HR clients—the sceptics you need to win over

I recently interviewed a consultant who was telling me about a digital transformation programme he’d worked on with one of Britain’s police forces. As part of the programme, each front-line officer was given a tablet to replace the traditional policeman’s notebook. The technology would mean accurate digital records, fewer hours lost to paperwork, the ability to update cases on the go, and myriad other benefits. Except that it didn’t. The consultant went out on the beat one day and watched as an officer took out his tablet … and proceeded to use it as a clipboard to lean his paper notebook against while he jotted down his notes with an old-fashioned biro.

It’s just one of many examples that illustrate how the success of transformation depends on people, not just new technology. So what do HR clients—the people in charge of the people—make of the consultants trying to help them?

Our survey of senior end users of consulting* reveals that HR clients are less positive than other clients about the quality of consulting firms’ work in almost every service we ask about. And what’s particularly striking is that they’re least positive in all the newer technology services we ask about.

In fact, HR clients are four points less positive than clients in other functions about digital transformation as a whole, and they’re even less so about robotics. Clearly, the rise of the robots has major implications for the workforce of the future, but consultants are perhaps talking too much about efficiency gains and increased accuracy, and not enough about how this will change people’s jobs or how to transition to a new model from a talent perspective. Similarly, HR clients are less positive about sales, marketing, & customer experience, much of which in recent times has been about customers’ online experiences. So, has the human element of this shift been overlooked? HR clients’ views would suggest so.

What can firms do differently? Perhaps consultants need to start seeing the views of HR professionals as the barometer of success where digital transformation is concerned. After all, the CIO might walk away satisfied that new technology has been successfully rolled out. The COO might tick the “new process implemented” box. But the HR department sees a steady stream of people whose behaviour hasn’t changed one jot, save for the fact that they’re terrified they’re about to be replaced by a robot. And they know only too well that changing the technology or the process is by far the easiest bit.

It’s a reminder that consulting firms could do a lot worse than take some of the energy that’s currently focused on technology, and redirect it towards people instead.


*In November and December 2017 we surveyed 3,197 senior buyers of consulting services across the world. Two-hundred and twenty-seven are from clients in the HR function.