Rudy-de-Waele-onlineThese days, everyone’s talking about digital transformation. It seems that everything that can be digitised is being digitised – this affects the workplace too. But what are the main technical trends that really matter? And what have HR professionals and executives got to do with it? We interviewed Rudy De Waele, Digital Transformation Strategist and keynote of the HRM Expo | Zukunft Personal, who helps company managers keep ahead of the competition in a time of digital change. Over the past 18 years, he has been coaching CXOs on digital transformation and open innovation strategies and has also mentored many start-ups. His book “shift 2020 – How Technology Will Impact Our Future” provides a valuable insight into how emerging technologies such as IOT (Internet of Things), robotics or AI (Artificial Intelligence) will influence our daily lives.

In our interview and in a podcast of Worklife Hub he talks about the impact of technology on the workplace and what HR can learn from start-ups. 


Rudy, digital transformation is having a dramatic impact on the global economy. But what digital trends are most likely to affect the workplace in the near future?

Mobility is probably the first one. Information becomes accessible from anywhere. Everything is in the cloud. This trend is already here today. Others lie more in the future, but not as far away as many people think. Robotics for example: any job with repetitive tasks will be replaced by robots over the next 10 to 20 years. The speed of innovation is going to be really impressive. Just look at car manufacturing, how many cars are already built by robots. 3D printing is also a big trend in manufacturing. Instead of having to import everything from abroad, people will start to produce things locally again, immediately from the workplace. The next big thing is connected and self-driving cars: in the US, they will have tested self-driving cars in 30 cities by the end of next year. They will enable us to work while we are driving. This will be coming in the next 5 to 10 years, especially in Germany.

How important is big data already, in your opinion?

Big data is another big trend. Companies can now not only track the performance of employees, but also the movements, moods and motivations of their teams. And they will collect even more information about their employees in the future. Just think about the internet of things, where all things will be connected. On the one hand, this creates more efficiency and transparency for enterprises, because more information will become available. On the other hand, it will enable enterprises to track the performance of people to a greater extent. Everything that is trackable will be tracked. This will as well generated a huge debate on privacy at work; new type of contracts will have to be agreed upon between employers and employees.

Let’s look at this from the positive side. Think about health, the whole well-being and “quantified-self” trend. People measure their fitness and calorie levels on their mobile phones and wearable devices. This will not only have an impact on personal health improvement but will also benefit the enterprise. It enables companies to measure the fitness of their teams and their people. Organisations will be able to build corporate health programmes based on these new available technologies.

How far have companies already adapted to these technological trends in their organisational structure or their personnel management?

With robotics, a lot of jobs have disappeared in manufacturing. More and more tasks will be replaced by software and artificial intelligence. Google and Facebook have already shown that. There will be lots of tasks even like writing blog posts or translations that will be done by software. Look at what Microsoft is doing with Skype Translator. On the other hand, this development leads to different kinds of jobs for anything that robots cannot do and that requires skill such as creativity, empathy, social activities and moral intelligence. In general, the main impact digital transformation has on the workplace is based on the fact that technology is transparent by nature. It enables bottom-up innovation and decision-making. This leads to flatter hierarchies instead of the pyramidal structures we used to have before.

Do new technologies really make us more productive? Or is digital transformation in the workplace only inevitable because we love everything that is new and fun to use?

Let’s not fool ourselves… We outsource our brains to technology, so actually we become less productive. But the process is becoming more productive and platform technologies make the tasks more convenient. It is a lot easier for us to get things done than it used to be. However, motivation is still the key indicator to foment productivity, not software. Those are just the tools. In the end, great companies have great teams: they believe in the purpose of their work and they share values. When you look at all the start-ups moving mountains with small teams, shaking up entire industries – that’s because they are motivated and passionate about what they do. This is not the mentality that most large corporations have, and people burn out as well. Large corporates still have a last-century type of thinking. Now we are in a new age, with a totally new, data-driven economy and different business models. Organisations will need to adapt to that.

What else can HR learn from start-ups?

Big multinational companies really struggle now to connect to the new start-up culture of fast innovation and throwing new products on the market really quickly. So they should also act like start-ups which have rather flat management structures and minimised bureaucracy, where people take responsibility and can manage themselves. Some companies already create specific departments within their organisations that work as a start-up for specific projects or product development. That’s the way enterprises will evolve. We will get rid of these big mass structures. Even huge organisations have to decompose into small units.

