Harnessing Human Networks

In keynote speech at the HR Tech conference in Chicago, investor Barry Libert urged HR leaders to harness the power of human networks.

By Jack Robinson

Barry Libert thinks the future of HR looks a lot like Uber. Or Airbnb. Or LinkedIn.

Not that the profession will abandon working with employees and get into the transportation or hospitality business. Rather, HR leaders -- along with the organizations they serve -- will learn to harness the power of human networks to take their next big evolutionary step, Libert said on Wednesday in delivering the opening keynote for this year's HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in Chicago.

"What if the future of HR was about . . . letting people achieve more of what they want?" he said.

Libert is a well-known technology investor, author and consultant. His message was abstract, but sweeping: Digital networks are fundamentally transforming business by connecting companies with their suppliers and customers to form new kinds of collaborative enterprises. And HR needs to make that journey as well.

In fact, HR is a critical piece of the transformation for any organization because its business is people. "You are at the epicenter of our collective future," Libert said. That future rests on tapping "the power of us . . . the power of human connections."

Libert calls development of networks and platform companies such as Uber a disruption on the same scale as the industrial revolution. He suggested that even the concept of nationality may change as networks connect people around the world in ways that can be more meaningful than simple geography.

http://www.hreonline.com/images/ThinkstockPhotos-514459476harnessingL.jpgThe power of platform companies is clear if you look at market values, Libert noted: Uber is bigger than GM. Airbnb is bigger than Sheraton. Amazon is bigger than Walmart. And they grow quickly because "networks scale exponentially," he said.

Yet many businesses are vulnerable to disruption because they fail to take advantage of the data and connections they own, Libert said. One example: Though hospitals or medical groups have access to vast stores of knowledge in their medical records and in their patients, they do not harness that network to help educate someone newly diagnosed with an illness. "They just know how to bill people," he said.

So it was not hospitals or doctors, but a start-up platform company called patientslikeme.com that built that network. The company shares information from more than 400,000 people on more than 2,500 conditions.

What does all this mean for HR? Libert didn't offer an explicit prescription. But he did predict that the traditional model -- pushing employees though in a pipe, from recruitment to retirement -- will change. Instead, he envisions a more holistic approach.

The future of HR, he said, may be "nothing other than an orchestra -- a network platform" that weaves together the efforts, talents and knowledge of employees, customers and business partners to create value. He argued that the more expansive term "human capital" better captures what HR will do in the future, since employees will not be the only people contributing.

"An HR platform," he said, "is not sufficient unless you extend it beyond the walls of your organization."

Libert acknowledged that many companies have a long way to go. Indeed, an informal poll he conducted in the middle of his presentation via text messaging found that 59 percent of the participating audience members think their organization operates at the "amateur" level in tapping its networks.

But there are signs that many HR leaders and vendors share Libert's vision. Young software companies such as Namely and BambooHR, for example, are actively building networks of companies -- including some that compete in some areas -- to provide services through their platforms.

In HR technology, "the ecosystem is so complex and overlapping, you have to play well with others," says BambooHR CEO Ben Peterson. A Utah-based HRIS provider for smaller businesses, just eight years old, the company has partnerships with other vendors to supplement the core services it offers with the platform.

Another example comes from Globoforce, a rewards-and-recognition company based in Dublin, Ireland. The company's digital-recognition platform can create "work circles" for employees based on their interactions with colleagues, not an organization chart -- in other words, a network.

"A well-run recognition program . . . can drive a lot of good conversations" that will help the business, says Derek Irvine, vice president of strategy and consulting services at Globoforce.

In ways such as these, HR is moving in the direction of the future Libert envisions. His advice to those just beginning the journey: Start with yourself, understanding what people networks you haven't tapped.

"It's the hardest thing you'll ever have to do," Libert said. But "you'll be surprised. Once you mobilize your networks, they [won't] want to stop."

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Oct 6, 2016
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