Leadership and HR in The Digital Age: Q&A with Cheri Alexander, Faculty Member at the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

September 9, 202012:49 pm961 views
Leadership and HR in The Digital Age: Q&A with Cheri Alexander, Faculty Member at the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business
Cheri Alexander, Faculty Member at the University of Michigan

The rapid transformation of technology and digitalisation have dramatically changed the existing businesses and organisations alike. A prime challenge for leaders and human resources in this environment is how to maximise the use of technology to create an agile and competitive business while helping drive economic growth by instilling good employment practices. On this note, Cheri Alexander, Faculty Member at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in a candid interview with HR in Asia, presents an answer to some critical questions and shares her experiences regarding leadership and HR in the digital era. 

Thank you for dedicating your time to this interview, Ms Alexander. For the opening question, could you share more about your career journey, especially some changes you’ve witnessed in the field of HR leadership?  

The introduction of technology is perhaps the most significant change and positive disruption that I have seen during my corporate and academic careers. This has allowed a greater focus on Strategic HR. I subscribe to the 4 Quadrant HR model, created by Professor and Global HR Guru Dave Ulrich, which includes the strategic, administrative, change, and employee advocacy foci.

Technology has shifted the utilization of the quadrants, unless you were not able to respond to it quickly. Another large change is in the global declination of unions. It is at the intersection of multiple interrelated forces such as culture, productivity gains, technology improvements, vertical integration and globalization. Asian countries range from less than 5% to 90% unionized; all are different and for me, intriguing. I am also proud to see HR getting much more respect for the critical roles that it plays in the world, which was not the case in many places in the last century.

Do you see automation and AI as a threat or opportunity in the HR industry? Why? 

I see them both, as opportunities for the future, and threat to jobs. AI brings tremendous opportunities for re-education and re-skilling that will need to be supported by HR professionals. If we can influence our education systems with resources, time, redirection and refocus, we may have a chance to get ahead of the curve.

There is also a lack of skilled workers – electricians, plumbers, metalworkers and so on – in certain areas of the world. If we were to track students to these areas, we also could enrich more lives early on.

How should HR make use of technology and how can they create a harmonious workspace using technology?

HR professionals must have a high-level understanding of the tech world and data analytics capabilities. This must be coupled with a healthy skepticism about the limitations of technology; the human element. In addition, they must understand the downside of incorporating biases in analytical tools and be able to question and challenge the coders about their relevance and underlying assumptions in their designs. Great technology and analytics will free HR from the burdens of administrative tasks, allowing greater focus on the other three quadrants of the Ulrich Model. But great administrative HR leaders need to be skeptical, as well as flexible in the applications.

In terms of HR development, could you please list some critical points HR should acknowledge/learn from?  

Two critical topics come to mind.  We must address both the development of HR professionals themselves and the development of individuals by HR professionals.

HR professionals should either start in functions outside of HR or be willing to spend considerable time in business learning from their customers. HR professionals need to understand technology and analytics. HR professionals should also have stints and developmental experiences in change management, employee support and/or advocacy, and strategic HR. They must be schooled in negotiations, persuasion and influence, coaching, customer care, and change leadership.

For the development of others, HR professionals are only partially responsible. HR must create training that is relevant, allow and support the coaching and mentoring of others, and most importantly create an environment for “assignmentology”. Assignmentology is a term I created in the 90s. It refers to creating and executing development through assignments created inside a person’s job or in extra-curricular work. 

Transparency is critical in today’s leadership but in the HR field, being too transparent might not be a good idea because HR often keeps a company’s secret. So, how do you think HR should handle this issue of transparency? How transparent should HR be with employees?  

Transparency is pertinent, but it must be balanced. People must know as much as possible to remain engaged and committed to their company, role, and leadership. Communication is key. Leaders and HR people need to give employees as much information as they can, understanding that there are ramifications of sharing ambiguous and incomplete information. It is perfectly acceptable to say, we don’t know the answer to that question yet, but when we do, we will communicate it. If you say that you will do something, then you must do it and do it when you said you would do it. If you are unable to fulfill your commitment, then, you must immediately tell others, as soon as you realize.  If you don’t, you will quickly lose trust and credibility. There is also an issue regarding how much of the truth a person can handle. HR professionals need well developed emotional intelligence to analyze employee readiness.

Regarding HR professionals, Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, said that great HR people need to be part pastor and part parent. They need to keep secrets; especially be able to keep personal information secure and hidden, and they must be able to tell it like it is – straight and transparent. For others to trust them, they need to be ethical and trustworthy. HR professionals should guide individuals privately to resources to help solve their issues, and help them in decision making at work and in navigating the workplace.

These unprecedented times have led to uncertainty for HR leaders in terms of employee management. Although HR is adopting technology, it is still worrisome that remote culture will only decrease employees’ motivation and might potentially create more problems. What is your advice to mitigate the risk of remote culture?  

Since the pandemic shutdown, I have been working and teaching from home and serving on my department’s Leadership Team at the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business. I am excited to have seen highly motivated employees functioning in completely new ways. Our team has been able to create and execute work at a high level by communicating on an ongoing basis. 

Of course, there are challenges. Some people have struggled mightily with this new work-from-home routine and sometimes it requires helping them to identify mental health and other resources. Therefore, when we return to in-person work, we will want to incorporate lots of things that we have learned and figure out the new hybrid work environment.

The elephant in the room is “will I be laid off?” This is critically important to answer right up front. If the answer is “no”, then state it, always with the understanding that if conditions change, you will get back to them immediately. If the answer is, “we don’t know”, then you must communicate even more regarding all the factors that will go into your future decision, and an estimate about when you will know. Updating employees every week about an ambiguous situation is imperative. If the answer is “yes”, then you need to notify people asap with all the details that are known at that moment, including when, how the process will work, and what services will be available to them during this period. 

It is fine to not have all the answers but giving assurances that you are working daily to find all the answers is crucial. Meeting weekly or daily is a must.  Being there to talk is important. Those who survive layoffs suffer “survivor guilt” and they also need help. Productivity always suffers in a layoff situation. I view downsizing as a last resort. 

Lastly, could you please suggest a top-notch solution to create a harmonious and collaborative remote culture within an organization?

Over communication by leaders and supervisors to employees is paramount. Add team sessions and individual sessions. Check in on people frequently.  Routines such as positive sharing and retaining team building activities is also crucial. The Plan – Do – Check = Act cycle of Lean Management is crucial. People need to know the priorities and need to be held accountable for their work.

Performance management systems need to stay in place. Giving feedback is something that seems to be pushed aside in the remote environment, so it is incumbent upon leaders and HR people need to remind, train and push people to give excellent feedback, both positive and constructive, all the time and do it immediately upon recognizing the need.

Catch someone doing something right, and if it is not right, help them to see alternatives to their behaviors. Giving and receiving feedback is an art. I like to teach that very much. Add more learning activities into the mix. Encourage sharing of best practices and sharing of news. Make sure that the team is taking care of their health and wellness. Find ways to have fun together. Have a day where kids or pets show up with employees in meetings. Blur the lines between personal and professional. It can close the social distance, in some ways. Appoint someone as the director of fun perhaps. Everyone needs to laugh to increase their endorphins. 

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About Cheri Alexander:

Cheri Alexander is a Faculty Member at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and teaches in numerous Executive Education, as well as Degree Programs. Prior to joining Ross, she spent 33 years in General Motors, starting in Engineering and finishing as the President of the General Motors University. Among the many assignments that she held, she is proudest of having been a Plant Manager and VP of HR – International Operations. 

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