Technology and Risk to Shape the Future of Talent

HR Think Tank Focuses on Building Learning Organizations


HR Think Tank

Rapid change, uncertainty and complexity – this is the business context that demands HR step up to two new challenges: a need to create agile learning organizations and assume new roles such as recruiting and developing talent for risk management. These were some of the central ideas that drew directors and international experts from around the world to last week’s IESE HR Think Tank in Barcelona.

A Transformational Role

"HR has a positive, transformational opportunity," declared Edward Hess, Darden Business School (University of Virginia) professor and author of Learn or Die. He is convinced that the role of organizational HR will be ever more important because it will need to develop a workforce not to compete with technology, but to complement it.

A recent U.S. government report predicts that technology will displace 47% of jobs. Looking at this future landscape, one wonders what is left for companies and HR professionals. "The speed and quality of organizational adaptation (i.e., learning) will be, for the most part, the only sustainable competitive advantage," Hess explained.

Building Learning Organizations

Learning underlies operational excellence and innovation. HR leaders need to have a good grasp of how learning occurs and the internal obstacles that keep it from taking hold. For instance, all companies and industries have mental models that are so deeply rooted that they hinder learning potential. "We are reflexive, speedy and efficient confirmation machines," explains Hess. "That is why diversity is important. We each have a different cognitive blindness." HR’s role, therefore, is to help people overcome their humanness and become better learners.

A company culture that allows employees up and down the hierarchy to freely express ideas is one characteristic of a good learning organization. Hess cited companies like the American software company Intuit, that empowers the entire work force to experiment, as one good example to follow. "Failure rate at great learning, innovative organizations is more than 90% ... you just have to be sure that failures are cheap," he observed.

From Dread and Drudgery to Passion and Purpose

The latest research in neuroscience supports Hess’s recommendations for building work environments that are more conducive to learning. Nigel Paine, former head of training and development at the BBC invited the audience to consider the implications of the brain’s recently discovered neural plasticity on their role in reshaping the future work place. If we know that exercise and emotional engagement are crucial to productivity and cognitive abilities, even on the aging brain, then why is the worker-tethered-to-desk model not obsolete?

Paine labels these traditional work environments as tending toward, "Alzheimer’s in the body corporate…it’s what happens when employees are doing repetitive, mind-numbing work." It is not surprising then that 30% of workers feel demotivated and 10% would go so far as to bad-mouth their own company. "These are the major challenges that affect how we develop our people," he observed, proposing that managers assume a central role in making workers conscious learners.

He emphasized that rather than dread and drudgery, it really has to be about passion and purpose. Organizations need to watch out for toxic leadership because it destroys learning. In contrast, he pointed out, "A CEO with passion and purpose can translate that down the hierarchy of the organization."

Developing Talent for Corporate Risk Management

In addition to fostering and reinforcing a culture of learning within the organizations, HR will need to step up and assume a new role in risk management. IESE’s Markus Maedler, Assistant Professor of Accounting and Control discussed how in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers’ debacle, "risk is now everybody’s business."

Compared to natural disasters like the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, man-made risks are most significant because ironically, says Maedler, companies are least prepared to manage them. Risk management therefore cannot be delegated to a specialized department; HR’s role here is key in selection and training in order to attract the kind of people to manage all the possible variations of risk. Moving forward, "the focus might be on risk knowledge and risk leadership attitudes with broad strategic thinking where the culture of failure is actually a possibility," suggested Maedler.