HR in the age of mass data collection

Headspring's most recent HR Talks event in Düsseldorf generated more robust debate about the role of HR in a digitally transformed future. Delegates joined Professor Alan Brown and Malcolm Moore as they interrogated the ways in which employees and businesses are relating to data and AI.

Why are employees willing to hand their personal data over to Google, but uncomfortable with their employer knowing when they are away from their desk?

Is it possible that a company’s collection of employee data could act to serve, rather than undermine, the employee?

How are HR professionals in Germany building trust and addressing issues of corporate ethics in the domain of data privacy?

These are some of the questions that Professor Alan Brown of Exeter University Business School and Financial Times Technology News Editor Malcolm Moore recently explored in Düsseldorf at Headspring’s HR Talks event.

Leading a round table discussion of leading HR professionals, Brown and Moore addressed the influence that digital transformation is having on the evolution of HR, especially in the form of AI and data privacy.

‘‘We live in an age of mass data collection,” says Moore. “There is a bargain here between employer and employee and at the moment everyone is feeling very uncomfortable.”

At the heart of this bargain is what Brown calls the personalisation-privacy paradox: individuals want their online experience personalised and convenient, but they don’t want to part with the personal information needed to make this possible.

“So,” says Moore, “the question is, how do you and your companies establish that framework where you can communicate this to your employees, where you can show them the advantages of collecting their data?”

‘How do you get them excited about this technology rather than immediately suspicious.’

According to Brown, this challenge is felt most acutely in the people management areas of organisations.

“It’s a human problem. Yes, we’re talking about AI and technology, but this is a human problem.”

“HR and L&D, in particular, have a massive role to play in answering ‘What is AI for?’ ‘What is technology for?’ ‘How does it relate to people, skills, how we think about ourselves and how we relate?’”

Delegates unanimously agreed that the fundamental requirement was mutual trust between the individual and the business. In situations where the business is not transparent about how data are collected and used, trust becomes difficult to establish.

The HR professionals around the table agreed that it is critical to communicate where ownership of data lies, especially personal data versus professional or work-related data. A common view suggested that this is important in Germany because working culture is still largely resistant to corporate data capture.

Culture – societal and organisational – emerged as a major force in the conversation. The success of digital initiatives such as AI and data sharing will always rest on the culture in which they are deployed.

Professor Brown illustrates this with a three-part approach to digital change implementation:

Part 1: Feasibility (What we can we do? Do we have the resources for this?)

Part 2: Desirability (What do we want to do? Is this what people want?)

Part 3: Viability (Given our environment and circumstances, can this work?)

Though each of these assessments is key to successful implementation, they will always fit into a cultural context that will ultimately shape the long term outcome.

HR Talks are part of a Headspring initiative giving HR and L&D decision makers access to leading academics, top Financial Times journalists and a forum within which to discuss topical challenges with fellow professionals.


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