There is no “Digital Revolution”

Every day, I hear people in business talking about digital transformation, digital disruption, the digital revolution. I hear them talk about their organisations becoming digital businesses.

But the thing is, in most cases they aren’t becoming anything of the sort.

We can’t underestimate the impact that technology has on the way we interact as consumers, as employees, as enterprises and service providers. But we need to be careful to avoid the easy distraction of the simple half-truth.

Before “the digital revolution”, we didn’t refer to ourselves as physical businesses. And to that point, it is hard to put a finger on when physical became digital. The calculator? The mainframe? The mobile phone? The internet? When was the start of the end and the end of the beginning?

It really doesn’t matter what sector your organisation operates in, finance, retail, leisure, media or public services. The chances are that the principal purpose for which you employ people and go to work every day isn’t “digital”, but something else. To insure people against loss, to sell people the means to keep warm, to provide entertainment, content or security, health and wellbeing.

I’m not splitting hairs, my experience of working in various organisations over the years has taught me that in times of change, in times of disturbance or disruption, the survivors are the ones that understand what they do and what they exist for. They have a purpose that transcends the means of delivery.

They remain single-mindedly focussed on this core purpose and reason for being, but completely open minded to the way in which they can execute it in a changing world. This differentiation between intent and execution is critical for organisational alignment and strategic direction.

As HR leaders, we can really demonstrate our value when organisations undergo change and there is no doubt that new technologies provide opportunities that need to be optimised and embraced. To do that, we’ve got to understand what our businesses are really about, how they make money or fulfil their public service remit.

The nature of business, of organisations, has changed before and it will change again. There will be new entrants to our worlds and established names will fall by the way. In many cases, the biggest difference between those that win and those that lose, will not be the change itself, but the ability to understand what stays the same.

Your corporate culture is dead

Do you feel like you belong at work? Do you want to feel like you belong?

What is the role of organisations in creating a sense of purpose and belonging? Is there one, or is it all a waste of time?

When employment was for life, or as near as, there was a sense of belonging and identity. Families worked for the same employer generation after generation, towns and communities were built around industries and employers.

But that time is past and now we move as freely between organisations as we do between pretty much every other aspect of our lives. And with the increase in those that work for more than one employer, can we really expect them to feel any sense of identity with multiple paymasters?

When people no longer come to the same workplace, from the same background or even the same country, can we really expect people to feel a sense of commitment and identity beyond the payslip?

Whats clear is that the way i which we view organisational culture needs to change. No longer can we tell people what our culture is and expect them to adhere. Like the condescending finger wagging of authority that we saw in the wake of this weekend’s rugby result, we can no more tell people how they should or shouldn’t react in defeat than we can tell them who we are as an organisation and how they need to behave. The management of corporate culture is dead.

Yet at the same time, people can feel identity and belonging without being present or managed into doing so. Beatlemania showed that you didn’t have to have ever visited Liverpool or even have seen the band to find some depth of association and belonging, Manchester United have fans that buy their shirts across the world without ever having set foot in Old Trafford. And of course, people are travelling across from across the world to fight and support ISIS without ever having any connection with Syria or the fighters that are there.

What does this mean? I don’t know. More questions than answers once again. But it suggests that the way in which we think about organisational culture needs to change. It is no longer a static managed product that is delivered top down, no matter how many bottom up exercises and listening groups you hold.

It is fluid, transient and needs to appeal more than it needs to dictate. It exists because people say it does and it lives because people want it to. It’s a sum of the parts of the hopes and dreams of every single person that wishes to exist within it is. And it is entirely voluntary, for better or for worse.

Nobody needs an HR strategy

Call it an HR strategy, a people plan, a road map. Call it whatever you like, but one thing is certain it will mostly be a waste of your time and energy.

Because being more strategic, doesn’t mean writing about it on paper. It doesn’t mean going on an away day and it certainly doesn’t mean focussing on your HR brand.

There is only one strategy that really matters and that’s your business.

Yet my experience of HR professionals is that they spend more time working on their own strategy than that of the business.


Well firstly because most businesses don’t build the people implications into their strategy in any fundamental sense (I’m not talking about the nominal “Talent” column which the board include to show that people are their greatest asset…).

Secondly, because HR Directors then try to demonstrate their commercial acumen and business value, by taking their team away to focus on the people strategy.

But the problem with doing this is that you automatically create the first degree of separation between the two. And that can then only get worse.

Instead of wasting everyone’s time and money, invest it in understanding your organisational strategy, reflect on the people requirements now and in the future and then realign your HR activities to support it.

It may not sound as big and clever, it may not be something you can have designed and put on the wall and it may not get you a day out a venue where you can indulge in your favourite ice breaker or personality profiling tool.

But it will make your business more successful, it will create meaning in what you do and it will, most likely, get you noticed by the people who really matter as they start to see you genuinely add value.

Dump the internal customer

When I hear people refer to “internal customers”, my hackles get raised. It dates back to my years in retail, my CEO then had a mantra that there was only one customer – the one that came in to the shop. It’s a logic that really sticks with me and something that I hold dear to this day.

Put simply, I HATE the concept of an internal customer. And I DOUBLE HATE it, when referring to HR and “the business”.

I get the allure of referring to a customer service mentality, and the seeming simplicity of applying this to assuage the views of HR as bureaucratic. But when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. And in this case, the simplicity hides a number of major faults with this approach which makes it more of a distraction than a cure.

Customer implies a value transaction and yet in most organisations, this doesn’t occur. There are some that engage in internal charging models, but this tends to become more a bureaucratic source of dissatisfaction. How much would a pay award cost? Is there a mark up on it? What’s my cut?

Customer implies a choice of whether to transact, but in most cases we’re not suggesting any level of choice. “Do you want to use the disciplinary process or not? It’s a bargain I promise. In fact, I tell you what, if you buy one I’ll throw in a second one for free”.

Customer implies a power imbalance. What happens when HR is serving someone from IT, but that person is serving someone from Finance, who in turn is serving someone from HR? Who is the customer and who is the provider? Or are we back in the world of bartering? “Give me some training and I’ll fix your PC”, “Wait, I can do better than that, fix my PC and I’ll turn a blind eye to your budget overspend…..”

And therein is my biggest issue with internal customers, it makes an industry of the internal machinations of the organisation and takes us away from our true focus on the customer, the consumer, the procurer or purchaser. Whatever industry we are in, we are there to provide something to someone external. That is why we exist. If HR wants to be commercial then it would be better off getting the business to focus outside, rather than in.

I don’t have customers. I don’t have a customer service mentality. I have colleagues, team mates, co-workers, friends and collaborators. Together I want to work hard to deliver the best for the business and the people who interact with us.

Because they’re the real people we serve.