy restructuring their HR function to align to his Target Operating Model. It was also the time big systems like PeopleSoft were being implemented with the business upside reducing HR administrative headcount. I remember there were numerous HR Administrators in the job market as a result.
I have been lucky to move around a lot. I started in Sydney, moved to Taipei and then on to Manila and Mumbai. It was in Singapore in 2013 that my career took an interesting turn. I was working for the Royal Bank of Scotland at the time and became curious about AI, or what I thought were Terminator-like robots. That initial curiosity was where my interest in emerging technology began. It has been a long journey since then and my curiosity has led me to get involved in many different communities in addition to the HR community, HR Tech, start-ups, and technology communities.
When I finished my EMBA I decided to step out of corporate HR and into a HR tech startup. It was an interesting move because it meant I could see HR from the outside. I was the vendor, rather than the user. Soon after joining the startup I undertook some research, looking at the state of HR and tech in APAC. The results were really concerning. I realised that as a profession, HR really does not understand new and emerging technologies, and that worried me. I could see major changes on the horizon, how technology was changing the profession and what it would take for HR to remain relevant, and I realised many didn’t even realise what was ahead, let alone were prepared for it.
I could not see this problem and not do anything to fix it. I felt I had to help us learn about something that, quite frankly, we generally do not want to learn about. Very few people go into HR because they have an interest in technology! There is a big gap between what we need to be as HR professionals and where we were. I wanted to do something to help bridge that gap. That is where the idea for People Collider started.
Can you tell me a bit more about People Collider?
People Collider’s purpose is to educate HR professionals about new and emerging technologies - everything from Artificial Intelligence to Blockchain. We know HR professionals need to be capable beyond understanding the business. HR needs to have the knowledge and courage to sit down and discuss technology with IT, and how to shape people and technology together in the business. At People Collider we look very closely at the skills and knowledge needed to make this possible.
We do not believe in learning as a checkbox exercise, it is an ever-changing journey. We also believe learning is a community activity, it is about sharing knowledge and building upon one another’s ideas. We provide learning experiences and, as their learning partner, give them access to a community of learners while supporting them on a continuous learning journey, as their expertise and the technology evolves.
How far has HR evolved since the late 1990s?
We have come a long way, but I do not think we have come far enough. We have been somewhat constrained by what business has expected of HR, and the pressures upon business that influence those expectations. In the 1990s, the companies who were the most efficient and effective were often the winners in the market. Those who combined that with maximizing the utility of their resources won the race. HR fell into lockstep, becoming as efficient and effective as possible while maximising the utility of the human resources within the business.
But today, being efficient and effective just gets you into the race. It is necessary but not sufficient to win in the market. Winning today comes from creating unique value for customers, and fast. We talk a lot about value creation as HR, but often we are just referring to the money saved from efficiency. Understanding how we drive innovation in our businesses and how we help enable our people to create unique value for customers is where our focus should be today.
Can you give me 3 technologies you see as having the ability to really impact HR both in the here and now and in the future?
- Artificial Intelligence (AI). Though it is not new, it has re-emerged since the late nineties. Nearly all of us have heard of it, even if we do not really understand how it does what it does. We are seeing it a lot in recruitment which can cause issues, because biased outcomes are a very real risk. In markets with Anti-Discrimination legislation, using an algorithm generated biased outcome as part of a selection decision could lead to a legal challenge.
One area where I think AI will be valuable is in Learning and Development. The potential to personalise learning experiences is exciting, and something I would love to bring to the People Collider learning community!
- Virtual Reality (VR). The use of VR in education and learning is an exciting prospect. The cost of VR is coming down for both hardware and the software development, so it is a lot more accessible than it used to be. I believe we will see some exciting developments in the VR space, particularly now education and learning experiences have moved online due to the pandemic.
Blockchain. Blockchain is a technology that will have a deep impact on HR teams, because it is going to change and challenge the HR’s data management paradigm. Blockchain is likely to result in HR no longer owning employee data. This is a big shift for HR. Historically we have been the keepers of employee data, a role we take very seriously because of the confidentiality and security of the information.
For HR teams wondering whether they need to review and upgrade their tech stack, what advice would you give?
