Is HR suffering from a "digital divide"?

Anna Ott
May 20, 2019

Recap of the busy conference month May, covering Rise of AI, re:publica, Recruiting Convent and HRPepper Hoffest.

May is one of my favorite months - packed with conferences, networking and inspiration. This year, it was my first time at re:publica - an established conference running for more than a decade - and finally including HR in their program with the "re:cruiting area". HR also finally found its way into "Rise of AI" which definitely held the most challenging topics for me. (I even found myself  attending a talk on worms  and their neurons.)

But I got back to my home turf at "Recruiting Convent", where I was in a group of 500 Talent Acquisition nerds plus one HipHop star. Relaxed and familiar felt my last speaking gig at HR Pepper's annual "Hoffest", which ends this busy month.

I finally found time to reflect on the various talks I attended and conversations I tuned into. Here's what I learned  from the experts.

AI is everywhere - at least in conference programs

At Rise of AI, Christian Gutmann summarized it well "AI conferences were a forum for those that were the absolute nerds but now this is a topic which almost everyone is talking about - also those that are not necessarily qualified."

Photo Courtesy of Riseof.Ai

Everyone feels part of the conversation but only few find ways to not make it about "dystopia vs. utopia". Although I am mesmerized and excited at the same time about what will be ahead of us, I appreciate "reality checks" most these days. This is certainly why what Eckart von Hirschhausen, hybrid between Comedian and Physician, said is simple but true "Questions are more valuable than answers."

Photo Courtesy of Recruiting Convent

Because we still have so many unanswered questions that most of those panels and "inspirational talks" don't let us grasp the state of which AI is in. At Rise of AI, most talks centered more around "China vs. US" (telling me EU is at the sidelines of this game) and less "the good and the bad" sides of AI. I do agree with author Benedikt Herles that "AI is a tool and can be used both ways."

Or as witty German HipHop star Jan Delay put it "I'm less afraid of AI as I am afraid of blunt human stupidity."

Jan Delay & Gero Hesse at RecruitingConvent

Well that goes well on T-shirts, doesn't it? The complexity of AI for us in HR is that it will change the world we work (and live) in. Yet we cannot foresee enough to feel prepared.

"Our kids will be living in a hyper-personalized world - everything they will be receiving will be very tailored to them"- There will be  human mixed AI teams. We need to ground the discussion of what AI actually is. And I think a lot of people are still not completely clear. Because we essentially are dealing with people's life, finances, human rights. And not everyone should be tinkering with this type of technology. But "don't make it too overcomplicated which Europeans tend to do but try to have as little regulation possible as needed." (Christian Guttmann)

I encourage everyone to attend one AI expert event this year - so we can have the ground discussions and speak more about how much regulation is needed at this point in time.  My personal advice would be to check out what Prof. Yan Cui is developing at 4DAGE or the use cases shown by NVIDIA.

Our role as HR in this era

We all feel that the digitization of our daily lives comes with questions on how to manage all this. And also: what is our responsibility as people leaders? The more we rely on algorithms dominating us, the more we struggle with the "always on" work mode. We already see that this leads to stressed out employees and stagnation in productivity.

Is this because so many HR departments struggle to be "savvier with data and tech in HR" as Daniel Mühlbauer put it? For most attendees at the HR Pepper event, AI is still not part of their current strategies. Yet they all talk about concepts of "New Work" where benefits seem to be more of a hype. Sebastian Dettmers  pointed out in our fireside chat, that to him this is "a debate about artefacts and cosmetics - but we don't focus on what employees actually want."

It seems that less hype around "new work" and more focus on  technological leaps would suit most HR leaders - and their organizations - way better.

Photo Courtesy of Recruiting Convent

We should demand HR to become bolder and change the new norm. Come up with business plans and ROI focussed implementation of HR Tech that will establish enough budgets for further digitization. Ironically, Dr. Dettmers who is MD of StepStone Continential Europe, sees that on C-Level “They all know their marketing or IT spendings” - but never the numbers for HR."

On the other hand, we see from CHRO of SAP, Cawa Younosi, that "by changing the “default” a lot of things can happen". As he changed e.g. the default contract type to part-time and made hiring managers argue the reverse instead. He deserves to be proud of the acknowledgement SAP receives as an employer. Less for the efforts in wellbeing and dog-owner apps, but for being ballsy and rethinking HR. For not accepting the status-quo but fighting for innovation.

I feel optimistic still that the more events fill my calendar focussing on HR and technology (a somewhat forced marriage?) - the more use cases we cover on stage. The peer pressure might finally kick in and drop excuses. When we go beyond panels on if the "Robots are coming" or another "New Work" beauty contest about "crisp offices".

When we force ourselves what seems to be a quantum leap for too many: to invest in HR tech and create modern talent strategies.

This might finally close the digital divide I recognize in the (German) HR scene.

Download my slides from the re:publica talk
Download the slides from my HR Tech Masterclass at Recruiting Convent
Download my slides from my HR Tech Talk at Hoffest

If you want to read more about the mentioned events, here is a (German) "audiography" by MastersOfTransformation of the "Hoffest", more impressions from the RecruitingConvent Festival, full lineup ofRise of AI program.

Next events coming up where you can meet me:

Anna Ott

Thoughts about the future of work and the current state of digitization in HR.