Lessons for HR from Silicon Valley

By Warrick Beaver

The global shift is underway! As the technological advancements of the last three decades combine to create the workplace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Ok, I accept this is not a new revelation, however the rate of change is forcing businesses to contemplate transformation or obsolescence over much shorter time scales. This revolution, which is anchored around Digital Transformation, is disrupting the way businesses operate around the world. HR teams are uniquely poised to act as change agents and prepare business to create new processes, competencies and business models for this digital age.

So with great anticipation, I was excited to attended a 3-day Digital Immersion experience in Silicon Valley. With a packed agenda we sought to learn more about Emerging Tech Trends, Customer Centricity and the best practices of Corporate Innovation. We were also to gain exposure to the “Future of Work”; the rise of the Legal Tech; Applied Artificial Intelligence and Two-Sided Marketplaces. The team also got to practice our learnings by applying Design Thinking to solve strategic and product innovation challenges.

So what are the implications for the HR function? Artificial Intelligence, Virtual teams, Internet of Things, Big Data and Analytics are causing a dramatic change in how the workforce functions. In order to understand and prepare for these changes, HR teams need to be more aware of digital model and the impact it has on business, enabling them to become firmly involved in the decision-making process of business and help execute digital capability development and strategy within the company.

So here are a few of my reflections on some common themes for HR, after engaging with global brands, start-ups, disruptors and academia in Silicon Valley.

Laser focus on what customers care about

If there was one characteristic that was indistinguishable between the companies we met of various sizes, heritage and industry focus was their obsession in knowing who their customer was and what they needed now and in the future. Firms are constantly challenging themselves around customer relevance asking “Are we enabling customers to do something they couldn’t do without us?”. In answering this question is the use of Big Data in the heart of everything. The implications for HR are enormous with this statement and extend from a building a customer-centric culture, to organizational design putting the customer at the centre of your procceses, to the measurement and reward of business and individual successes. HR should continue to learn how data can be leveraged to align to the strategic priorities of business and help the organization drive exponential business growth.

Clarity in the Vision, Freedom and Speed in Execution, Data Driven Decisions

It became clear from our multiple visits that everyone we spoke to, were crystal clear in their vision. The organizational vision is known, embraced and referenced constantly. This clarity of purpose allowed the teams and resources across the matrix to act at speed and most importantly, the organisational alignment allows decision-making to be localized. Visions are not framed in time, so whilst leaders may think 3 years out, there is a urgent cadence. People talk about progress in days, weeks, months rather than quarters and years. Because of this urgency, teams are encouraged to test & iterate, fail fast, learn from it and do the least to learn the most. Optimized learning through perpetual beta testing is the norm. The HR implications of this approach could extend into our how we adopt line of sight or organic goal-setting and how performance management systems support an iterative approach with accountability(including failure) at the front line.

Culture of Innovation and Accountability

Aligning organizational culture with digital strategy should be a high priority when companies embark on digital transformation. We all know the power of getting the culture right and how organizational culture can be a major stumbling block in change. It was clear that most of the companies visited that the spirit of entrepreneurship was not the sacred preserve of the leaders/founders of the business. Employees are expected to identify the next source of growth, whatever the initiative: you think it – you run it. No fingers are pointed, risk taking is encouraged alongside accountability and measurement. Global brands are humble enough to recognize that top down approaches don’t sustain a company and that small teams solve big problems. HR might consider not only measures and rewards but also the mix of capabilities within the team with implications for talent acquisition and attraction. When developing a digital mind-set and culture it’s easier to convince people when your team is composed of external people with this new “Agile” culture and internal people who understand the group culture.

Transparency and the Process of Clarification

Transparency is in the DNA of the digital companies with both employees and customers. Its is more common that not for the CEO to engage across the organisation by means of all hands meetings on a fortnightly or monthly basis as a minimum. Employees value transparency and they embrace it (they are not afraid of it) and transparency occurs throughout the system commonly driven by commonly understood data points (eg ratings, usage). The bi-product of the system of transparency is that employees are encouraged to clarify and challenge on issues important to them. People challenge (from big things to little things) and it’s and expected behavior and most importantly, people actually do it. HR can play a meaningful role in helping organisations focus on greater democratization of information, access, opportunity and invest in digital tools for knowledge sharing and collaboration. Leaders can use this transparency as a channel for employee engagement and pulse-taking. In this democratized environment, knowledge and helpfulness count for more than formal status.


Its a misconception that in digital companies, technology reigns supreme on the Talent agenda. Many firms told us that “technology is moving so fast that we’re not interested in acquiring technology – we’re interested in acquiring the Talent who have the vision and expertise to develop the technology”. Companies therefore have both traditional and non-traditional talent models that co-exist. Alternative talent strategies (such as buy, build, or borrow) are flexed around their business cycle. Talent will also become more loosely attached to organization, or not at all as in some virtual organization examples. Fewer people will be “permanent” employees; those who are will be able to move more freely in and out and within the company with search-and-match capabilities will enable individuals and organizations to “find” each other more easily in more time dependent and project specific roles. Talent marketplaces are becoming more transparent, giving all parties an unprecedented amount of information about each other. In HR we need to recognize unique challenges and expectations of a multi-generational workforce to create a vibrant organizational culture and manage talent with an engagement and development model addressing core and non-core activities (The Gig Economy).

Digital transformation is an inevitability for most businesses, it offers competitive positioning, including the ability to quickly adjust in response to new opportunities, build deeper relationships with customers, and launch new business models in quicker time. Among the most critical drivers (or obstacles) to digital transformation are elements that the Human Resources function support: organizational culture, structure, leadership, talent, and skills.

Are you prepared?

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