People analytics and HR systems will play an increasingly important part in helping business leaders with evidence-based decision-making in the future, according to Dr. Andrea North-Samardzic, course director of the Master of Leadership at Deakin Business School.
“HR has a great opportunity to step up and show the strategic value of the HR function now more than ever before,” she said.
Evidence-based decision making is playing an increasingly important role in business, and North-Samardzic said that leadership is a balance of art (instinct and intuition) and science (data and information) – which is where HR can increasingly add more value.
“There will always be a place for instinct and intuition, particularly when you’re trying to do something new or different that isn’t necessarily supported by evidence which will prove it’s going to work,” she explained.
There is a trend towards increased use of big data and technology to facilitate evidence-based decision making, however, North-Samardzic observed that not all data is either good or useful data.
“It is important to know what information to pass on, and this will assist leaders with making decisions based on the right data, rather than gut instinct or intuition alone,” she said.
“Knowing how to make sense of that data is going to be an increasingly important issue for people in leadership positions.”
Soft and hard skills development
HR can also play an important role in developing skills, in particular, soft skills that are gaining in importance as certain hard skills are often being replaced by technology and machine learning.
“Soft skills are always going to be important,” said North-Samardzic.
“The fact is that advanced technologies are replacing a lot of the hard skills around decision- making, but you’ve got to be confident enough in understanding what results are telling you.
“You don’t need to have a Masters in information science, information systems or computer science, but you need to be well versed enough to understand what the data is telling you.”
“HR has a great opportunity to step up and show the strategic value of the HR function now more than ever before”
On the soft skill front, North-Samardzic said self-reflection and self-awareness are critical differentiators for leaders for two important reasons.
“Self-reflection is important for leaders in general, because it’s not just about learning new things; it’s about unlearning bad habits,” she said.
“You can’t do either of those things effectively if you aren’t taking the time to stop and reflect on what you have been doing.
Leadership is ‘in the eye of the follower’ and if leaders don’t think about how they are being received by other people, then they’re missing a large part of what leadership is really all about, said North-Samardzic.
Self-awareness is also important for leaders when it comes to mental health and resilience, which is particularly important given the amount of pressure placed on executives and employees in general.
“Health and wellbeing are receiving much-needed attention, and this will be an ongoing battle for leaders,” said North-Samardzic.
“Things in business are moving so quickly, and with access to so much information and consequences being much more immediate these days, there are inherent pressures in that.
“Resilience, coping skills and the ability to deal with change are areas that HR really need to focus on to ensure people are adequately equipped.”
The changing nature of employment
The dynamics of employment relationships are also changing, with increased casualisation and more freelancers in the workforce mix. This presents leaders with unique array of management challenges, according to North-Samardzic.
“It’s harder to influence and lead people who have more of a tenuous connection with the organisation,” she said.
“There is implied less commitment and also less face time, so it can be really tough to influence people that you never get to meet or at least get in front of.”
Demographic changes also present leaders with different challenges, however, North-Samardzic said businesses can learn a lot from Millennials when it comes to navigating social media and managing public perceptions online.
“There’s that phrase ‘A fish rots from the head’ and there is often a presumption that if leaders misstep, this is indicative of something that’s happening more broadly in the organisation”
“The younger generations coming through the workforce are much better equipped when it comes to using technology as a medium to influence people, both within and outside of the workplace,” she said.
There is sometimes a natural reluctance on the part of leaders to embrace technology given changes that are happening in the world of business as well as the speed of this change.
“But change is inevitable, and you can’t really fight it to a certain extent,” said North-Samardzic.
“And if you’re in a leadership position you’re really holding yourself and the company back if you don’t embrace it.”
While leaders are getting better at understanding and using technology big data for evidence-based decision making, North-Samardzic said most are still in the early stages of this process and there is “a lot we don’t know”.
“There is a natural inclination to want to jump on data and think it will solve all their problems, without really critically analysing what it’s telling us,” she said.
“So, skills-based training with a focus on using technology to influence people is going to become more important.”
North-Samardzic gave the example of leaders presenting to camera and employing the medium of video to better engage employees and other stakeholders.
“The days of using traditional newsletters and town halls where everyone is in the same room, for example, are occurring less and less,” said North-Samardzic.
“Getting messages out using multimedia is something that requires a lot more skills-based training.”
Putting on a public face
As leaders become figureheads for their companies, this can also put increased accountability as well as pressure on both leaders and their businesses.
“Their missteps can have an impact on the public perception of the organisation, particularly when you think about ethical conduct,” said North-Samardzic.
“There’s that phrase ‘A fish rots from the head’ and there is often a presumption that if leaders misstep, this is indicative of something that’s happening more broadly in the organisation.”
As such, business leaders are being treated more like political leaders in terms of having public accountability and transparency and being held to account for their behaviour, both inside and outside of work.
“The expectations placed on leaders as a result are getting greater and greater, and this no signs of diminishing, particularly when it comes to ethical and socially responsible conduct on big issues – because bad news stories travel twice as fast,” she observed.