Building Better Workplaces: Key Takeaways from SHRM Tech Dubai

Last week I had the honour of being MC of the inaugural Society of Human Resource Management (fondly known as SHRM) event in the MENA region when a sold out SHRM Tech EMEA took place in Dubai on 24-25 February.

It was my first conference in Dubai, so I was particularly interested in learning more about the challenges and opportunities facing human resources leaders in the region. SHRM’s mission is ‘ building better workplaces for a better world,’ and it was evident over the two days that – like their counterparts elsewhere in the world – HR leaders in the Middle East are set on helping their organisations achieve this noble goal.

Our function faces a huge challenge. It needs to reinvent itself to grow its relevance and increase its impact. Embracing digital, developing its business acumen and providing value will help HR in building better, fairer and more humane workplaces. From what I saw in Dubai, HR leaders in the region have the desire to do this, which augurs well for a brighter future for HR.

Without further ado, here are my key takeaways from the conference:


Mark Levy pretty much invented the term ‘Employee Experience’ when he reimagined HR on joining Airbnb in 2013. In his coruscating speech, Mark defined Employee Experience as doing things WITH and FOR the workforce rather than TO them. He also argued that HR is part of EX rather than the other way around, which is contrary to how most organisations seem to see it. Mark’s rationale that the responsibility for EX does not just fall on the shoulders of HR but every function that touches the worker is a persuasive one. Ultimately, EX is about treating your workforce as customers. Does your organisation do this?

Employee Experience is doing things WITH and FOR the workforce rather than TO them


I always enjoy seeing Jason Averbook speak. He doesn’t pull any punches and his knowledge, energy and passion always shines through. Jason spoke in Dubai about the ‘Digitisation of HR’ and successfully sought to bust the popular myth that it’s all about technology. Of course, it isn’t, and Jason’s distillation of digital HR strategy into the four categories in : Mindset, People, Process and Technology; appeared to be a eureka moment for many delegates. Most HR organisations still have a long way to go though, with Jason citing recent research from his company Leapgen, which found that 75% of HR functions in large and medium companies still have no unified digital strategy.


What was evident from Mark and Jason’s speeches and even clearer from the panel the two of them joined with Dena Almansoori, which I moderated, is that HR needs to embrace rather than fear the future. Like every other business function, technology will see some of the less interesting and more repetitive work HR does become automated. The panel concurred that this should be seen in a positive light as it will free HR professionals up to focus on increasing their impact to the business as well as in taking the lead role in designing and delivering better and personalised workforce experiences. This does mean that the skills required by HR professionals are continuing to evolve.


The good news is there were numerous examples over the two days of how HR is facing up the significant challenge in front of it. Anna Tavis, opening day 2, provided a number of examples from companies such as IBM (see here) of how HR has embraced an agile approach focused on employee-centred design. Similarly, Hanane Benkhallouk provided several examples of how HR is connecting to the business, the workforce and technology. Three practical and powerful examples of successful transformations of HR were provided by Heba Makram (Emirates Group), Zakaa Farhat (Johnson & Johnson) and Vlasis Vlastos (Dubai Airport), with the latter in particular an impressive example of embracing technology to create a personalised learning experience.


The opening keynote was delivered by Dr Abdul Rahman Al Awar, who is the Director General of the Federal Authority for Government Human Resources. Not only did Dr Al Awar give an insightful speech on how the future of work and the consequent shift in skills requirements will impact on the local economy, but he outlined two steps the government has taken to address these challenges. First, a Ministry for Human Resources, and second, a Ministry for Higher Education and Skills to help bridge the gap between what the former is providing businesses in terms of the skilled workers it needs. Coming from a country where the political class is obsessed with Brexit and short-termism, it’s refreshing to see a government prepared to take a long-term view.


SHRM Tech EMEA may well have been the most diverse conference I’ve been to given that there were over 100 nationalities represented amongst the 800+ people that attended over the two days – including delegates from as far afield as Chile, Canada and The Philippines. It was apt therefore that the theme of diversity and inclusion was prominent throughout the two days. Two highlights were the Arab Women in Leadership and Technology moderated by Hessa Al Ghurair, and an absorbing speech by Dorothy Dalton on the dangers associated with technology exacerbating and perpetuating bias in the talent acquisition field.