- - Answer these questions:
- What problems do you need to solve, and which are most important for your business?
- What problems are your current tools solving, and creating?
When you are defining the problems make sure you clarify whether the problem is an HR problem or an employee problem. HR often mix the two up, but they are not the same thing. When we understand the problems employees are experiencing, we can see the difference between employees’ problems and HR’s problems with employees.
- - Prioritise your challenges
HR needs to focus on the problems that are most valuable to the business. Often there is more value in solving the problems of the employees than those of HR. Think about the ones that would help your organisation stand out in the marketplace if you were to solve them.
- - Audit your systems
Create a list of the tech tools, everything from bespoke payroll systems to external managed platforms like LinkedIn. Make sure you do not limit yourself to the ones you are responsible for. Look at all the tech tools influencing the employee experience. We need to shift our thinking that HR Tech is limited to tech tools for which HR are responsible, to HR Tech being something HR has an interest and stake in because it shapes the employee experience.
Once the systems and their associated costs are mapped, analyse usage patterns. If a tool isn’t being used as it was intended to, or disproportionately to its cost and impact, analyse it further with IT.
- - Get friendly with IT
Next, talk to IT! It is crucial that HR and IT work can work together effectively. Talk to them about what you have discovered from your analysis and ask their advice.
- - Get the most from vendors
If you are not maximising usage from license fees, have a conversation with vendors. If you are working with small to medium vendors, you may be able to co-create solutions or have input in their product roadmap. It is also important to have a view of what is coming next from vendors, so that you can prioritise what you need and decommission technology that is becoming obsolete or irrelevant to the needs of your business.
- - Ditch the quest for a perfect solution
Stop looking for the perfect system, the one-size-fits-all system does not exist. The goal is to design and create the best-fit tech stack for your business.
For a profession all about people, how do we find that balance between humans and tech in business?
That is such a great question and one I think about a lot! It is about entwining people with technology, not one or the other dominating. I believe that winning companies will be better than their competitors at weaving people and technology together in a way the best benefits their business.
We know that it is not an either/or question when it comes to people and tech. It is both and the skills of both intelligences are complementary. We need to be crystal clear on the difference between what could be automated versus what should be automated. We also need to decide who, or what, is augmenting the other, is tech augmenting people or are people augmenting tech?
It is also critical that we need to understand the psychology behind people and machines working together. HR needs to lead conversations in the business about how people and technology should work together so that we can find the right balance.
I do not have a firm answer on how to get the balance right, but I am still looking for it and I hope others are too! Ask me again in a few years.
An area you’re passionate about is AI and the risk of bias. Why is it important for HR to get involved in the conversation?
We talk a lot about bias and AI. Some people erroneously believe that AI will eliminate human bias. As HR, we must get involved in understanding it so we can address it. Using, or not using AI because of bias is not the answer.
The discussions about ethics in AI is growing. There are laws in the pipeline that will impact HR teams. For example, in New York in January 2022 there is a new law that explicitly addresses bias in artificial intelligence hiring tools. Businesses will have to be fully transparent and will need to prove that their tools are not generating a biased result.
I strongly encourage HR to get involved in these conversations. At least following the conversations and debate will help us guide our organisations on how these technologies should be used, not just in HR but across the business. We are an important voice in this conversation because through us the human dimension can be appropriately represented. If you are in HR, create the opportunity to lean into this discussion and add your voice. It is so important. It will also help you to be on the front foot when new legislation and regulation is introduced.
Can you tell me a bit more about where bias comes into machine learning?
There are three areas from which biased results may be arising:
- - Bias in the training dataset
All AI models need to be trained on a training dataset. If that dataset is biased, then the model will be more likely to produce a biased outcome. Therefore, it is important to ask vendors how they trained their model, identified bias and adjusted for it.
- - A lack of diversity in people writing the code
People who create algorithms often unwittingly infuse their bias into their algorithms. This is why it’s so important to have good diversity in terms of talent, so a dominant group and bias are not conveyed through the algorithms.
