Post-Pandemic Digital Transformation: Expert Tips for HR
Post-Pandemic Digital Transformation: Expert Tips for HR

Decisive change often comes through crisis. Ideas that seemed futuristic weeks ago are now an accepted reality. Remote teams are the norm and telemedicine is taking off, to mention just two examples. Due to the new coronavirus, the future is now. 

While much of the world has slowed down, digital transformation is pushing ahead. When the crisis abates, we will find ourselves in an even more disrupted, blended, data-driven world. HR and L&D directors need to prepare for these rapid developments.

To help you weather the storm, MERIT gathered advice from top academic and corporate experts. Here are the goals you should prioritise in your post-Covid-19 digital transformation strategy.

1. Do your in-house research.

In a time of disruption, it is crucial to avoid preconceptions and bias, according to James Purvis, Head of HR, CERN. Do you know what your employees need, especially in this time of unprecedented crisis? Or do you just think you know?

Do not take trends and best practices in HR tech for granted, James advised at the 2020 global MERIT Summit. Analyse and compare them against your organisation’s needs. In a data-driven world, HR should be using in-house research as part of the decision-making process. You don’t have to be a statistician: simply gathering more feedback and listening to different points of view is a good start.

The results may surprise you. For example, Dr Nina Kreyer, Global Head of Learning at Philip Morris International (PMI), was taken aback when she found out that most of her workforce did not care for mobile-based learning. L&D gurus tend to believe that mobile-friendly solutions are a must. “Mobile is most important,” said Tiffany Poeppelman at the MERIT Annual Summit 2019 in Vienna. Yet, at PMI, most learners out of a sample of 4,000 said they preferred to learn on their laptop. The biggest surprise was that 88% of digital natives, those under 25, did not want to use their phones.

It is unclear whether this is a PMI-specific phenomenon or a broader preference, but the lesson is clear. More data leads to better decisions. Before investing in tech, make sure you know what employees need – not just what executives say they need, Nina advises. In her 2020 MERIT award-winning case, she was able to spend more on features people actually wanted, such as content in different languages. Your digital transformation may not look like anyone else’s, and this is perfectly fine.

Accordingly, ready-made solutions can be counterproductive. When engaging external providers, “don’t buy off the shelf,” suggests Julia Silies, CLO, Grifols. It is important to find tech vendors who are willing to listen and adapt to your company, even at short notice.


2. Accept failure, then do your research again.

As a leader at a top scientific organisation, James from CERN has some further advice: do not forget that experiments can fail. Your efforts to gather in-house data may not lead to conclusive results straight away. Not to worry: an important research step is to think critically about experiment design, tweak it, and run it again. Try open versus multiple-choice questions, for example, or focus groups versus online polls, or a World Café/unconference format. Use A/B testing to see which software your employees prefer. More helpful data can emerge that way.

At CERN, James has tried all of the above, and this has yielded useful information and ideas on streamlining HR services. But he plans to continue experimenting until he can crowd-source truly innovative HR solutions. He won’t consider his research successful until he discovers a breakthrough that hasn’t been tried elsewhere.

For the scientific community, pivoting from imperfect experiments is an essential part of the job. HR leaders can learn from this approach. Digital transformation means iterating. In a time of global uncertainty, you will likely need to develop small pilot solutions and prove them in action.

Experiment, gather feedback, and try again. Open-minded inquiry will allow for real transformation and will put your HR and L&D services in a better state post-pandemic than they were before.


3. Get to know the IT team.

How often do you collaborate with IT? Make it more, says Dragana Beara, Portfolio Messaging Director, Asia-Pacific and Japan, Dell Technologies. You should invest in the relationship and make IT your allies. They are experts in developing tech capabilities, whereas you can use your deeper knowledge of people to help IT understand what the organisation really needs.

Bridging the tech/non-tech divide is the only way to ensure an effective transformation. “Digital transformation should be tackled from a systemic point of view”, says Albert Meige, Academic Director, EMBA Leading Digital Transformation, HEC Paris. “You cannot address digital transformation just from one angle, but unfortunately this is what very often happens in companies.

Digitisation decisions are often imposed from the top down, with little input from anyone but IT, and this limits their efficacy. HR leaders should step into the role of mediators so that tech solutions reach everyone. Sunita Khatri, Product Marketing Leader, ServiceNow, recommends that HR and IT create a “co-owned decision-making process for technology investments.” Even better, HR and IT should work together to tailor solutions to the organisation and ensure wide adoption.


4. Show people the big picture.

Digitisation means that everyone is connected. But, at the same time, employees are dispersed in remote teams, ad-hoc chatrooms, private message threads, and personalised learning streams. In large part, this a good thing: employees can quickly reach the people and information they need and streamline their workflow. But without a bigger vision, digital transformation threatens atomisation and alienation. This is especially true during the abrupt switch to remote work forced by the Covid-19 pandemic. The ties that bind people to the company are now under strain.

HR leaders need to find ways to help people see how their work (daily tasks) connects to the why (strategic company goals) and impacts business outcomes,” writes Laura Butler, SVP People and Culture, Workfront. Otherwise, if people do not feel a sense of purpose in their digital organisation, this will reflect on their engagement and performance.

How can you overcome this problem? Peter Ivanov, an expert on virtual teams, advises HR to “overcommunicate”. In a dispersed, digital organisation, transparency is strength. You should take the lead and keep people informed as to what is happening and why, especially in times of disruption.

Additionally, L&D should train middle managers on engaging teams and communicating the “why” to them. This does not have to be a perfectly polished course or webinar. Work with what you have to reach employees now and make sure everyone is on the same page. Track the results, analyse, and iterate.

A further benefit of making everyone see the big picture is that it fosters “transactive memory”, says Dr Margarita Mayo, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour, IE Business School. Transactive memory means that employees know what others know and who to turn to for help. Digital transformation should foster a dynamic, lateral flow of knowledge, which will make the organisation more resilient. To achieve this, managers should reward employees for sharing knowledge – either in person or via a simple, integrated knowledge bank such as a wiki.


A pandemic-proof digital transformation strategy

Digital transformation is a company-wide process that needs to be carefully managed to prevent further separation into silos. Even when abruptly switching to a virtual organisation, HR and L&D leaders should devote time to understanding their people’s needs. They should be ready to test imperfect “beta” solutions, gather feedback, and iterate.

Further, HR should build a relationship with the IT team. This will become increasingly important as many organisations become, and remain, fully digital. Finally, L&D should educate employees and middle managers about the big picture. What you do now will have a lasting impact on our uncertain future. Prepare now for a successful digital transformation.


Read more: How AI Is Transforming Corporate Learning


By Ani Kodjabasheva