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The death of HR is just part of its resurrection

Janet Wood is global human resources lead at SAP, Toronto.

I suspect my career path reflects the changing nature of human resources as much as anyone's. Having spent the best part of three decades in sales and management, I was picked for a global HR leadership role at SAP precisely because of my lack of conventional HR experience.

There was, of course, a method to SAP CEO Bill McDermott's madness. He wanted to bring a fresh kind of business perspective to the role. Someone who had seen what it takes to succeed in business, the challenges leaders and employees face, and the reality of HR's impact on morale, employee development, productivity and workplace culture.

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My story fits neatly within the wider trend of HR moving away from its traditional practices. In its place is a new kind of emotionally intelligent HR, made possible by digital technology and a strong desire to impact the success of the business, which informs the C-Suite while giving employees more tools and resources they value.

For many years there was a perception that most working in the field were primarily administering corporate policies and regulations to deal with personal employee concerns and workplace encounters.

It helps to be sympathetic about why this happened. As corporations grew, HR became an increasingly difficult job. Juggling the sizable tasks of maintaining a harmonious company culture, helping employees develop their skills and careers, making sure they were happy and tracking their performance levels was a less daunting prospect when there were set rules to guide them.

In recent years, we have seen breakthroughs in technology that have made dealing with much of the nitty-gritty of these responsibilities easier and less time-intensive. Software spanning recruiting, onboarding, talent management and performance management have given traditional HR professionals room to breathe, making some wonder about HR's role in the organization.

Futurists have prophesied the death of HR for some time. The combination of low-cost, hyper-effective hiring tools, consumer-grade training software, big data analysis that transforms evaluations, and the workplace expectations of millennials has them questioning the need for the discipline. A colleague summed up the sentiment pithily when he declared "the future of HR is no HR."

Others, myself included, believe we should be treating the supposed death of HR simply as part of its resurrection. One way to think about this is that while HR was once required to use rules and regulations to navigate the sometimes-difficult business of human emotions and avoiding lawsuits, it now has the goal of encouraging human interaction to flourish.

The rise of digital-first workplaces has made work a more impersonal and less engaging experience for many employees. Furthermore, ever-improving automation technology has swaths of people wondering when, not if, their jobs will be made obsolete. Thus, the new HR finds itself not only at the centre of the debate about improving employee engagement, but also the call to forge new opportunities for those at risk of being replaced by robots.

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Economist Daniel Culbertson recently identified HR as one of the most future-proof professions, predicting that technology could actually lead to more jobs in the field. His reason? HR can be a hotbed for renewed human-to-human interaction and decision-making that must go beyond data.

If the HR discipline does grow, the responsibility of retraining displaced workers will fall on its shoulders. HR workers will be expected to offer more strategic direction in the boardroom, using big data analytics to spot opportunities to create roles with new value across the business. Success will come from being one step ahead of change and instilling continuous learning in the company culture.

Emotional intelligence will become the measure by which HR workers are judged. C-Suites will look to them to understand how to engage and communicate with employees, as well as how to build and nurture positive, productive workplace cultures in the digital age. When HR teams show executives they're in tune with the business, its employees and the reality on the front-lines, they'll truly become known as trusted advisers.

The technology that has traditional HR professionals worrying about the relevance of their jobs is exactly what they need to embrace to give them time and space to grow into this new era. The old school of HR is fading into the background as software invisibly connects the dots on routine processes. Coming to the fore is an HR more tightly connected to the overall corporate strategy and focused on handling employee issues and development with curiosity and empathy.

Forward-thinking HR professionals know this and embrace the opportunity to impact the success of employees and their organization. They see a future in which the function is truly about humans, while at the same time playing a larger role in shaping the destiny of the business.

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