The challenges of HR in the disruptive world

The challenges of HR in the disruptive world

Don’t feel bored of the word “disruption” just yet, because even though many of us think it has become an overused term, it is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it can bring both opportunities and challenges.

The current usage of “disruption” was popularised by the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in 1997 in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. However, disruption was happening long before Mr Christensen wrote his best-selling book about it.

Go back to prehistoric times when the wheel was invented -- think of the impact that must have had. The steam engine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries helped usher in the first industrial revolution. In the 1960s, Toyota broke into the American automobile market. And in the 1970s, the first personal computer was introduced. These were all some form of disruption. Disruptions either create new markets or reshape existing ones. And all these developments did just that.

Everything in our world can be disrupted with no exception, and this includes the Human Resources (HR) profession. In the past, the role of HR has traditionally more paperwork-based -- developing policies, handbooks and contracts, and managing employee complaints and benefits.

In this digital age, however, the roles of HR have changed dramatically; HR is now getting disrupted. With evolving technology and new generations entering the workforce, HR also has to adapt to these changes.

But the main challenge that HR professionals today must face is, unsurprisingly, people management. With more and more millennials joining the workforce, HR has to face the challenges of new needs.

The biggest challenge in dealing with a workforce of millennials, according to Simon Sinek, a British-American author, motivational speaker and organisational consultant, is that they’ve been born in the age where they are protected.

They have grown up in an era where they are rewarded for simply participating. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does devalue the worth of hard work directed towards achievement and winning. When these millennials go out into the real world, Mr Sinek observes, they’re surprised to discover that they might not be getting the same gentle treatment any longer.

In the real world of business, there’s no award for simply participating. There’s no tolerance for incompetence in many organisations. These younger workers are finding the expectations organisations have for them difficult to reach, simply because of the fact that they were born in the circumstances that they’re in.

And this is where the new role of HR today lies -- in people engagement. The future of organisations depends on the new generations. Our job is not to close our doors to the new generation but to open our minds and help them transition into the real world. This is the only way we can even begin to bridge the gap.

So as an HR professional, what are you supposed to do?

First, you must understand the concept of shared leadership and put it into action. Shared leadership implies the distribution of leadership and authority of power. This does not mean that every person in your team is suddenly in the same management position.

Shared leadership simply means that in a meeting or discussion, no matter what level each person is at, it is important to give everyone an opportunity to share their ideas and to have a sense of purpose.

This applies not only within the HR team but also to other teams in your organisation. This gives everyone, especially the uncertain Gen Y, a sense of belonging and that their work does matter.

Second, you must nurture innovation. You might wonder how innovation is related to HR. Think of it this way — innovation is all about putting your users or customers at the very centre of what you do. And many organisations are not able to innovate all because of the misconception that innovation means new technology.

The fact is, innovation is about empathising with your users and for an HR team that means the people in your organisation and understanding the needs they have. Whether it is your current employees or Gen Y candidates, you must find innovative ways to engage both.

Finally, understand that you can’t have the right answer to the wrong question. What this means is that you must take time to understand the problem before beginning to come up with the solutions. Often, the right answer is just right under our noses but we just haven’t fully understood the question.

Although the focus here is HR, it doesn’t mean that other departments are not at risk of disruption. Even organisations that have never been previously affected by disruption in a major way can also get affected. Those who used to be disruptors can get disrupted.

You may have the answers ready but disruption always changes the question. In the end, if you can’t adapt and change, you’ll also get left behind.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia's leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre. She can be reached by email at or

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