90% of HR jobs in Singapore will be disrupted by technology.

Disruption of jobs by technology is nothing new.

The phrase “technological unemployment” was popularised by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s, who said it was an “only a temporary phase of maladjustment”. Yet the issue of machines replacing human labour has been discussed since at least Aristotle’s time.

We have seen how disruption has impacted local retail companies and workers as revenues in eCommerce doubled US$1bil in 2017 to US$2.4bil in 2020.

Many other jobs that we were familiar with are made redundant (bus ticketing officer) or drastically reduced in numbers (parking wardens)

Hence it should come as no surprise that the HR fraternity is finally getting the memo on how their jobs (to manage other workers) may also be highly disrupted or even made redundant by technology. 

That came in the form of a recently released report by Willis Tower Watsons which is the essence of their year-long work after conducting more than 60 interviews and 230 survey responses from business leaders and HR professionals, as well as industry scans across four countries (US, UK, Sweden and Singapore).

Commissioned by the Institute of Human Resource Professionals and the Ministry of Manpower, the study aimed to answer three key questions:

  • What technologies will impact HR in the future,
  • How jobs will change i.e. jobs and tasks that will be displaced, those that will be augmented, and new jobs and tasks that will emerge, and
  • Which skills will be critical to perform these roles, particularly the technology-related skills that HR professionals will require to perform jobs of the future.

And this will be happening within the next three to five years time, affecting 24 of the 27 HR jobs that are covered in the research

Source: Willis Tower Watson report

Singing to the choir?

As dystopian as it sounds, many of the HR practitioners, consultants and vendors are not surprised by the findings.

“Actually this report is not surprising as it’s been in the trend that digitalisation of certain HR processes can reduce the need for certain HR jobs in the market. What the report did is just to confirm and quantify the facts to this,” said Joerin Yao, Managing Director at Enable Consulting.

Executive Council member at Singapore Human Resources Institute Tan Hui Boon shared the same sentiment, ”Nothing in the report surprised me. These technologies e.g. RPA, AI, data analytics/visualisation, workforce apps etc. have been available for the last few years although adoption rates vary amongst organisations depending on their headcount and depth of their wallet.”

“Most of the so-called trends & disruptions have been reported for the past years. I think it makes more sense to look at how THE GLOBAL EVENT affects the speed of these trends & disruptions….be it advancement or end of it,” said Jane Lee, Managing Director at Positive Workplace Consultancy.

“We have heard of this narrative for the longest time now and has the HR industry really shifted dramatically since HR tech was introduced many years ago? Not much,” said Sam Neo, Founder at People Mentality Inc.

What is contributing to the disruption?

According to the report, it is due to the combinations of 3 existing trends:

Trend 1: Advent of intelligent automation

According to Google Trends, the searches on Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has grown exponentially since early 2016. 

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Granted that RPA is not exclusive to the HR function. “RPA is the foundation of Digital Transformation that can optimize operational efficiencies & increase productivity while delivering cost savings and service improvements,” said Sriram Iyer, CEO at hrtech.sg.

Singapore Google searches on HR Tech

Hiring is a major scope for HR departments that dedicated talent acquisitions teams and specialists are created (there are about 24,000 of them in Singapore according to LinkedIn).

“Most of what they (recruiters) do is read CVs to see if they fit the requirements of the job, call candidates to ask very basic screening questions and finally scheduling interviews on behalf of hiring managers,” said Emmanuel Crouy, CEO & Co-Founder at GrabJobs.co. “These are something that can be 100% automated. And anything administrative related like preparing/sending offer letters, managing new staff onboarding, etc, these can be 90% automated.”

“Many HR departments I speak with are bogged down by administrative tasks which take up 65 % of their time. Operations & Programs as well as Strategy & Policies occupy the balance at 30% and 5% respectively. I see a lot of the administration part will be automated by Cloud HRMS and Robotic Process Automation. The shift for HR would be more in terms of the formulation of strategies and policies as well as to roll out such programs,” said Steve Koh, Managing Director at AG Net.

“There are also more (HR Tech) startups due to lower costs of starting up and more government support,” Chris Teo, CEO at Mednefits pointed out.

Trend 2: Rising expectations of employees for consumer-grade applications

With younger digital-native employees trickling into the workforce, they have also brought with them their expectations on how things should be done.

Image by 200 Degrees from Pixabay

“The rising expectations for consumer-grade applications is beneficial because historically it has been challenging for HR to receive the recognition of the need and the budget to invest in HR technologies,” said Stephanie Nash, Co-creator Thrive HR Exchange and Chief People Officer, ChapmanV.

According to the Ministry of Manpower Labour Force Survey 2019, there are more than 163,000 Gen Z and 730,500 Millennials in the workforce. These accounts for more than 40% of the working population.

Although there are stark differences between the two generations, they both converge on tech-savviness whereby they like to communicate through email, text messaging, and whatever new social media platform (i.e., Twitter, Instagram) friends and colleagues are using. These are generations that can’t even imagine a world without the internet or cell phones.

