Technology enables businesses to serve more customers, at greater speed and at less cost, while turning today’s eruption of data into valuable business intelligence. Yet technology can’t replace the human touch – the creativity, empathy and engagement that customers prize and which drives innovation and differentiation. How can businesses strike the right balance between technology and human touch? How can they guide their workforces through the uncertainty of major disruption and change? 

“Through ‘Human Forward’, Randstad’s new brand promise, we’re putting people in the center of the picture – creating an experience for our clients, candidates and employees that’s more personal, more impactful and which allows them to realize their full potential. Technology is very much part of this journey into the future, but it’s there to empower rather than bypass or replace people,” says Jos Schut, Randstad’s Chief Human Resources Officer. 

We asked Jos to describe the thinking behind Human Forward and what lessons he can share with other organizations as they seek to bring a human dimension to digital transformation.

Randstad is a business that seeks to make the right match between candidates and employers. How can technology support this?

Jos Schut: Technology is the engine that powers our world. Here at Randstad, the first point of interaction with clients and people looking for a new role is now almost always digital – online, mobile or social media. We need to ensure they can engage with us easily and seamlessly – when, where and how it suits them.Through our Digital Factory and the Randstad Innovation Fund, we’re also developing groundbreaking new tools that enable us to match the right candidates and clients with greater precision than ever before. On the candidate side, the innovations include gamification and psychometric tools that allow us to develop a 360-degree profile of capabilities, experience and personality traits. On the client side, the innovations include more proactive workforce planning, tools that enable businesses to reach out to a much wider spectrum of potential candidates, and tools that enable them to target their recruitment spend and subsequent selection much more effectively.

What are the limitations of technology and why is a human dimension still so important?

Jos Schut: Technology can only go so far. It can even make organizations lazy. In a sector like ours, the risk is relying on technology to identify a certain number of people in your database to fill a certain number of posts without really getting to know the businesses and candidates, and hence whether the people we’re putting forward would fit in and help to create real value. 

Research we carried out in the US supports this. While most candidates recognize the value in technology, they’re frustrated when it supersedes the human aspect of the recruitment process. Almost all believe that technology should be used to aid the recruitment experience, not replace it. Four out of five believe that it's important for recruitment agencies to recognize them as individuals, beyond their resumés. Employers agree – more than four out of five prefer a staffing partner who provides a personal perspective about candidates. 

Other sectors face similar challenges. For example, a lot of banks are closing branches and moving processes and client interactions online. Yet there are limits to this. People are fine with automated payments or checking their balance on their cell phone. But when making a critical life decision such as arranging a pension or a mortgage, they want a qualified person to understand their needs, talk them through the options and guide them through the process. 

Without a human dimension, services can also quickly become commoditized and undifferentiated. The real value of technology is in enabling businesses to do things better and to do new things, rather than simply getting a machine to do what they already do. As more aspects of commerce become automated, consumers also attach more value to the uniquely human capabilities that can’t be replicated by machines. Even enterprises that are seen as being at the forefront of technology are in fact empowered and differentiated by this human dimension. For example, there’s been a lot of focus on Netflix’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) to profile viewer preferences and drive personal recommendations for its on-demand content. Yet, this profiling has been made possible by human teams who ‘train’ the AI, one of the key roles of which has been to break down movies and people’s responses to them (e.g. switching to another movie) into thousands of emotional touch points. Only people can create that kind of emotional connection.

How is Randstad looking to put people first?

Jos Schut: For all the reasons I’ve said, we believe that staying relevant and differentiated in our fast-changing marketplace demands more than just digital transformation. A seamless digital experience is no more than the price of entry. What has and will continue to mark Randstad out is the time we take to get to know our clients and candidates, learn about their aspirations, and work out how we can help to realize them. We don’t just want to fill posts and make up the numbers, we want to create a perfect fit between client and candidate. 

