Background and Purpose

Digital HR Manifesto: a plea for empowerment – not inflexible processes

Digitalization is the name of the game for HR executives all over the world – but too often they end up pursuing administrative efficiency at the expense of creativity. This is a plea for digital instruments to be put in the service of strategic HR work: the Digital HR Manifesto.

Digitalization has become the Holy Grail of the HR world, with HR managers invoking algorithms and utilizing chatbots without stopping to ask whether tools like these actually give them a competitive edge. With this in mind, we – a group of academics and experienced HR experts – decided to take a closer look at their use. Drawing on extensive data, empirical studies and our own analyses, we reached the conclusion that while digital tools can undoubtedly boost the efficiency of HR processes – as they should – the situation becomes more problematic when the inflexible logic of a digital system is applied to strategic HR work. We found that this can actually hinder the very forces that can contribute to ensuring a company’s future. If it is to add value, HR work should be about systems that create scope for development, diversity and innovation.

Illustration: Digitalisierung & Personalarbeit

He who really dares, wins

If someone doesn’t regularly eat and drink, doesn’t own a smartphone or an automobile and sleeps late every morning, they are clearly at a disadvantage. But if someone eats and drinks regularly, has a smartphone and gets up punctually, they don’t necessarily have an edge either – they are just operating according to a general, easily achievable standard. If we apply this to HR work, it means that companies that don’t handle their payroll electronically, don’t operate easy-to-use recruitment apps and don’t offer a time-saving employee self-service system have an obvious disadvantage compared with their competitors, as they are operating less efficiently and are less attractive for potential skilled recruits. Clearly any company in this position needs to take action. But it should also be aware that having a digitalized system for handling travel cost claims doesn’t give it a competitive edge in the market. The prize goes to the company that has the courage to be pro-actively creative and not just seek the most efficient solution. Strategic HR work helps put companies ahead by setting the right course in terms of leadership, performance evaluation, human resources development and collaborative working.

Technically feasible but detrimental to innovation

The current trend towards digitalization not just of administrative HR instruments but also of instruments for strategic HR work is, in theory, a welcome development, but in reality is a cause for concern:

  • There is much talk of autonomy and empowerment, but in reality many tools are aimed at achieving complete control of employees.
  • Instant feedback systems are based on the assumption that an immediate course correction is required in order to guide staff in the “right” direction. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as absolute truth in open systems, if an individual’s first, as yet unrefined ideas are evaluated and every experimental step is monitored, this hardly creates a climate that is conducive to nurturing new ideas.
  • Staff selection is oriented towards finding an optimal match between job requirements and candidates’ profiles, with various algorithms used to help the selection process. But these draw on past data to find a precise match in terms of current solutions with a view to providing a basis for future action.
  • Systems claim to be able to assess a person’s personality from his or her voice, facial expressions or gestures, for example by comparing them with the relevant characteristics of successful individuals. What they fail to recognize is that people have many different facets, their deeds can be assessed entirely differently – and they can change. How would a digital system for assessing facial or characteristics or vocal patterns have judged Menachem Begin or Yasser Arafat – as terrorists, or as Nobel Peace Prize winners?

More possibilities – not fewer.

We simply don’t believe that digital instruments in the field of strategic HR work have to follow such hierarchical, static, mechanistic and backward-facing patterns. But anyone creating or using these instruments has to know what they are doing. For example video applications can be a useful tool for selecting staff, but not if they screen individuals according to a predefined template. What they can do is give both parties – applicant and team leader – an opportunity to experience each other personally. A process that only a few years ago would have come with a high price in terms of travel costs can now be set up with a few mouse clicks, thanks to digital technology. Another smart feature would be an algorithm that – instead of leading in a straight line to a 100% match – would recommend additional candidates, rather in the same way that the systems puts forward associated recommendations when you buy something on Amazon. In such a case, digitalization would actually encourage openness rather than limiting it through mechanistic processes.

Requirements of strategic HR work: the Digital HR Manifesto

Empathy, trust, responsibility and diversity are crucial to enable companies to successfully innovate and evolve – and remain competitive. We are convinced that this does not preclude the use of digital HR instruments. However, they should be designed to support the factors governing the success of human actions, rather than treating them as mere irritants.

The Digital HR Manifesto that we have developed contains twelve requirements for using digital instruments for strategic HR work. The structure and general direction of the Manifesto is inspired by the “Agile Manifesto” published in 2001 by a group of software developers. It is worth noting that, although they were themselves drivers of digitalization, these computer experts also argued for non-digital virtues to be strengthened, without losing sight of the advantages offered by digital aids. The Digital HR Manifesto follows the same tradition.

Goinger Kreis March 2019