“Society has evolved. The needs and wants of the younger generations are completely different when it comes to digital technology,” said Espy Ng, Talent Development Manager at Sentek Marine & Trading.

The one-touch, two-swipes expectations that became a given on consumer mobile apps are brought over to the organisations that joined. This becomes a priority to keep their employees engaged and remain competitive. 

“By the year 2025, the majority of the baby boomers, if not all, would have somewhat retired from the workforce and the digital natives (those born in the year 2000 and beyond) would have already started to come into the workforce. The digital natives who have grown up with a Smart Phone in one hand and milk bottle in the other, present a new workforce like no other,” shared Alvin Goh, Executive Director at Singapore Human Resources Institute.

Trend 3: Shift from basic data analytics towards predictive analytics and modelling

Knowing how many employees you have and their age range at any point in time is nice to have but beyond just becoming the HR wikipedia within your organisation, there is little value add beyond.

Image by janjf93 from Pixabay

Using data and modelling to do forecasting of what might happen is much more insightful and useful for the HR departments. 

That means projecting your upcoming attrition (so you can take pre-emptive actions to retain or kickstart your replacement process) and identifying the best individual and teams (to be selected for upcoming projects.

With the human element at the centre of everything an organisation does, the ability to derive key insights on that variable and to use those insights to create a data-driven story to make a business case for talent-related decisions would be the next business competitive edge.

“We need to get comfortable with numbers, make sense of numbers and translate and relate them towards assisting our business leaders to make better and holistic decisions. We need to get into what I would term – the People Intelligence Space to complement the Business Intelligence,” said Alvin Goh.

The missing element: Covid19

While no one would disagree with the gist of the report, some do wonder if the findings may require a relook given that the report is based on findings that started in early 2019 and concluded before Covid19.

“It surprised me that the report took more than a year to be released. I was involved at the same stage back in Oct 2019 (and it had started way before that already),” said Andy Schmidt, CEO at 6i Communication

“….the question is whether the changes are still relevant in a post-Covid world. Covid is one single factor that triggered a tsunami and accelerated all these disruptions. Everything surrounding Covid got to do with SPEED. To me, this is outdated and invalid as it has a base data of 2019 that was collected pre-Covid,” shared Jane Lee.

“Notwithstanding, Covid-19 and the resulting WFH arrangements have definitely accelerated the disruption. Going forward, organisations have realised an alternative mode of working/operations which might have been deemed impossible prior to Covid-19. We can anticipate organisations adopting changes to the way they work e.g. fewer employees required at the workplace = smaller workplace = real estate savings,” said Tan Hui Boon.

Andy further pointed out that, “the current demand of people for a hybrid work environment will accelerate the need for change. Workplaces have changed. People have changed (in terms of what matters to us). Business has changed. And humanity is more important than ever. COVID has been a huge catalyst for change.”

Keeping up with the trends

New skills are required to carry out these enhanced jobs. 

Image by Megan Rexazin from Pixabay

HR professionals need to adopt a mindset of continuous learning, both to upskill themselves and to drive skills upgrading across the organisation.

The research identified 8 critical cross-functional skills applicable across all 27 HR jobs.

Ability to adopt HR Technology will be critical to enable the delivery of seamless talent experiences and to raise the quality of employee services. 

HR professionals will need skills in People Analytics (e.g. predictive modelling) to derive key insights and use Data-Driven Storytelling to make a business case for talent-related decisions.

For HR to drive business transformation, skills in Organisation Behaviour and Change Management, Relationships and Communication, and building an Agile Mindset within the organisation will be critical to influencing behaviour and culture change.

Business and Financial Acumen and Progressive and Inclusive Workforce Policy Implementation will be required for the development of industry and business-specific talent strategies.

The key here is how much time is needed to comprehensively acquire all these skills (or most of them) and would the school market be able to churn out graduates with these existing skills.

If there is a shortage, it may lead to a situation whereby such talents “are only affordable for MNCs” as pointed out by Tan Hui Boon.

Looking at the Bachelor of Human Resource Management offered by Singapore University of Social Sciences, the compulsory modules are still heavy on soft skills that could enable understanding of business acumen and organisation change. 

Compulsory modules under SUSS Bachelor HR program.

But the modules on analytics and data are electives. This does not bode well since grads in 2023/24 are short of many of these critical skills. 

How the Future HR Department may look like

All these factors will thoroughly evolve the role of HR as we know it today, and how the HR department will even look like.

For Stephanie Nash, she believes we will see new Centers of Excellence (CoEs) emerge, the role of the HR business partner will evolve and the needs for HR support will change. She added, “We will likely see more project-based working, multi-disciplinary teams and communities of practice. HR teams will need to learn from and operate in a similar manner to the technology teams.”

“I will think the future department will be made up of centres of excellence functions such as – Compensation & Benefits, Performance, Shared centre, Learning & Development with subject matter experts,” said Joerin Yao. “HR generalist roles will no longer exist in the future however I do think CHRO roles will exist in at least the next 5-7 years to support strategic HR leadership.”