From a personal point of view, I was delighted to witness the energy and enthusiasm for people analytics and data-driven HR over the two days. Whilst many of the challenges I explored in my pre-conference interview with Hanadi El Sayyed were apparent, the overwhelming message was an acceptance from delegates that people analytics is core to the future of HR. There were several good examples of the benefit of people analytics including one from Zahid Mubarik, who walked delegates through an example that demonstrated the ROI of reducing unwanted attrition. Prithvi Shergill took a similar approach, but also highlighted research from Sierra-Cedar that 62% of organisations have no plans to use predictive analytics in HR. This is a quite staggering and worrying finding, and the only relief was that the shock on most of the faces in the audience faces suggested that the SHRM Tech EMEA delegates agreed with my sentiment.


A common excuse from HR leaders I speak to for not doing analytics is that their data isn’t clean/accessible/comprehensive enough. As I outlined in my speech on the role of Organisational Network Analysis in People Analytics, perhaps exploring previously untapped data sources like email and calendar data could be a way to break the impasse. Several companies in the region have already begun to embark on passive ONA projects so the hope is that at least one of these will be ready to present their findings at SHRM Tech 2020. I got asked by several delegates if they could have the slides I used in my presentation, so I’ve added the presentation to my Slideshare page, which you can access by clicking on the image below.


Another personal highlight for me was moderating a panel comprised of David van Lochem, Amit Singh, Paul Gledhill and Brad Gebert on one of my favourite topics – trust. As recent research by Accenture reveals, the need to create employee trust is critical for organisations to unlock the value hidden in workforce data and emerging technologies. The panel discussed the need for transparency, close partnership between HR, IT, Legal and employees, clear and regular communication and above all programs designed to benefit the workforce as well as the business. As technological advances continues at pace and the data we collect grows exponentially, the theme of trust and even questions such as who should own the data (workers, the business or both?) will continue to be right at the top of the agenda.

92% of employees are open to the collection of data on them and their work in exchange for an improvement in their productivity, their wellbeing or other benefits

(Source: Decoding Organizational DNA, Accenture)


From Trust to Empathy. Rana Askoul gave a brilliant, emotional and personal speech about her late father and the tragic story of Alan Kurdi to highlight the importance of empathy and how intrinsic it is to being human. Rana then connected this to the emergence of AI and the growth in automation to provide a poignant warning that if we are not careful then we are in danger of losing our ability to be empathetic. It was the perfect way to end a successful conference and acted as a reminder that of all functions in the business, it is HR that should be leading the way when it comes to promoting the need for the ‘human’ element.


Congratulations to SHRM and their partner Informa for putting together such a fabulous program and successful conference, which augurs well for SHRM Tech EMEA in 2020. Thank you to Brad Boyson, Gaelle Lahad and Dipti Rane from SHRM MENA, Claire Smith from Informa and Achal Khanna and the SHRM India team for putting on the show and looking after me while I was in Dubai.

Thanks also to all the speakers already mentioned in the article plus the others I introduced over the two days: Mukul Jain, Jayant Kumar, Ramakrishna Movva, Kaustubh Sonalkar, Shaima Ghafoor, Francesco Carobolante, Shane Phillips, Nishchae Suri, Rehan Khan, Randeep Singh, Nihel Tajouri, Gregory Komarow, Ali El Assy and Imran Ahmad. The quality of speakers across the two days was commendably high.

Finally, thank you to everyone I met up with during the two days who took the time to make me feel welcome with special thanks to: Randa Farah, James Kelley, Anas Almarie and Dawn Metcalfe of those not already mentioned.

David is a globally respected writer, speaker, conference chair, and executive consultant on people analytics, data-driven HR and the future of work. He helps HR practitioners and organisations leverage data and analytical thinking to drive positive business outcomes, improved performance, and enhance employee experience. Prior to launching his own consultancy business and taking up board advisor roles at Insight222 and TrustSphere, David was the Global Director of People Analytics Solutions at IBM Watson Talent. As such, David has extensive experience in helping organisations embark upon and accelerate their people analytics journeys.


I’ll be chairing and/or speaking about people analytics, data-driven HR and the Nine Dimensions for Excellence in People Analytics model at the following events until the end of October 2019.


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