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How HR can help universities to be ready in the new digital age

Published on 08 October 2019
Yusuf Saleh Shapayah at session
Yusuf Saleh Shapayah

Yusuf Saleh Shapayah is the Chief Manager, Human Resources at United Stated International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

If you would like to speak to him about this topic, you can contact him directly by email.

The ACU held its 8th HR in HE Community Conference in Canada at the University of Waterloo in September 2018. The conference brought together HR practictioners working in higher education from across the Commonwealth and beyond, to examine the theme 'Universities of the Future: Global Perspectives for HR?'. Here, Yusuf Saleh Shapayah Chief Manager, Human Resources at United Stated International University-Africa – who spoke at the conference on HR in the new digital age – shares his experience.

The world has undergone far-reaching societal, cultural and economic revolutions based on the growing dominance of digital technologies. Data analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning have no more remained words used by the technology or business development teams in an institution. The influx of new technologies has dramatically reshaped the workplaces of today. This evolution has been a gradual process, however, lately it has taken up an exponential pace. A recent report by Deloitte on Global Human Capital Trends indicates that global 77 percent of business and 74 percent of HR leaders believe that people analytics and digital HR are going to be critical considerations for organisations this year. This is because of the speed at which technology is changing the way companies design and deliver a service, online recruitment platforms and management of employee in organisations.

The digital age empowers people and talent at work place and hence continuously dominating the HR space today than ever. Digital technology is disrupting business models, operational processes, and talent engagement, fundamentally transforming the way in which organisations function. These has led to the following three focus areas:

  • Digital employees
  • Digital work
  • Digital Performance management

Digital employees

Prensky, 2001, asserts that the concept of 'digital employees' figuratively refers to assume changes in the core subject matter of the HR profession labelled with various terms such as digital natives. It is assumed that the early, intimate and enduring interaction with digital technologies has shaped a new generation of people with distinctively different attitudes, qualifications, behaviour and expectations (Deal et al., 2010). Today; more people own digital gadgets (smart phones, laptops, tablets) and are conversant with digital technologies: Be it; Email Platforms, Social Media Platforms. Social media at the workplace is making it easier for employees to exchange ideas and information in the real time.

HR cannot avoid this or look the other way. HR will need to play a vital role in supporting this shift. It will need to look toward playing a role that allows for this interaction, knowledge sharing, innovation and engagement, without adding to the risk or at minimal possible risk.

Digital work

Digital entails the ongoing digitalisation and increasing automation of manual and routine work, and a slow but steady change of remaining tasks towards brain and information work. The rise of HR information software and systems have changed how work is done. With machines and robotics taking over people tasks, simplifying and speeding up on the deliverables making organisations achieve their objectives. This is because all information today is either digital, has been digital, or could be digital and work information largely depends on digital tools and media (Bawden, 2008, p.19).

Through analytics and machine learning, a new generation of workforce technologies is helping leaders guide workers in a timelier way and helping people take a more active role in managing their own performance and careers. In the digital age, business practices shift from batch to real-time, retrospective to predictive, desktop to mobile, and corporate-drive to people-centric. It's time to modernise HR. "Digital work is the future of work"

Digital performance management

The new digital age is increasingly transforming performance management in the workplace, supporting more frequent contextual and transparent feedback to employees. The idea of abolishing the annual performance review has been discussed, adopted, reversed, reinstated and modified many times across thousands of organisations over the past 50 or more years, and continues to make the news today.

Despite all this, the performance review isn't going away anytime soon. Regardless of underlying drivers, the Performance Management System in digital HR is being re-evaluated at each of its component parts, as organisations seek new ways to improve employee alignment, performance and engagement. Going by this trend, annual performance reviews will be replaced by frequent feedback and coaching which means that leaders will be held accountable for employees' career collaboration, particularly through new agile performance management practices. There will be increased feedback frequency from employees to meet the demand for more frequent feedback, which will force organisations to rethink what employee performance metrics are set and how they are communicated.

For many organisations, this would represent a significant change in culture, exposing accomplishments, actions and other aspects of performance beyond the silo of the employee-manger relationship. The good news is that performance management is coming back to life through advanced digital technologies that are revolutionising workplace management as we know it. One trend driving a more personalised approach to performance management is the speed at which the business and technology environment is changing. Technology enabled performance management is far more comprehensive and holistic. It focused on maximising people development, improving the performance of individuals and the entire organisation.

How HR professionals can prepare for the new digital age

HR professionals need to reinvent themselves continuously and engage in approaches in digitalising the workplace for quality and efficient service delivery. Those who will succeed are like chameleons - they can adapt their skillsets in order to stay relevant.

Technologies can support this by providing more customised learning and coaching experiences. HR professionals in universities should therefore guide people in their respective universities based on data-driven facts and not opinions. It's therefore paramount for HR professionals in higher education to align their strategies and activities to this new labour market and venture into adequate ways of talents sourcing, training and development, compensation, and employee experience, and performance management. This will have a huge impact on the organisation culture, which will enhance employee experience through the provision of up-to-date tools and technologies to support their work productivity e.g. learning and development programmes, employee online self-service for their leave applications.

When it comes to performance management, a more fact-based, data-driven approach to performance management will enable the evaluation process to be more open and focus on continual performance improvement, fostering collaboration, and fair, transparent, regular feedback and guidance to employees in the context of their daily work activities. Additionally, high-quality data can be used to steer people's performance in a more powerful way.