HR lacks tech skills to support delivery of digital transformation – survey

International research reveals that a lack of understanding of digital technologies and procedures in HR departments is a challenge to successful digital transformation.

Research* from interviewing more than 350 senior HR and L&D executives in large corporations in Europe and the Middle East, reveals that a lack of understanding of digital technologies and procedures in HR departments is a challenge to successful digital transformation.

The international research was conducted to better understand how Chief HR Officers, Chief Learning Officers, directors and heads of departments view the state of digital transformation within their organisations. More than nine in 10 of the HR and L&D leaders interviewed believe digital transformation should be a priority in the business

Over the last 12 months, Covid-19 has precipitated a mass transition to remote working and distributed operations – digital technology has been instrumental in the recovery from the shock waves the pandemic created.

But the survey, ‘Digital Transformation Through Human Development’, exposes attitudes on digital transformation as fundamentally a human process that relies as much on the practical and intelligent development of people, alongside the development of soft skills, as it does on technology. Yet if HR is tasked with supporting its delivery, it is seldom resourced itself with the required level of digital literacy.

“The research shows that the emphasis on digital transformation in HR is accompanied by a strong sentiment that investment in changes to HR infrastructure is often insufficient,” says the report’s author, Alan Brown, Co-founder of Unities digital advisory services and Professor in Digital Economy at the University of Exeter Business School.

“Traditionally the level of core technology skills within the HR community is relatively low. The competencies that HR needs to foster throughout the organisation often need to be developed internally too. Consequently, the struggle is to operate day-to-day activities while also engaging in the upskilling required to digitally transform how HR functions.”

HR-led digital transformation
The need for greater investment in digital literacy is underscored by the fact that 89% of the survey’s respondents say that digital transformation is a business priority over the next 24 months. In this respect, HR’s role in getting employees on board is critical. HR and L&D leaders surveyed in the Headspring research regard the optimisation of internal processes as digital transformation’s most significant benefit by far.

The organisation-wide nature of digital transformation requires HR staff to be competent in a growing range of techniques and styles of organisational approach. They also need maturity and sophistication in digital technologies and processes. To play a central supporting role to all functions, HR needs to be increasingly fluent in digital technologies and procedures, as well as their continually changing impact on organisational development.

Soft skills as a key to successful transformation
In contrast to attitudes on the need for digital literary among the HR community and the wider employee base, the research respondents prioritise leadership and soft skills development over technical skills.

While more than a third of respondents believe that their business – and business leaders in particular – could benefit from having better technical skills, organisation-wide soft skills development is seen as more important than technical training in the service of digital transformation.

More than half of those surveyed regard collaboration as the most valuable soft skill, with flexibility and adaptability ranked closely behind.

“HR should be central to all strategies and plans for digital transformation, bringing depth and rigour to conversations about job role redesign, flexible hiring practices, employee career development, workplace wellbeing, and many more essential themes,” says Gustaf Nordbäck, CEO of Headspring.

“The unfortunate reality is that HR is not always well positioned to have the influence that is needed in these debates. Few senior executives think of HR as a logical starting point in setting the course of digital transformation. Yet, HR’s insights and competencies in effective recruitment, talent management and capability development are fundamental to any digital transformation strategy.

“The research clearly highlights that those organisations with most successes in digital transformation pay careful attention to the role of HR in accelerating change. Not just as recipients of digital technology improvements, but as digitally empowered teams with significant influence in the organisation’s digital future,” Nordbäck concludes.

*Headspring in collaboration with Professor Alan Brown

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