HR Leadership Column Technology Requires Change Management

HR professionals know that anything that causes business disruptions is certain to have implications for human resource management, including the growth of 3-D printing.

Monday, March 17, 2014
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I'm happily married to a technogeek. He spent much of his career working for three technology companies (each one gobbled up by the next one) and there's no new technology that he doesn't want to have or experiment with.

As a result, and after many years of marriage, we have a dedicated space in our basement that I've dubbed "the place where computers go to die." Technology doesn't get discarded around here, especially when "You never know when I might need something!" and "A museum might want it someday!" are our home's most-often-heard technology-related refrains. 

I tell you this as background on why I know there's a 3-D printer in our future. Not because we have a need for one, but because it's something new to experiment with.

And I admit I'm looking forward to it. I think the 3-D printer is such a disruptive technology that I want to be in on the fun.

The news reports on how this technology is being used are fascinating. They range from 3-D printing an iPhone case to high-heel shoes, or models of body parts on which doctors can practice.

But my favorite use of the technology so far goes to a teenager who used a 3-D printer at a local library to build a prosthetic hand for a boy who was born without fingers. The hand opens and closes and can even hold a pencil. The teenager found the plans on the Internet. Imagine, open-sourced body parts!

But what are the implications for HR leaders? 

McKinsey recently issued a report highlighting some of the business disruptions that are likely to result from this new technology. HR professionals know anything that causes business disruptions is certain to have implications for human resource management.

According to the report, 3-D technology  -- aka additive manufacturing -- is likely to accelerate product development. For example, 3-D printing will allow companies to manufacture more prototypes, allowing more rapid customer feedback, which, in turn, will reduce time to market. The typical development process of trial and error can be collapsed, with more rapid solutions to design challenges.

Business strategies will have to change because of new ways of doing business. For example, if you can make spare parts in the "3-D Print Room," then why manage and maintain an inventory of parts? How will businesses that provide spare parts survive in a world in which customers can print off their own parts? If products can be 3-D printed "on demand," should production be moved closer to the customers? A business strategy of manufacturing low-cost products may have to be refocused to licensing designs to customers who want to manufacture their own product. Value may not come from manufacturing a product; it may come from being able to add uniqueness to the design alone.

These are just a few disruptions likely from the emergence of 3-D printing. Clearly, HR has a role to play.

HR executives have to understand the business well enough to recognize what, if any, impact 3-D technology might have on the enterprise. Don't wait until someone tells you it might have an impact: Know the business well enough to raise the issue if no one has mentioned it already. Help the executive team consider the strategic implications of the technology and whether it can be leveraged to the business' advantage or whether the business needs to be prepared to meet new forms of competition. Recognize that there may be very specific, and difficult to find, talent requirements for such a shift, and begin to devise a talent-development and sourcing strategy to meet the skilled-worker needs of a new manufacturing strategy.

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But perhaps most importantly, when confronted with the challenges that will arise with this or any new technology, HR executives need to hone their change-management competencies. Or, as Dave Ulrich describes it in his HR competency model, HR executives need to be able to be change champions.

"As change champions, HR professionals help change happen at institutional (changing patterns), initiative (making things happen) and individual (enabling personal change) levels...  .  HR professionals ... initiate change, which means they build a case for why change matters, overcome resistance to change, engage key stakeholders in the process of change and articulate the decisions to start change. [T]hey sustain change by institutionalizing change through organizational resources, organization structure, communication and continual learning."

HR executives need to not only be prepared to manage the change, they need to be leaders within the organization in embracing and driving change.

In the meantime, I'm already planning what to do with a 3-D printer once we get one. Do you think Legos will license the right to 3-D print some of its famous building blocks?


Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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