About Barry Flack
Barry Flack is a global HR executive, who has helped a lot of businesses with all things HR. He's an adviser, writer, speaker, trainer and business owner, and expert and a technology enthusiast. He has been trying to bridge the gap between HR and technology in organizations. With his vast experiences, he is knowledgeable on the twenty-first -century HR technology and the future of work.
We have the pleasure of welcoming Barry Flack today to our interview series. I am Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated, human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 Global Codie Award HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work with automation and AI technologies. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel, which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and published around two interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
Welcome Barry, we’re thrilled to have you.
Thank you very, very much. That is a description that I'm going to steal on to use wherever I go. So I'm very honored to both be asked and I hope for everybody watching a bit of value in this strange time.
I find myself as an Irishman for those who can understand my accent, living just outside London amidst the madness that has engulfed the globe almost so, great to get to speak to you and great to be able to talk about something that I've been very passionate and very obsessed about for a long time.
The pleasure is all ours Barry. So the first question I had for you was,
Tell us a little bit about your journey so far in the world of Human Capital Management.
Yeah. Look, put simply if it wasn't, I'd be here for several days. I've had a long and varied and incredibly well-versed career today but I would split it in three. Like everyone who came out of university, I spent my first period in the early 1990s. I know, hard to believe. Working in lots of big, complex, corporate HR organizations. I learnt my trade there.
I got us through strange and wonderful things like Y2K and I’ve seen us enter the global financial crisis, and I guess I brought that part of me to ends because my natural Irish curiosity wasn't really set up in organizations that were not terribly opening to questioning. I've had a fixed way of doing things.
So my next stage was very much about being a pretty young, active, interim career person, who saw the value of going into distressed, typically organizations who were frankly changing everything from their business model to going through about a hypergrowth and looking for someone who could try and take that organization through that. So experienced, more of what I’d seen was inherent dysfunction. My curiosity was piqued.
And I guess brought me into what I have now enjoyed since 2016, which is a freelance portfolio career that encompasses all of those great things you spoke about, where I do everything from consulting in with organizations, working alongside private equity, venture capital.
I've always been a massive advocate for technology. And so I've worked and do work with a lot of HR start-ups in the space. And I try and bring this together every so often, speaking on things like this and writing quite a lot to try and distill, I guess some sense of it for me and hopefully the audience out there.
Well, thank you so much for that explanation and it definitely tells us a lot about who you are and what you've done and what your passion is. So as you said, you're very passionate about technology and human resources and things digital, right?
So according to you, how important of a role will technology and digital make in the inclusive workplaces of the future?
That's a great question. Look, I'm going to surprise everybody. I'm going to clearly talk to my massive passion for technology, but I'm always, always gonna put it as a distant second to what I call organizational systems. Yeah, so let me sort of talk about that.
I think a lot of Organizations are still on a little bit of a continuum.
"Organizations are still on a little bit of a continuum."
And a continuum put plainly and simply as changing from stopping making people's lives miserable in the workplace. We've got low levels of engagement and we've got lots of issues around stress, etc. the way you know, it still prevails in our organizations and for those who have walked away through that.
Then at the other end of the continuum, we're looking at technology and an employee experience, in a very clear sense of where technology is brought to play. To make that experience much better, I am very much a challenge to HR in allowing organizations to be honest about where they plot themselves on that continuum.
And I say, look, expanding on that you know, part of what I still say decades after, this should not have been the case. Our organizations, who are still addicted to the idea that people are inherently evil. Yeah, there is a piece of work for any of your viewers, if you're interested in this that an individual called McGregor wrote back in the 1950s called Theory X and Theory Y. So stand back and think about that.
70 years ago, we sat in play a challenge to the view that people were inherently lazy or people would do less if given the power to them. There is no underpinning management science to allow us to confirm that at all. But we still have fixed mindsets to allow both HR practitioners and people in organizations to believe that.
So for any of your viewers, this is we must have a people-centric, positive view of people before we can start making use of the systems that we put in or indeed, on top of that and in conjunction, technology. Yeah, we've rebranded it, you know? We now call it Digital. Several years ago, we used to call it Social when Facebook and Twitter entered the world. So I’m very conscious that we do tend to rebrand unnecessarily.
But technology has been with man with as many as a decade. What we've got to understand in the first instance is, do we have a positive view of people inside our organization? And the answer should be yes. So let's celebrate them. Let’s tap into their potential and then let's see, with this massive exponential growth in technology, how we can use the preen power and the technology power that brings to make people's lives easier, to release that and stop doing dumb things that we have done in history.
So what you're saying is that you have to be people-centric and you've to put people first and then talk about tech and how tech can be an enabler in all of this, right?
Yeah, so let me give an example if that helps. So many years ago, on one of our first waves around 2003-2004, we built a technology solution called the Internet. Yeah, it was great. It took everybody away from the paper-based filing cabinet to find that document. Now we then put it online, and we give people a binary look, 24/7 access. And here's the crux.
The reading document of HR policy was still awful. It still contained 101 ways of diminishing people's potential in the workplace. Yep? The fact that we moved it online and you can read it or print it out or use technology to get to the right chapter is by no means use of technology. Yeah?
What we have to crack is what we put in there on the spirit of how we manage people inside organizations. And so for your viewers, it's thinking along that continuum. How many of those do we still have and why?, before we start getting into really ramping up technology's potential for us.
Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense.
And in your lifetime, have you seen people kind of, getting repelled by technology, like the baby boomers. And, you know, the Internet came in and then they adopted that, but are they really adopting things other than that now i.e. prevalent now, you know AI, automation. Are they really using it as an enabler?
