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Fasten your seatbelts because the future of the HR profession is happening now. The confluence of improving economic conditions, shifting workforce demographics and advances in technology is disrupting the HR profession in a way never before seen.
Below, industry watchers weigh in on four trends transforming HR into one of the most exciting areas of the company.
Future of the HR profession hinges on strategy
Traditionally, HR professionals were generalists who tended to the various and sundry details needed to hire, retain, layoff and fire employees as needed. Today, as access to newer forms of technology proliferates, HR professionals can better support their organization's quest for a competitive edge.
"Technology is no longer holding HR back," said Deb Card, partner and analyst at Information Services Group, a consulting firm. Instead, she pointed out that HR leaders and their teams are freed up to become a strategic partner as technology increasingly automates non-value-added transactional work via self-service and robotic process automation. "This results in less reliance on IT, as the move to software as a service is enabling HR to become more nimble in responding to … needs," she said.
"Intuitive mobile -- and soon, voice -- channels, cloud HCM [human capital management] suites and usable self-service for employees and managers are complementing the HR role as we know it today," Card said. "HR no longer has to find creative workarounds to poor systems, but instead can lead the change to embrace technology and new ways of working with it."
Future of the HR profession requires being data-driven
One of the most instrumental HR changes is the emphasis on being data-driven. Traditionally, HR professionals have been making recruiting and hiring decisions and recommendations based on their career experience, training and gut reactions. That's still true to a large extent. But the future of the HR profession will increasingly be based on data and analytics.
"The datafication of HR is the most significant change," said Dave Weisbeck, CSO at Visier, a people analytics and workforce planning platform. He believes this is a powerful change for the better in the areas of hiring, evaluation, rewarding and development.
"From sourcing to offboarding, every interaction with employees creates … information on people that gives us the insights to make better talent decisions," Weisbeck said.
Moreover, data need not be HR-specific to help improve the competitive edge, according to Weisbeck. "The systems and processes that HR owns are just a fraction of the data on employees," he said. "Everything a business does comes from employees producing, selling, operating or innovating, and so, business applications hold invaluable people data that can improve our competitiveness, customer satisfaction or margins."
Future of the HR profession rests on employee experience
"Over the past decade, we've seen more attention paid to the concept of integrating work and life together," said Becky Cantieri, chief people officer of SurveyMonkey, an online survey development cloud-based SaaS company. She believes this requires innovative and forward-thinking approaches to creating great employee experiences. These can come through programs, policies and input from employees "to allow individuals to integrate and prioritize work and life together," she said.
Many companies and their HR departments look to the field of customer experience for help in making their company a talent destination. "It's common for companies to focus heavily on the customer experience and journey, mapping every touchpoint and analyzing how this impacts the organization," said Sonia Fiorenza, vice president of communications and engagement strategies at SocialChorus, an employee communications platform provider. "In the past few years, more companies have begun to realize the benefit of taking a similar approach with employees," she said.
"Led by HR, [companies] are bringing together multiple disciplines, including communications, IT and others, to optimize every touchpoint in the employee journey so that employees feel more informed, valued and engaged to help the company succeed," Fiorenza said.
It's important to note that employee experience encompasses everything from engagement programs and flexible work hours to culture marketing. And at forward-thinking companies, all of leadership is paying attention.
"C-suite leadership now talks about company culture at board meetings, hires visionary HR leaders who can evolve culture for the better and recognizes culture as a conveyor of business success," said Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Keystone Partners, a provider of career and talent management services. She pointed out that exceptional candidates don't just look for job openings. "They look for people and organizations to which they can make a commitment and leaders they want to follow," Varelas said.
Employers and their HR departments, for their part, need to help their talent grow.
"Exceptional organizations develop a pipeline of talent for future hires -- talent that is positively predisposed to both the leadership and culture of the organization," Varelas said.
Tom Hammond, VP of corporate strategy and product management at Paychex, has a similar take. "Employee experience is part of every business, big or small, and a great employee experience can help level the recruitment and retention playing field for smaller companies," he said. He also believes that the employee experience can greatly impact retention and business growth and that the right HR tools can help. "Part of this experience now includes giving employees easy-to-use tools to manage their own HR tasks, including viewing their paycheck, checking how much vacation time they have, clocking in and out, requesting time off, managing schedule changes and more, all on their own and on whatever device they choose."
Future of the HR profession reshaped by candidate-driven market, job-hopping
The future of the HR profession is being radically disrupted by the changing world of work itself and the need to respond to the candidate-driven market.
In today's world, employees' career paths may be far more peripatetic than they once were. For HR professionals, this poses challenges, such as: How do you recruit in a gig economy? How do you best focus on retention when employees tend to take a job-hopping, entrepreneurial approach to their careers?
"Careers no longer look the way they did," said Lucy Ford, Ph.D., director of managing human capital at Saint Joseph's University, who has also consulted for Comcast and Johnson & Johnson as an HR expert for decades. "[They] have shifted rapidly in the last decade as the last of the millennials have entered the workforce," she said.
"Careers are no longer strictly vertical or even singular," Ford said. "HR is now finding a need to ensure that their employees have learning opportunities that meet that individual's goals rather than following a prescribed career track."
While employers still value degrees, some are becoming more flexible on requiring them or a certain kind. That's in part due to the rapid changes in the nature of work and partly due to employees' wanting to avoid crippling student debt.
Todd WeneckVP, Modis
"With the unemployment rate continuing to hover around historic lows, there aren't enough workers with the right skills to fill all of the jobs available. This is pushing companies to loosen their requirements during the hiring process," said Todd Weneck, VP at Modis, an IT and engineering staffing agency. "For example, employers view online degrees more positively than they did 10 years ago. Some companies are putting less emphasis on education altogether and are more concerned with a job candidate's previous experience or potential to be trained."
"In fact, the term new collar is gaining momentum, a categorization for skilled jobs with the opportunity for growth that don't require a formal degree," Weneck said. He believes that many large employers are supportive of the new-collar concept and are partnering with nonprofits to create training programs for these in-demand workers.
Indeed, the changing nature of work is reshaping much about the HR profession.
Ford pointed to the disruption of the gig economy and the greater incorporation of technology into even factory jobs. He said that even many factory workers must have computer skills to operate the robots.
"There are technologies in use today that we perhaps could barely imagine 10 years ago," Ford said. "Have you interacted with artificial intelligence when enquiring about an open job? You may not even be aware that you have."