Stuart Sackman: The pace of change in business is just dramatic. For companies to continue to compete, innovation is going to become ever more important and we see already these major changes in how industries are evolving. The whole time sharing economy – AirBnB and companies like Uber – they’re really disrupting these established industries and that takes place everywhere because the technology moves so fast. You can get these viral adoption technologies that companies can start up and create stuff, blast on the internet and use social networks, and established companies can be at risk if they’re not keeping the pace of innovation. I think a big opportunity for HR professionals to help with that is to make sure that as they are training leadership and working with management, they really encourage innovation and experimentation at the lowest level. Our innovation lab, that’s a good model, but you can also do that by spurring more innovation and more experimentation at the very local level, and then rolling up those ideas to the rest of the company.
So how can work processes in large corporations lend to innovation? Could the agile culture of a startup be replicated in that environment do you think?
Again, I think you can be entrepreneurial at the work-group level and I think that’s really important, and then I think also large companies – and this is what I think we’ve done quite well – can drive innovation and compete with start-ups if they’re willing to invest in and replicate the environment and the skillset that are in these start-ups. Once they get accustomed to working in an open environment there’s more social collaboration.
Recognise the successes, even small successes. Recognise at a very personal level the people that drive that change. Also, I think it can help to have a top-down commitment and focus. At ADP for example (we use acronyms for everything!) our basic overriding mission in life is to simplify and to innovate, and simplification plus innovation equals growth – we call that ‘SIG’. So the fact that our CEO is reinforcing innovation in every form, in all his announcements and in little notes attached to our quarterly dividend cheques, he’s reinforcing innovation and I think it does cause us all the recognise that.
Finally, it is really important is: encourage experimentation. We don’t have all the answers, we need to experiment, we need to encourage that. We need to not punish failure, because not every experiment is going to work, and celebrate the successes. I think that loosening the constraints a little bit and letting people know that they’re empowered to experiment within the scope of their responsibilities can create a lot of really good innovation.
To that end, what kind of systems, tools and techniques could you employ?
A really good technique is this idea of a ‘code-fest’, but it doesn’t have to be just technology-orientated. You could do it on any topic you want, but the idea is that it creates a contest – we all love contests – it’s highly interactive, it’s highly unstructured like, “Hey everyone, go out and create something and we’re going to review and we’ll recognise it.” That’s a good structure. Again, you can do it targeted. “Hey everyone, let’s think about developing a mobile app to help us recognise our peers.” Or “Hey everyone, let’s submit ideas for how to simplify the onboarding process, or improve the experience on a service call.” So you can target the ideas and that’s a good technique for generating them, and then, critically important is following through on the delivery of whatever it is that you select. So when we do this internally we sign contracts. My worst nightmare is having our employee base think that I was dishonest or disingenuous, so when we sign stuff we try to get it done.
What do you think is the main competitive advantage that companies can enjoy from big data in an HR sense?
I think there are limitless opportunities for the use of big data. I mean, I talk to clients and customers all the time and they really want to know, “How do my pay scales compare? How do my basic staffing ratios compare?” Because it’s a data point that lets them understand how they’re doing, relative to the competition. But when the big data gets really helpful is when it brings you actionable insights that can help you manage your business better. Lots of companies track turnover and they call the plant manager in country X or city Y and say “You’re turnover’s 37 percent, our average is 25 percent. You’re doing something wrong, retain more people.” Those percentages are meaningless because if he’s turning over 37 percent but they’re his lowest performers and they’re the most disengaged, he might have the best overall operation. If someone else has 20 percent turnover but they’re losing all that high potential, those highly skilled people, then that’s a nightmare.
So the value of big data analytics is let us get better insight. We’re too much on the surface now, we need to get deeper into the data to find things that help us be better – who’s at risk for turnover, who are my most engaged associates, what can I learn from my most engaged associates and how can I improve that engagement, and I think big data gives you the opportunity to do that, as well as benchmarking and knowing how you stand against the competition.
You’ve mentioned a few times that you could analyse your workforce with tech. Could that be invasive?
I do worry about information privacy. There’s lots of legislation here and that does concern me. On the other hand, people spend a lot of time at work. I don’t think we’re at the point where we want to monitor people’s medical conditions. If they want to make that decision for themselves, they should have the right to do that and take action, so I don’t think we’re going there. However, I think if we collect information like how the mood of employees impact the success of the organisation to learn about what makes for a more engaged better workforce, then it’s appropriate and everyone could benefit. If I was able to statistically prove that the people’s mood affected the overall performance of the organisation then I might take actions that could be beneficial for keeping people in a better mood, such as increasing the staffing ratio so there’s more people so it’s not so hectic, or providing breakfast in the morning. Then we might get people starting the day in a better way, under the theory that it will float through to better business performance.
Could you forecast what HR challenges we might be talking about in ten years’ time?
I think that technology will become more personalised and this concept of machine learning will be a real thing and can change the way people use systems at work. In the future, my systems will learn my interactions and bring to me the things that they know I do most frequently, in a way that I’m most accustomed to using them, and we’ll be able to do that because we’ll have access to so much more data. The processing speeds will be so fast and so real-time so that we’ll be able to get to hyper-personalised, hyper-interactive interactions with machines. I think voice will be another major change. I don’t know if you saw but Skype just announced that you can now do real-time video with translation. You talk in English and you’re hearing me in Spanish responding, so that will make a big difference in globalisation.