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Digital HR: What Is It and What’s Next?

Dave Ulrich /

No one doubts that technology has changed our lives. Global online sales have doubled in five years to over $1.5 trillion. The big six social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Google+, and Pinterest) exceed a total membership of 2.4 billion people. If it constituted a country, Facebook—the most popular social media platform—would be the second most populous country on the planet, after China. Technology pervades our daily lives in how we use computers, communicate, access entertainment, drive, shop, form relationships, and so forth. Unprecedented and fast innovation in technology provides digital information that increases and enables customization, underpins predictive analytics, and redefines boundaries.

So, what are the implications for HR?

Human resources is not exempt from being affected by this digital progression. The digital world of HR is a major theme for dozens of HR conferences and new applications and tools with great promise. Let me suggest four phases in the evolution of digital HR, recommending phase 4 (connection) as the new agenda. 

Phase 1: Efficiency: To what extent do we use technology to streamline administrative HR work?

Large global firms like Oracle (with PeopleSoft), SAP (with Success Factors and Qualtrics), and Workday (with Workday Human Capital Management) offer technology platform services, engineered systems, and software applications for business and HR solutions. These firms often build the technological backbone for automated shared services where administrative work is done faster, cheaper, and easier. In addition, emerging robots extend this efficiency agenda by doing HR administrative work

Phase 2: Innovation: To what extent do we use technology to innovate our HR practices?

Innovative HR apps upgrade every HR practice area (see some examples below). I have proposed five criteria for evaluating the viability of these apps as they continue to proliferate. The following are some examples of how HR can improve HR practices with technology applications.

Phase 3: Information: To what extent do we use technology to access information?

We found in our research that information management (asymmetry) is the most critical capability to deliver business results. Traditionally, access to information gave leaders power because they had more information than their employees. Today, with open access to information through technology, information is less about power and more about the ability to make better business decisions. HR departments can influence information asymmetry by hiring information experts (e.g., software engineers), ensuring that external information guides internal decision making (e.g., predictive analytics), and bringing rigor to both structured (statistical) information and unstructured (observational) information

Phase 4: Connection: To what extent do we use technology to create connections?

Even as digital HR enables efficiency (phase 1), innovation (phase 2), and information (phase 3), the emerging impact of digital HR will enhance connection. Being connected overcomes loneliness (social isolation) and underlies employee experience. The need for connection is high as recent research has found that social isolation increases mortality rates more than smoking, obesity, or substance abuse. Connection defines employee experience by drawing on attachment theory. Attachment theory essentially states that when someone has strong emotional attachment, personal well-being increases, which in turn increases personal productivity and overall organizational performance. The HR digital agenda needs to evolve to focus on emotional attachment or connection in two ways. 

First, HR technology helps employees attach to each other in order to feel a sense of belonging through personal relationships. As such, technology is about connections not contacts. These personal connections may be problem-solving networks where people work on common business problems with others from around the world, social networks where people share their daily lives, or meaning networks where people connect with others who share their values.

For the millennial generation, these technology-enabled networks are often a major part of daily life. But for all generations, technology networks can shift from simply sharing information to also creating emotional connections. Gamification, for example, is not just about using games to share information but to build personal relationships among the game players.

Second, emotional attachment or connection is not just from belonging and relationships but also meaning and identity. A good friend recently sold her business and fell into a melancholy back hole. While she still had friends, she felt the loss of her connection from the meaning and identity her organization gave her. Another friend learned that being alone is not the same as being lonely. Even being alone, he could connect with his immediate physical setting (in his case, finding joy from seeing the ocean), with his work (working with a purpose), and with his personal goals (feeling accomplishment). So in addition to connecting through belonging, HR could use technology to encourage employee connection through:

  • Entertainment and activities. Employees have activity connections when they use digital information to be more entertained, informed, and enthusiastic about their hobbies and pastimes. Esports is one of the fastest growing entertainment activities today. 
  • Nature. Employees feel nature connection when they use technology for virtual visits to favorite locations and to more readily schedule outings to meaningful places.
  • Ideas. Employees have idea connection when they become passionate about their insights and then use technology to access and generalize their ideas. 
  • Organization. Employees gain identity connection by participating in a purpose-driven organization (work, community, charitable, political, religious, or other organization). Technology enables these organizations to articulate and share their purpose through social media and other platforms. 

As HR professionals use technology to create employee connections and experiences with both people and sources of meaning, they advance the next digital HR agenda by moving beyond delivering administrative efficiency (phase 1), upgraded and innovative HR practices (phase 2), and information (phase 3). HR digital connection (phase 4) increases personal productivity and overall organizational performance.