CHRO & and Business 4.0 in the digital era

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The time has come for the digital transformation conversation to focus on the “how”, rather than the “what” and the “why”. The Mail and Guardian (M&G) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) have created a platform for these critical conversations with C-Suites networking breakfast events. 

These C-Suites events target senior professionals, executives and decision-makers across various sectors, from private and public, large organisations and small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs). 

M&G and anchor sponsor UJ held a CHRO & Business 4.0 networking breakfast event at Summer Place, Hyde Park on February 25, together with partner sponsors Microsoft South Africa and Dimension Data. 

This event brought together CHROs (chief human resources officers), senior human resources practitioners and professionals from diverse corporate backgrounds with the theme of the discussion set as Future of work: Leading your Workforce through Acceleration, Automation and Digitisation.

The future of work is in a constant state of flux as society faces an accelerated development of automation and digitisation. With this comes a sense of uncertainty and unpredictability, as business leaders grapple with whether or not they have the capacity to keep up with digital transformation. 

The world of work is rapidly changing, ushered in by the increased use of cloud computing, mobility, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Human resource professionals now have a critical role in rethinking their HR strategy, shifting mindsets, operating models and leading their workforce through the digital transformation.

Amid all that, the unemployment rate is now at all-time high in South Africa. Thousands of job cuts have been announced, with thousands more jobs at risk. How can smart technologies help create new skills and new job opportunities?

Chaired by the dynamic Melody Xaba, co-founder and chief creative officer of My Future Work and also in the M&G 200 Young South Africans, attendees were treated to presentations and panel discussions from a host of leading HR specialists. 

UJ director for the Institute for Intelligence Systems, Professor Babu Sena Paul, delivered the opening address. Paul said there is no waiting for the 4IR, as we are already living in it. This is evident with the growth of the population, the growth of the world GDP and the growth in data — even though we have not seen any major inventions in the past decade.  

Paul pointed out different examples that show how artificial intelligence has enhanced the capabilities of HR practitioners. This is evident from how we now use job-seeking apps to find employees and how block-chain technology allows employers to track what employees are doing daily. Work is now more about deliverables within specified time frames, and not about clocking in to the office during fixed hours.

The future of work is also changing, because the worker is changing. As boomers are being phased out, the workplace is increasingly made up of millennials and Gen Zs, HR director at Microsoft South Africa Jasmin Pillay pointed out in her address, themed around the changing workplace. 

Pillay said millennials and Gen Z employees look for an increased flexibility in the workplace and staying connected is central to their lives. Diversity and inclusion are important facets of their careers, and so are belonging and finding a purpose in the culture of the company and the company’s mission. 

To accommodate new generation workers, workplace trends now focus on the skills economy, an augmented humanity and giving their employees a sense of purpose and an opportunity to make a social impact. Pillay said in closing: “Technology only enables what you already have. [The future of work is] less about technology, it’s more about the people.”

Chief HR executive at Dimension Data Michaela Voller echoed Pillay’s message about people being at the centre of the major technological shift: “We need human connection, to connect with people to help them grow personally. The challenge with this is that we need to create a safe and trusting workforce.”

One thing to watch out for in the midst of the shift in the way we work, Voller said, is societal challenges such as burnout and depression, which are increasingly associated with the changes in the way we work. 

Panel discussions

Two panel discussions featuring drivers of the HR industry in South Africa followed. On the first panel was chief people officer at Discovery, Tswelo Kodisang; chief executive at IPM, Dr Jerry Gule; chief people officer at McDonald’s, Brigitte da Gama; and executive of HR at Royal Bafokeng Platinum, Vicky Tlhabanelo. 

The panel discussed the difficulties of retaining employees for more than two years in the new world of work. The age of employee loyalty is over: employees are now selling their skills to companies without becoming fully-fledged employees. Tlhabanelo said: “People can come and go because they are selling their nimble skills.” 

Gule also stressed the importance of sharing knowledge, particularly HR knowledge, and refraining from falling into the trap of “silo mentality”. 

Executive director of HR at Mercedes Benz, Abey Kgotle; executive officer of the National Skills Authority, Dr Thabo Mashongoane; and director of Group Human Resources at Sun International, Verna Robson, made up the second panel discussion.

While there are fears that technology will displace labour in a country that suffers from mammoth unemployment, the panellists agreed that this does not have to be the case. “Technology enhances the lives of all human beings, it benefits everyone. Tech does not displace people,” Moshangoane said. 

Robson said that technology succeeds if the culture of the organisation supports it, and stressed the importance of equipping the workforce with the skills to benefit from the technological advancements engulfing society. 

A major takeaway that many speakers emphasised was the importance of digitisation. Digitisation can allow employers to better help employees, grow companies at a quicker rate and better track that growth. 

Sherisa Rajah, a partner at Fasken, talked about the gig economy and what its implications are for employment in South Africa. Considering how fickle employment has become, Rajah spoke about how can we retain young, disruptive talent. “Young people,” she said, “need to feel as if they have the potential for social impact in their role.” Young people, mothers or those with guardianship or parental responsibilities benefit from flexible working hours. 

Rajah also spoke about the importance of continuously upskilling and reskilling employees, creating an ecosystem of skills and not just pockets of talent. 

The future of work will always be wracked with uncertainty, Rajah said, and we must constantly make provision for disruption. But while it is important for HR practitioners to stay abreast of major technological developments to boost their own success and that of their employees, “the future of work is people and augmenting their skills with technology”.

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