Echoing that view, Tan Hui Boon felt that a competent HR Department that is able to contribute to the business value proposition will need to have a CHRO that is an advocate and supporting multi-disciplinary experts.

“It is critical for HR to keep abreast of latest technologies & developments; and reflect on their relevance to the organisation’s business model. There is no need to build internal capabilities because the technologies/developments are fast evolving. Having an awareness internally & the outreach to a network of expertise will be critical so that the organisation is able to tap on expert resources as and when required,” she added. “Beyond the fundamental need for HR to be in touch with business operations, there is also a need for agile Multi-disciplinary teams to partner product owners as and when necessary.”

Jane Lee went even further to predict that, “ The HR department may be headed by ONE single strategist (big picture), with every Departmental Heads having heavier HR roles, and supported by lots of bots and automation.”

What about SMEs?

Making up 99% of businesses in Singapore, SMEs employ 70% of Singapore’s workforce and contribute to nearly half of our GDP.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

At the headcount level, these are organisations that do not have more than 200 employees.

I know a local logistics company that has about 150 people (this was 2 years ago) and they only have a part-time HR person to process payroll and manage all other HR related matters.

Even if you upgrade that part-timer to a full-time one, you are still looking at a team of one individual to manage the onslaught of HR disruptions.

The first thing to look at beyond HR skills and readiness may be the mindset of the business owners. “Changes need to be driven from the top and SME owners need to know the importance to begin with,” said Espy Ng.

It also boils down to how much the organisation will benefit from the new technologies impacting HR. 

“For SMEs, if the new technologies do not contribute significantly to productivity improvements (nil or negligible savings), it will be difficult for HR to justify the investment in new technologies,” said Tan Hui Boon.

“The lack of financial strength may also impede a SME ability to consider and acquire technology,” Joerin Yao (Enable) shared.

The lack of SME-specific case studies in the report does not really help connect the dots for SMEs. 

“I once attended a training workshop facilitated by a Consultant from a Global Consulting firm. Most of the attendees were SMEs bosses, HR leaders of SMEs, departmental heads that play the role of HR and a handful of people from the public sector. The advice, case studies and proposed solutions are largely MNCs driven. The inability to relate for the SMEs participants was so huge that the workshop ended early when participants started to walk out,” said Jane Lee.

But these constraints may also lead to the creation of a new solution.

“If it does not make economical sense for individual SMEs to invest in new technologies for their HR, could there be a common HR Service that supports a collection of SMEs? By supporting multiple SMEs, it would then make sense for the adoption of new technologies to achieve optimum productivity & economies of scale,” Tan Hui Boon suggested. “The cost to adopt new technologies remains high – that’s why only the larger MNCs can afford it. We could look into new funding programs to encourage adoption of new HR technology, the training on how to adopt them.”

Are we overlooking something?

With the need to wear so many new hats, not to mention the time needed to learn how to wear them, while continuing the load and requirements expected from the current organisation, it is hard to ignore the mental toll that it could take on HR.

“One part that wasn’t covered that I expect to be a big part is on mental health and well being,” said Sam Neo.

Mental health issues can result in as much as $500 billion of lost productivity per year, negating any form of skilling HR is expected to acquire. 

MindFi – A Singapore based startup that provides a mental well being platform for workplaces.

Andy feels that the report is overly centric on technology but there are other steps that have to come first. “Let’s not forget that digital transformation is NOT only technology. It’s all the actions, behaviors, the environment we are operating in and it’s people with a digital mindset. This requires to abandon the HR-silo and have HR-people transferring into the business units and business managers transferring into HR. And don’t tell me they don’t have HR qualifications; they all have worked and managed other humans for years. They are amply qualified.”

This aligns very much with what Alvin suggests in which we should perhaps drop letters HR in its entirety and simply refer ourselves as business partners. “To become a business partner, we need to fully understand the key aspect of business, its risks and challenges, areas of mitigations and compliance, evolving consumers demands and needs.”

Not all is lost

The study concludes that the HR sector in Singapore is in a unique position today to grow its capabilities to drive business transformation by:

  1. Redesigning jobs to deliver higher value and focusing on strategic workforce planning
  2. Driving ongoing upskilling and reskilling of the workforce
  3. Designing and delivering a high-quality talent experience, to enable higher performance and productivity outcomes
  4. Leveraging analytics to provide people insights as a strategic partner to business
  5. Embracing automation to enable a greater focus on strategic functions, while emphasising the “human” elements of HR work

As overwhelming all these may seem, it is an opportunistic moment for HR to aggressively take advantage of it. 

And it begins by revisiting the fundamentals. 

“A people-first philosophy is the only way forward. HR showing their human side is the gold mine of employee experience. And it starts with how we talk about people. People are not a cost, or an asset, or any other accounting item. The Future of Work augmented with digital technology is one in which the instruments of labor will have shifted from hands (resources) to heads and to hearts (humans),” said Andy.

As Alvin aptly concluded,” We are still not too late in the change and transformation game and as I have been advocating, it is perfectly alright to be uncomfortable with these impending changes.”

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