Will Technology Doom HR?

Talent Management is spotlighting technology this month, as I am sure you have noticed. It is quite clear from the great articles and blogs I’ve read so far that technology in talent management is a) important, b) here to stay, and c) something you should embrace. Also, if you resist, it’s time to see if that bait shop down at the lake is still for sale.

I, of course, would last about five minutes in this brave new world were I still in HR. Not for the reasons you think, though. I actually am somewhat competent with computers, social media, electronic learning and the like, at least for a middle-aged white guy. In fact, I am writing this on an airMac from a streetside cafe on Ninth Street in Durham, N.C., an uber-boho sort of place. Sipping coffee, beret cocked on head, Gualoise dangling from lower lip, within minutes I will press a button and millions worldwide will read my thoughts (OK, maybe just three people – you, my lovely and talented editor Deanna Hartley and my mother). I am very post-modern and hip, trust me.

The reason I would not last is because I believe HR at its essence is a values-based endeavor, and there is not enough computational power in the world to comprehend the moral foundation of every great company. The Death Lizards of the Consultocracy who advise HR at the highest levels hate that notion, not willing to admit the average 7-year-old has a moral sophistication that none of them can replicate through technology or a spreadsheet, but it is a fact. Sure, technology can assist and enhance what you do every day in HR, and leveraging its capabilities is essential – I am not a Luddite. But it can’t replicate the wisdom and humanity you bring to the table as a human being.

The soullessness winding its way through this discussion on TM – albeit unintentional and benign – cannot be ignored by those of us with a philosophical bent. One headline claims “HR is the New IT.” Really? IT? Nothing against my many great friends in IT (one of whom, Keith, is in my regular foursome), but I will ask IT people reading this a question: how is that working out for you? Really feel like part of the team? In my experience, the best IT people are transients, following programs and systems around from enterprise project to enterprise project, highly skilled and valuable, but wandering like medieval monks. HR is different. Our skills are not as transferable as those in IT, but more valuable. What we bring to an organization is our moral knowledge, by which I mean our deep understanding of the history and culture of an organization and how it affects those with whom we work.

The digitization of HR isn’t going to stop, though. Here is the bad news.

The job you are doing now can probably be done by a computer and will be eliminated. Artificial intelligence is real, and taking over more and more of our lives. Don’t believe me? Just type a message on your iPhone without checking it and see what happens :“Did you go see Peg?” becomes “Die, you gravy sucking pig.” That is artificial intelligence in action, and while it is funny now, the algorithms are improving and it is getting better, cheaper and more consistent by the day. Not surprisingly, business is figuring out how to leverage it. Law, for example, is on the verge of  a massive re-ordering of its business model as bread and butter associate tasks are being given to computers. HR is not far behind.

Now, here is the good news.

Emotional intelligence, cultural awareness, and wisdom cannot be replicated by a computer. Only you have this ability, you silly human, you. Don’t fight it, embrace and celebrate it. Chances are, you are in HR because you are considered a “people” person. What does that mean? Exactly what it sounds like. You are humanistic in mind and outlook, care about others, and have good instincts on organizational life. So, seize the day! – the Death Lizards might not get it, but this is how you will thrive in our brave new world.

In 1954, when the late William F. Buckley founded a journal at a time American intellectual life was in a soft-socialist slide toward a collectivist future, he claimed to be “standing athwart history, yelling STOP.” I am self-aware enough to realize the takeover of modern organizational life by digits and quants is going to continue apace. My goal isn’t to stand athwart history and yell STOP, however. It is to say return to history.

A humanistic one.