The real power of technology is in enriching the ‘know you’ conversations we have with clients and candidates. By taking care of all the initial data capture and basic screening, technology gives our consultants more time to get  inside the heart and soul of the companies we serve and dive deeper into our candidate’s goals and potential than we would get from just the resumé. Technology also provides data-driven insights that our consultants can build on to improve the quality and value of these conversations. That’s why we’ve launched Human Forward – we want to harness the power of technology and the passion of people to create an experience that is more human and more valuable. 

What is the right balance between tech and touch?

Jos Schut: In striking the right balance, I think organizations should be asking themselves "how can we use technology to argument rather than simply cut costs or automate what we do”. If you only apply technology to drive down expenses without thinking about the impact on quality and service, you’ll only end up driving customers away. 

It’s also important that people within an organization ask themselves “what can I offer that a machine can’t and how can I make the most of this”. Technology is advancing all the time so they need to ensure that their skills and ways of working keep pace. While a lot of money is being invested in digital skills, the creativity needed to lead innovation and the agility needed to adapt to change could be just as important.

The scale of change can be disorientating. How can you bring employees on-board?

Jos Schut: Many employees across all industries are fearful about how their roles will change as a result of digital transformation or whether they will have a job at all. That’s why it’s vital to put people at the center of the strategy for change, rather than simply focusing on the systems. That in turn demands active input from HR. This includes explaining the value that technology can bring to employees – less of the work they hate and more time to carry out meaningful activities. 

Some work will be automated. Therefore, it’s vital that plans for retraining and reassignment are in place before the technology is implemented. It’s also important to ensure that employees have opportunities to put forward their ideas and air their concerns, that organizations take this on board and are honest in how they communicate back.

At Randstad, few if any posts will cease to be relevant. Yet, we still face challenges in securing buy-in from employees. In particular, it can be difficult to encourage employees who’ve been performing well without the aid of too much technology to embrace it. This is a challenge that would resonate with a lot of businesses. I also think that as a function, HR has been slow to embrace digital developments. In addressing this reluctance to change, it’s important to demonstrate how technology can empower people and, yes, how they’re likely to slip behind if they fail to keep pace. The key to making this kind of change work is recognizing that it’s as much cultural as technological and that people are at the center of it.

How do these changes fit with your purpose as an organization?

Jos Schut: At Randstad, we recognize the huge importance of work in people’s lives. Our guiding mission is to make it possible for more people to secure employment, and more people to be fulfilled in their work. Human Forward can contribute to this by helping more people to secure the work they really want. Clearly, candidates want different things – some might want the experience that would allow them to move up in their profession, while others might simply want a job that pays the bills. The more we know about these aspirations, the more we can help to deliver the job opportunities and client/candidate matches that can fulfil them.

There is also a huge social dimension to this. If a lot of work in various industries is replaced by machines, the people who will suffer most are the ones who already find it difficult to secure employment. This includes young people who’ve never had a job and can’t get the experience to start their career, along with older people who may see the opportunities for them narrowing. It also includes marginalized members of our society, such as refugees or ex-offenders. Support for these groups has always been a key part of our mission and we are looking to step this up. We believe that everyone has an enormous amount to offer – the combination of technology and personal touch can help us to identify these capabilities, support them with training, and connect candidates with potential employers. 

Knowledge base: What we can learn from Randstad 

  • in a post-digital age, human capabilities are more important than ever
  • employees need to remain agile and ready to adapt to change to keep up with technological advances
  • if employee buy-in is the key to successful transformation, it’s essential to show how technology will make their jobs more meaningful

Jos Schut started his career with Randstad as Branch Manager for Yacht in January 2001.

After being HR Director for several of Randstad's countries/regions (UK & Middle East, Australia and APAC),  Jos became CHRO within Randstad Holding in September 2016.

Key focus for him is people development within Randstad, for this Jos is leading the global Learning & Development practice including the Frits Goldschmeding Academy.