The yin and yang of digital HRM experiences

Companies find that digitalising human resources management (HRM) creates simultaneously positive and negative experiences for many users.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 03 Sept 2021

Positive and negative experiences are often inseparable when using contemporary digital technologies.

We all experience the paradoxes of using digital technologies in our personal lives. Social media, for one, has had unexpected and contradictory effects on our hopes and fears. Similarly, consider how smartphones sometimes make it difficult to distinguish between work and personal life.

Our relationships with digital technologies in the workplace are also becoming increasingly complex. Smartphone use for work provides us with a sense of autonomy on the one hand and excessive control by the employer on the other. They increase our personal connections but simultaneously grow expectations of our professional commitment to colleagues and clients.

Digitally-enabled distributed workgroup and work from home technologies create privacy and disturbance dilemmas. Self-service technologies have both intended and unintended consequences on traditional work and business relationships.

One of the challenges of digitalising human resources practices is that it too leads to both positive and negative experiences for many users at the same time.

Digital technology and the changing role of HR

Digital human resources management (HRM) refers to the application of digital technologies to support HR activities. The digitalisation of HRM is disrupting the conventional HR operating model by automating traditional services and offering new value-added services.

Unlike traditional HR that used IT to improve routine administrative functions such as payroll and personal data administration, digital HRM seeks to exploit social, mobile, analytics, cloud, self-service, AI and other emerging 4IR technologies.

To unlock greater value from digital HRM, HR practitioners require a set of new competencies, including IT skills.

Digital HRM is transforming HR from a bureaucratic administrative function responsible for personnel administration, to a strategic partner that attracts and recruits scarce talent and champions the overall wellbeing of existing employees. Digital HRM is already changing how organisations attract, evaluate, and recruit new talent, as well as how they socialise, develop, evaluate, reward and retain valuable employees.

For example, some HR practitioners use data analytics to support strategic decision-making, such as assessing the benefits of the organisation's graduate training programme and the competitiveness of pay levels. HRM practitioners exploit immediate opportunities to improve routine processes while exploring the transformative role of digitalisation for the future.

While the innovative aspects of digital HRM can improve employee and line manager relationships, technology-driven approaches to digital HRM can also irritate them.

Unlocking greater value through IT and HR collaboration

There is uncertainty about whether digital HRM contributes to strategic outcomes, such as improved human capital, competitive advantage and business performance.

Despite the hype in the media and vendor advertising, many senior executives believe digital HRM has not improved HR's standing as a strategic partner. Unmet expectations among line managers and end-users also resulted in dissatisfaction with digital HRM and the HR function.

Digital HRM’s value is still to be realised in many organisations. Many experts are calling for IT and HR units to collaborate better to unlock unrealised value. As HRM practices continue to shift from traditional to digital HRM, the major challenge in unlocking potential value will be to build better stakeholder relationships.

HR and IT will need to focus not just on optimising traditional HRM processes and the provision of new digitally-enabled value-added services, but also on improving employee experience.

Digitalisation and the changing digital workforce

The digital workforce, which includes the new generation of employees, globally dispersed employees and tech-savvy employees, use digital media to connect and communicate with employers.

They expect to perform HR-related tasks, such as managing their payroll information, leave requests and performance appraisals, from any location, at any time.

Digital technologies can also help the HR function connect with prospective and existing employees in remote locations or work-based environments.

At their best, digital HRM can empower users and make them feel connected to the organisation. At their worst, digital HRM can intrude on day-to-day work and alienate users.

Ambivalent experiences with digital HRM

Many complications are constraining user experiences with digital HRM.

For one, sticky conventional work practices still tend to operate alongside novel digitalised work practices. For example, some users and line managers supplement their electronic leave applications with a print-based paper version. They are unwilling to substitute paper-based HR related documents with electronic documents completely.

Users also trust and distrust digital HRM at the same time. While digital HRM improves accessibility and provides new workforce insights using analytics, users are concerned about the lack of security controls to manage sensitive employee information.

Furthermore, ease of use experiences tends to vary depending on the functionality. For example, while completing an online leave application may be simple for many users, many find their performance appraisals complex and cumbersome to complete online.

In addition, empowerment of users through online tools often negates the need for many to engage with HR and line managers, ironically leading to less employee engagement and even greater avoidance.

The concept of ambivalence is useful then in depicting the contradictory experiences and mixed emotions users have with digital HRM. HR and IT practitioners may find it difficult to unlock the value potential of digital HRM without insights about these ambivalent user experiences.

Improving digital HRM experiences

To manage users' ambivalent experiences and unintended behaviours, change agents involved in digital HRM transformations should communicate more effectively with the end-user community, especially when users have legitimate and constructive concerns about their ambivalent digital HRM experiences.

Instead of viewing user complaints one-sidedly as employee grumbling, recognise that positive and negative attitudes about digital HRM use can coexist.

HR and IT practitioners should identify and progressively manage paradoxical user experiences to bring about a more stable and appropriate use of digital HRM.

The role of HR practitioners is changing. To unlock greater value from digital HRM, HR practitioners require a set of new competencies, including IT skills. Apart from being functional specialists, they also need digital HRM and change management expertise to continuously monitor and improve user experiences.

Finally, I hope that the future IT-savvy HR practitioners will advocate for the design of digital experiences that meet the expectations of prospective and existing employees.

* Based on a paper presented at the annual Americas Conference on Information Systems (AMCIS 2021).