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Why HR must have a seat at the digital transformation table

19 Jul 2021 By Robin Speculand

The people profession is a key part of driving technological change across all industries and businesses, explains Robin Speculand

This has the potential to be a very short article, in that if HR is not involved in digital transformation then said transformation will quite simply fail.

Why? Over the last few years, it has now been recognised and established that it is not just about changing the hardware – the technology – but also the software – the people. As AI rapidly becomes the engine that drives the business, it frees up people from doing manual repetitive work to focusing on value-added work. The beneficiary of this is the customer, who receives a better overall experience that continuously improves and the organisation has a responsibility to redesign the way its employees work.

If HR does not have a seat at the digital transformation table, then the organisation will struggle to provide the new skills training that is required, the upscaling of employees and the creation of new roles within the organisation. 

Digital transformation requires a seismic shift for most organisations in the way it typically operates. To the employees, this translates to learning new skills and, more importantly, working differently. Fewer than one in five digital transformations are successful, according to our own research as well as Forbes’. The top three reasons that we have identified why digital transformation fails are leaders not changing their mindset; the organisation not recognising that this is a whole business model transformation; and the failure to change the culture. 

I was fortunate enough to be given exclusive access to DBS Bank in Singapore, over two years, to research and write a book. The book tells the story of how DBS became the world’s best bank by leveraging digitalisation. An exciting part of the transformation was the role HR played. 

The leadership team in the bank recognised from the very beginning of their journey in 2014 that it was just as important to transform the software – the people – as it was the hardware – the technology.

The HR team’s participation in the transformation included significant changes in the way the bank operated, which included:

Sending all employees back to school (including the leaders)

Digital transformation requires employees learning new skills such as data analytics, machine learning, and coding. Inspired by Google’s ‘g2g’ (Googler-to-Googler) teaching network, employees dedicate a portion of their time to helping their peers learn important skills.

After taking the training, every employee had to teach colleagues what he or she learned. This practice enhanced the bank’s learning culture, supported employees in learning new skills and worked as a natural peer pressure controller, as employees did not want to embarrass themselves in front of their colleagues. Today, an employee at DBS can select from over 6,000 different courses.

Creating reverse mentors

The business leaders were assigned a reverse mentor from technology and other departments. Having a reverse mentor gave them opportunities to learn areas of the business through one-on-one meetings. It also allowed them to ask questions they might not feel comfortable asking while in meetings or in situations where they were expected to know all the answers.

The business leaders leveraged this initiative by, for example, learning the difference between Java, HTML, and Python. Other examples were learning about cloud infrastructure, code writing, and machine learning.

Feeling psychologically safe is critical in any transformation. The reverse mentoring initiative created a safe environment in which leaders could ask questions they normally wouldn’t dare to ask or, as we say in Asia, be seen “losing”.

Redesigning employee onboarding

Over the last few years, DBS has grown from 18,000 to more than 30,000 employees. HR adopted customer journey thinking to improve the process of joining the bank and to view the journey from a new hire’s perspective. Today, new employees are connected to the DBS platform before their first day on the job so they can engage with the bank. Specifically, they can check out what’s going on to familiarise themselves with the organisation ahead of time. 

Realising that digital is everyone’s responsibility

The leaders envisioned everyone across the bank feeling part of the business’s responsibility and transformation. They wanted employees to believe digital transformation was their responsibility, not the tech team’s responsibility alone. HR supported this by meeting the digital part of individuals’ performance and also introducing it as part of onboarding.

Addressing pain points and the future of work

The term ‘future of work’ has been used in the bank for years to acknowledge and address the pain points employees face every day. It focuses on both the tools employees have as well the culture they work in. 

DBS declared 2019 as ‘the year of the employee’ and set out to invest time and money fixing the gaps between employee and customer experiences. As part of this goal, a programme was initiated in which each country identified its own pain points and rectified them. For example, in Hyderabad, India, the bank had a dress code that allowed employees to wear whatever they liked as long as it did not embarrass their parents. Inspired by a Netflix policy, Hyderabad set policies that treated and respected people as adults. Its people responded positively. 

Another example involved the ‘Tell Piyush’ (the CEO) ritual when, once a quarter, anyone can communicate with Piyush, and he personally responds. Numerous messages to Piyush identified a frustration from employees about wasting time traveling to meet their bosses located in a different office. This resulted in the bank further investing in video conferencing, which eliminated travel time, took toil out of the system, and was well received by employees. 

Robin Speculand is CEO of Bridges Business Consultancy, co-founder of the Strategy Implementation Institute and the Ticking Clock Guys, and author of World’s Best Bank

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