- Bias in our own data
The final place where bias creeps in is in our own data, and much of the time, we have no idea that it is happening. Bias rarely arises due to malicious intent, and in many cases, it is hard to identify. But AI magnifies the unconscious biases embedded in the past decisions made by organisations, because that is the data it is using. This is one of the reasons we must scrutinize the output of AI in our business.
What can we do to combat some of the bias?
In addition to talking to vendors and the other points I’ve made, always make sure there is a human in the loop. I think of AI a bit like a toddler; it should never be left unsupervised!
Another area of interest for you and People Collider is upskilling and reskilling. Why is it so important?
An HR professional today will look vastly different to one in the future. We are all going to need different skills, and the pace at which new skills are emerging is increasing. This is not to say our experience to date is useless; it is very valuable; but we need to keep developing. It’s a journey and it takes time, so we need to start now. We need to keep an eye on the horizon to make sure we are investing time and our other resources in the appropriate development, to ensure our ongoing employability.
Could you tell me a bit about the research you’re doing and what you’ve found?
I am currently doing some research with one of our partners, the Thrive HR Exchange. The aim of the research is to understand where people are investing in their development, and the gap between what they are doing and what they should be doing.
What we have found is concerning. Lots of people with over 10 years’ experience in HR have been investing their time in learning about HR. Of course, if you are new to HR that is the right thing to do, but if you are mid to senior level you should be able to keep up with the changes just by reading journals and articles. We are concerned many mid-senior HR professionals are not investing their resources as effectively as they could for their development.
We’ve also found that a lot is being invested in developing soft skills. This is another area where HR professionals are typically well skilled. What we’re seeing is that HR professionals are going back to the areas they feel comfortable and confident in, rather than developing in areas they are more likely to shy away from, like analytics and technology.
There has been a rise in learning about analytics, some people recognise they cannot avoid it even if they do not enjoy it. There is a lot more work for HR and organisations to do, to move their analytics from being descriptive or prescriptive, to predictive and automated. There has been a slow increase in learning about new and emerging technology, but we need to speed this up. We do not have to learn to code but we must be able to hold a conversation with the technology experts, understand what they’re doing and why, so that we can influence the outcome.
What does the future look like for HR roles?
There was a recent report by Cognizant, the Centre for the Future of Work, which named 21 jobs for HR in the next 5 - 10 years. There were some interesting and important roles there, things like Algorithm Bias Auditor and Human Machine Teaming Manager. Given how technology is changing the landscape, they are important jobs. We need someone to audit these systems internally and to understand what these tools are doing. But do we have the skills now to do these jobs? Probably not.
I was part of a conversation about it during the CIPD Hackathon during which we talked about the report. A lot of people said, ‘well we can’t do that as HR, so we’ll have to recruit someone from IT to do those roles.’ That might well be the case, but it did make me wonder “where will HR go then?”. If those jobs are the future of HR, surely HR people should be reskilling to fill them.
I would like HR to have the courage to shift their future, because the world around us is changing and we need to lead the changes in technology, not be led by the changes. We must make sure our companies are blending humans and technology in a way that is beneficial for humans and business. We can only do that if we can talk tech, engage with IT and have the right conversations. The onus is on us, we must have the will and the courage to work with IT, we must help fill the gap between us and work more collaboratively.
Finally, can you give me some predictions for HR in 2021?
I think we will see a couple of things. Those who were reluctant to commit and invest money in their digital transformation will be left behind unless they are courageous enough to take some bold steps now. Those who were already on the path to transformation will do it with more urgency, perhaps a constrained urgency due to the economic situation, but they will not be able to take their foot off the accelerator.
I think we will adopt AI more widely, both in HR and in different business functions. I hope that goes together with asking harder questions around bias and ethics. I also believe Virtual Reality will mature in the education space because of timing and price point.
I hope that Covid-19 has jolted a lot of us in HR. The businesses and leaders who are doing well are doing so because of the work we did developing leaders and a healthy culture. We have been talking about this for years and Covid-19 proved much of it true. HR should be proud of what was achieved. I hope we build on that success to reimagine and create a future we want, rather than just reacting to change around us.
Finally, I believe we will see more HR people learning and stepping out of our comfort zone. Well I certainly hope so! Stay curious!
If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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