Furthermore, start-ups just build something and learn from that experience. “Fail fast and learn from that experience,” as they say. In general, the speed of execution in companies is a lot faster than it used to be. So companies can learn from start-ups that they should not waste money on big projects. They should concentrate on bottom-up innovation, start-ups really do go step by step, focusing on a specific product for a specific target audience. They are also more transparent in their way of working. They show the production process along the way, they communicate with their fans, they create a fan base even before the product is finished, for example with crowdfunding campaigns. Additionally, they open up to partners and other start-ups a lot faster than normal organisations. That’s also due to the platform economy using technologies such as application programming interfaces, so called APIs, by means of which data is exchanged between different companies. For example, think about Slack, a software platform where people from different companies can work together on the same project.

Minimise bureaucracy in order to move faster. Don’t over process or complicate. Keep things simple and make them work. It’s an old saying but it matters more than ever in the new economy.

You coach a lot of corporate executives. Which executives are in the driving seat with respect to digital transformation and what role does HR play there?

Trends such as robotics will come into manufacturing and the workplace anyway. Technology just evolves like that. It’s the nature of technology to go forwards not backwards. However, the winners of tomorrow will be the companies and the executives that value their employees. In the end that’s what the employees will demand. Human capital has become more important than the financial capital of companies nowadays. Great startups and companies hire the best people to make the best products. And people want to work in teams that have the best people. HR people should support a new working culture to reflect this.

How will people’s expectations change as a consequence of digital transformation?

The young generation want the best tools, laptops, tablets and mobile phones. People are connected all the time; they are at home and at the same time they handle things for work. Employees want to gain more experience and share their experiences. High-potential employees are more demanding now; they want to work for organisations with a clear purpose and the will to contribute to a sustainable future. The latest statistics in the US on generation X and digital natives show: they really want to work for companies that matter and that want to make an impact. They are demanding more freedom and self-determination.

Will people still work in offices?

There will be more diversity as to the working places people can be productive for a company, for example more home-office work flexibility and be able to work at a nearby co-working space, in order  to mingle with other like-minded people and benefit from different dynamics. Companies will need to make their offices as enjoyable and comfortable to work as possible including services like providing healthy food, yoga and fitness classes and even nursery services. Once you have the right people working for your company, you want them to stay. HR Departments will have to become more inventive in discovering new exciting services to keep their best people.

What will the workplaces of tomorrow look like?

When you look at companies like Apple, Google and even Uber, they have built huge offices with spaces that are totally open and adaptable to different kinds of working processes. They have large translucent roofs and canopies. Every space is modular and can be adapted to different tasks. They control the climate inside; at the same time they can let in light and air. The offices are sometimes like landscapes, with plants and trees, but also with cafés or snack bars weaving through these structures. Their aim is to blur the distinction between the building and nature.  Companies also get involved with the local community, opening retail opportunities, small restaurants or local businesses. Apple recently invested in the biggest solar plant in the US, which is not only an important message to the rest of the industry, but also attractive to the younger generation.

The possibility of working 24/7 is supposed to be a risk to our physical and psychological health. What would you recommend as a good balance between high performance and free time?  

It is mainly a contract between the employer and the employee how flexible working hours and working places are. Companies should give employees more freedom to decide where and when they want to work. But 24/7 is a bit utopian. Robots can do that, but humans need their sleep to be able to productive and stay concentrated on their work. If you look at start-ups, they always say that they do long hours but that’s not true. They work in highly focused blocks of a couple of hours and then they take a break or do something else before doing another block of a couple more hours. That’s the way people should work: a more flexible and more focused approach.

A lot of people are frightened about new technological trends such as big data or robotics. Media report about futuristic scenarios where robots choose candidates in recruitment or foresee which employees will resign from a job even before they know themselves. How far are we threatened by some kind of dictatorship of technological developments?

I don’t believe in a dark future. As humans, we have always been able to go for a positive and better outcome. We have to decide what’s best for us. What people always forget is that the human brain is very powerful. There are a lot of tasks that can and will be executed by automation, robots, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing. But a computer doesn’t have empathy. There are a lot of things a computer doesn’t have that humans have. A computer cannot really act without a command.

Of course, there can also be abuse and misuse of robots. The US army is already experimenting with robots that can kill people without a human decision. Those are challenging questions for society. But as humans, we can decide how far we want to go and how we want to use technology. Google glass is a good example of that. It has a lot of benefits for certain industries, especially in the health care sector. But people in private situations don’t want to be filmed without consent. They don’t like to be tracked by a camera in a conversation or if they meet someone. And in the end it will be the users who will decide whether they are going to accept these technologies or not. But of course, these changes will not be easy and we will need to discuss which developments we want to take forward.

Interview: Stefanie Hornung

This is where you can reach Rudy De Waele:
Follow him on Twitter:
Meet him in Cologne at the HRM Expo15 September 2015, 2:30 pm, Forum 1 | Keynote Forum – Hall 2.1

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