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Why the cult of disruptive HR technology needs a reality check

Last week the transatlantic airlines from London to the USA were full of high-brow, thrusting, disruptive tech types making their way to a tacky talent mecca in either Vegas or Chicago. Thousands travelled in search of their latest HR tech toy fix or fawned over the words of everyone’s favourite disruptive OAP Richard Branson. All well and good. These are people I know and many I like and respect and I look forward to their feedback. However, behind them, as too often the case, they left a largely slow-adopting footprint of organisational mediocrity and resistance. A broken land of laggards where too often job adverts suck, candidate experience is a largely forgotten fad and a box full of dirty candidate data lies unattended in a rusty first generation ATS in too many organisations.

Such exulted masses of the HR-related brains trust is able to gather because the cult of disruptive is now in full swing. On one side, the in-house HR type feel under enormous pressure to 'pull' in the latest piece of shiny new kit that makes them five pounds lighter. On the other, the HR Tech vendor needs to 'push' said piece of kit with all the associated silver bullets built in, competing for a limited wallet share with an increasing stack of options. However, much like the wider fallacy of the so-called 'digital transformation' of technology-first, people-second approaches, we are once again repeating the same old mistakes of yesteryear born out of a flawed logic that disruptive isn’t actually a strategy but a must-have designer label for the HR masses, a byword for progress setting too high an expectation and now leading to a new era of over-egged big bets for the 'desperate to please' HR professional in the workplace.

This is sadly nothing new. Ever since we left the security and predictability of the 20th century organisation behind we’ve been looking for ways to make sense of the changes to our world of work in ways that we believed kept us relevant - seat at the table, business partnering, etc. This cognitive dissonance (the competing conflict of our organisational policing legacy and the onward rush of disruptive) has often brought us nothing but ridiculous misaligned outcomes like these:

  1. Who remembers when we stuck an 'e' before HR to brand our new technology-enabled ways when we found ourselves on the company intranet in the early noughties. This act of wanton disruption allowed us to put online our HR policies that still informed the employee that we would saw off their arm if a tattoo became visible. By the end of the era we dropped the 'e' and put TECH as a suffix, a stunningly remarkable bit of progress that continued to mean nothing to the people subjected to such things as zero hour contracts in the workplace or other such vagaries of job insecurity.

  2. We pushed on and ‘best practice’ informed us that the emerging sun-kissed disruptive yet nerdy Californians were embracing collaborative mindsets. We dipped our toe whilst at the same time still blocking all social media channels internally and building reward programs that highlighted the individual, not the community, was indeed king. Culture became a serious topic for conversation only after the toxicity of the Financial Services version tipped the world on its rear end in 2008.

  3. And finally, breaking free from the ever-increasing problem of Employment 'blanding' we went after headline-grabbing CSR awards to highlight our soft, purpose-led organisational side whilst at the same time adopting every type of strategy imaginable to avoid paying our corporate tax contributions to the exchequer. Well, those school playground walls won’t paint themselves team building event !

Whilst we know it’s necessary, authentic change is bloody hard and most organisations expend massive levels of endeavour just to keep them and their products & services relevant on a daily basis in today's world. HR Technology is an important component to reinventing the workplace but doesn't take primacy and change doesn’t come packaged in a neat bundle that plugs into the mainframe. Also we humans don’t naturally respond well to shouts of "disruptive" as a rallying call and any chance of success must factor in taking people with you. It may be counter intuitive to all the articles and memes we read but let’s lower our sights from this ridiculous level of disruptive over-expectation and avoid another generation of over-promises.

Instead and in dedication to the hard working people of HR left behind last week who deal with what happens in reality – let’s hear it for those driving the minor tweaks, the accidental victories, the marginal differences and the incremental changes that are all worth fighting for to keep them and their business relevant. Then who knows, do this often enough and maybe one day people might just say that what you’re doing is truly disruptive.

Until next time. As they say in Belfast City – Give my head peace about disruptive.

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