Three Trends From The Human Resources Electronics Show

Steve Boese Audacious Ideas, HR, HR Tech, HR Technology, Steve Boese

The Consumer Electronics Show, or CES—which is the largest and most important trade show and exhibition for the electronics, computing, and communications industries—was all over the news last week. I am sure, even if you are not at all interested in the latest new gadget, electronic toy or just how massive the new largest high-def TV in the world is, you probably saw at least some coverage.

Much like the similarly massive ComicCon event stopped being (just) about comic books some time back and has expanded to encompass all manner of consumer entertainment, CES, too, has expanded from including just the latest cool remote-controlled toy and household entertainment gadget, and has become more of a signpost event that signals what the near, and perhaps not-so-near technological future, will hold for us—not just in our personal lives, but in how we work, how we shop… truly how we exist and interact with the world around us (and each other).

Maybe it’s just the manifestation of the last five years or so, and the trend towards consumerism of workplace technology that has led CES to include more than just the toys we use at home. Or maybe it’s just the need, in an increasingly segmented and hard-to-find mass audience world, for some companies to try and grab hold of the media and public attention—fewer and fewer events can deliver that, so perhaps they use CES as a vehicle for that end. I am not really sure, for example, what Yahoo’s plans for Katie Couric have to do with consumer electronics, but still.

But this idea, that the best and most fantastic technological innovations are moving faster from the personal/consumer space and into the workplace/enterprise space makes CES, once thought to be slipping from relevance, seem almost more important to HR and workplace technology folks than ever.

So, with that premise, let’s look at the three most important themes from this year’s CES, or as I like to call it, HRES, the Human Resources Electronics Show, and talk a little, (and hopefully take some time to think about longer), what they might mean for HR, talent management, and the workplace, both today, and in the reasonably near term.

1. Wearable technology – Google Glass might be the most ballyhooed of the bunch, but it is certainly not the only new wearable technology that will impact work. No, there are a slew of new technologies coming, and the workplace implications are becoming more apparent. The most obvious workplace applications will probably manifest in the evolution of those cheap pedometers that you always passed out during benefits open-enrollment time. Wearable tech to track activity and fitness levels are firmly entrenched in the consumer space, and naturally seem a match for corporate wellness initiatives. A little further on the horizon will be wearable Glass or Glass-like devices that will be used by field workers in construction and service industries to help them take and transmit live video of what they are encountering, and access training and diagnostic information while they work. Even retail and other customer-facing jobs will benefit from this technology—think of a clothing store worker instantly scanning a garment and accessing style, color, and inventory information. It could also include additional information to help “upsell,” as in recommend complementary pieces that would display to the clerk on their Glass device for them to suggest to the customer.

The key here, I think, for HR and Talent professionals is that more and more an employee’s ability to adapt, access and interpret information, and make appropriate decisions in real-time are going to be key to their and your success.

2. Robotics – Perhaps a close second to wearables in terms of focus at CES, were the new and improved set of robotics on display. Sure, many of them fall into the classic consumer/toy space, but interestingly, there was more and more focus on two areas in particular. One, the improvement of companion and caregiver type robotics, and two, the emerging robot security technologies. Both of these developments have important implications for work and workplaces, whether it is an opportunity to help employees grapple with issues around elder care, or, as in the case of the security robots, a way to augment your organization’s security/loss-prevention force.

Longer term, how and by how much robotic and other automation technology is going to impact and change work, I think, is probably the single most important and interesting work/tech issue there is. For HR and Talent pros, the ability to understand and manage future tensions that will arise from operations’ desire to automate, (often at the expense of people), to manage the interactions and skills needed to interact with robots, and the safety/ethical concerns that will arise from people and robots working side by side could dominate “strategic” human resources in the next decade.

3. Internet of Everything – The CES keynote by Cisco CEO John Chambers centered around the idea of the “Internet of Everything,” i.e., the increasing connection and data-generating capability of objects, devices, people… well, everything… and the potential for efficiencies and profits these developments will enable. The Internet of Everything includes small but still cool ideas like a chip-enabled basketball that transmits information about a shooter’s speed, trajectory, and rotation in order to assess and improve performance. On the industrial side, applications like internet connected municipal water systems that can remotely monitor pressure, wear, and leakages, and commercial trash bins that can let waste hauling companies know when they are full and need to be serviced represent just two examples of the potential the internet of everything holds. But the possibilities seem limitless, as devices interact with each other, connect to people via their smartphones or other wearable tech, and generate vast amounts of data that sophisticated algorithms will interpret and mine for opportunities.

What does this mean for HR and Talent? The ability to work with data, beyond the traditional workforce data, will become a paramount skill for anyone truly wanting to have impact and influence in organizations. Decisions about talent and operations and strategy will become data analysis exercises and not “gut- feeling/let’s-wing-it” moves by swashbuckling executives with nice suits and CEO hair. To put it more crudely, “Your Don Draper mannerisms and presentations don’t mean $h!t anymore.”

Not all of these technologies will end up being breakthroughs that truly change the nature of work and workplaces, but many of them will and will indeed have a human impact—inside the organization, with customers, and with the larger community.

I think the most effective human resources leaders of the future will be the ones that can recognize, synthesize, and help lead their organizations (and their people) into this new era of technological progress.

How these new technologies will change work and the way in which work gets done is still an open question.

A better question might be: Are you as an HR and Talent pro going to be ready to answer?