I'll tell you something: To be successful, digital transformation needs to put humans first

There's a huge opportunity for HR professionals to integrate people and technology, argues Carrie Birmingham

So much of what we do in HR is about managing change, particularly in a world where businesses are transforming constantly. We are the experts in how people experience, process and thrive through change. Yet when we try and explain the concept to employees and other stakeholders, we are often met with a sea of blank faces. 

Working with a range of digital businesses has made me think more about how we might use its unique challenges to think differently about change.

Digital is fast-paced, volatile, uncertain, complex and often ambiguous, which means the traditional change management tools don’t always respond well to organisations in constant flux. 

Moreover, businesses often approach digital from a very tech-focused perspective. In fact, digital transformation specialist Lucia Adams argues that digital is “90 per cent human and 10 per cent tech. But businesses often approach digital as 90 per cent tech and 10 per cent human.” 

There is a huge opportunity here for HR professionals to integrate more of a digital approach in their people strategy. So what methodologies work when navigating digital transformation? One area I’ve been exploring is user experience (UX). The practice of UX is about designing digital or physical products that are useful and easy to use. 

Adapting UX tools for employee experience could hold the key to HR change in a way that truly engages employees and delivers better results.

John Lewis is just one business that has embraced the idea by embedding a UX designer in its people team. Others will surely follow, recognising that digital transformation is at heart a human process, and needs to start with a genuine understanding of what will help the user, often an employee, perform more effectively and productively.

So many parts of HR practice are ripe for such disruption. Take L&D, where we too often expect employees who need skills now to wait six weeks for the next available course. Or recruitment processes that rely on batches of CVs. Or performance management, where we store feedback for a year and deliver it in one go to a startled employee. 

UX asks us instead to consider who might benefit from an initiative and how it can be most effectively designed and implemented. With appraisals, that might mean identifying the data that really determines effective performance and then working out how it can be delivered in a timely way that resonates with employees and managers, rather than prioritising compliance. From there, deploying scrum methodology and agile processes can help HR teams prototype and refine their new solutions without feeling they need the perfect product at launch.

This isn’t about following UX slavishly to the detriment of common sense. And we should always remember there are many areas where HR can teach digital businesses plenty – our understanding of human behaviour and intrinsic motivations, for example, makes us experts in persuading people to transform and helping them through the dreaded change curve. 

We only have to look at the fate of many Silicon Valley businesses who believed they didn’t need traditional HR to see that UX doesn’t have all the answers. But isn’t it time we were open to a better way of doing things than the same old tried and tested ideas?

Carrie Birmingham is founder of Carrie Birmingham Consult