Yeah. Look, they want to, So let me go after another myth buster. Yeah? The other myth buster is in my massively positive view of individuals, there is no such thing as resistance to change. There is only intelligent responses to that change on what we've had in the past and we still have it in big transformation pieces that individuals will rationalize what that technology piece means.
And so it might mean a loss of hierarchy, it might mean the loss of status. It might mean that if I am in a recruitment function and I have enjoyed inefficiently sending candidate letters for three days. That new technology will mean that I can do it with the press of a button and that's great, but I want to know what it means for me. And I want to know if I'm trained to do it. Yeah?
So a real piece in, and I've done lots of technology adoptions is that we cast to get people by going to see them over there, they're resistant to change. We roll our eyes, we believe the individual. And we've got to stop doing that.
We've got to start recognizing that Intelligent people have intelligent responses.
"Intelligent people have intelligent responses."
And unless we step into that, then I think, as you pointed out, you know, the use of artificial intelligence, they're gonna throw up new questions. They're gonna throw up new problems for us to solve. And that's great. We should embrace that.
That is why our machine, The Brain is the most phenomenal thing on the planet and always will be. So we should allow ourselves, you know, the freedom to think that's okay. We’ve got some big ethical issues coming up with Artificial Intelligence.
We've got some big issues around bias in the talent acquisition space because we fed the machine our thoughts. So how do we do that? We're giving technology too much credit. And I say that as a technology evangelist, you know, we're giving it superpowers it doesn't have. Yeah?
It is programmed with our algorithms, with our assumptions, and I bet like a new employee will take time to improve. So a lot of the technology adoptions, I say are people believe in it’s a plug and play. We bought the system on Monday. We're fed up that come Tuesday, it's not giving us what we want. Yeah? We’ve gotta move beyond some of that.
Wow, that is quite insightful how you put it, when technology has to be used, but it has to be used prudently. And tech providers need to really understand, what is it really that the end-user wants and how can it add more value to what they're doing, so that they don't get frustrated with the tools, right?
Absolutely. Yep, it's What problem are we solving and back to my analogy, if it's solving something that remains a problem alternating it, codifying it is not the answer. So we need more joint designed principles involved. We need people not to be in the early adoption of technology which is driven by the IT Space.
We were taking a lot of thought processes from other parts of our big functional, you know, silos. But we need people, and I would argue, you know, that those people aren't necessarily born and bred in the HR. We need people who understand the job as it is being done.
I wanted to wrap technology around the experience and so much of our current evolution in technology by lots of the, you know, start-up disruptors. The people here given is a lot of vendor vision are getting that, they are getting the designing aligning experience of people doing the job is central to its stickiness, to its adoption.
We've given too many products in the past that people hit because it's an add-on to their day job. You’ve got to stop doing that.
Absolutely. That's exactly what I was coming to. These legacy systems, being really complex and how they’ve, kind of build themselves. It's very difficult to adopt it because you kind of gets exhausted just looking at the system, there’s so many things on it that you don't know where to start from.
And then, you need a lot of training, you need it from the tech side, and then it's just exhausting. Few people adopt that technology. I think we need to make adoption of technology easier as we move ahead.
So, with respect to that, what do you think are the important highlights of any good platform? How can a platform be more robust? And how can it be more adoptable as such?
Yeah. Look, I think it's, you know, the sacredness of good platforms is in the design. Yeah? It is about recognizing that there is a utility that, you know we ought to undertake in this particular technology adoption. What is that we need today on working our way from a user point of view into that experience?
So you know, a very clear and obvious flow of data, you know a very clear and obvious ability to understand the workflow as it goes around in terms of putting that through and a very clear and obvious understanding of where that sits inside your ecosystem. So we've got a problem with the last one. We don't have enough clever integration in and around the nature of the market that we’re in where we’ve got big HCM data pipes being surrounded by too many points solutions and APIs. That's okay. You know, we'll solve that one. That's sort of where we'll go.
But there is an element of understanding in the platform that you have some simple utility that you want people to own, build, and develop around, get them to own it. But having in front of you a platform that, frankly, you have trusted. Yeah? And this idea of trust is massive.
So the data that goes in, the understanding of the utility that it delivers, you know, are all incredibly important. Let’s not go after replicating some of those that are on the open-source that exist. So in the learning space, you know, learning management systems as records, you know, has now evolved into an understanding that the greatest place we've all now found, probably by accident to develop ourselves is YouTube.
We go there and understand how to do absolutely everything on it because somebody on the planet has built a video around it. They help us do that, you know? So our understanding of some of these platforms do not have to be overcomplicated.
Yep, that they can ultimately cleverly integrate with other things that are more tuned to what people enjoy doing. Yeah? I think we're beginning to understand that you’ve got a lot of legacy platforms you've got to go after. Yeah? Where frankly, the workflow and the wiring of that is far too complex. Too many touchpoints.
Too many experiences to get a simple transaction done that in a productive environment where people have little time and a little span of attention, it's another obstacle for walking away from it or working our way around it, so we've gotta build products that is user-friendly as built by the user and then keep that simple. Yeah?
The Apple product is the most wonderful example of how that is. Yeah? We are not overly fast as a user about what goes on inside that. Yeah? That, we’ll leave that to the nerds to enjoy it. That's great. But we want simple functionality in the front office at the right time to do our job in the day.
Absolutely. I think the front end of it has to be very simple to use because for end-users not necessarily technical. You can use the engine, you know, as complex as you want. It's like the car engine that you have kind of the ledge on it, and you have all the components under it, so you don't have to necessarily lift the lid but the car looks beautiful. It's simple, it's intuitive. And it kind of makes you want to engage with it right?
And I think all my point, really good follow-up here is that a lot of tech vendors on platforms are terribly obsessed in selling what's under the bonnet.
"A lot of tech vendors on platforms are terribly obsessed in selling what's under the bonnet."
Yeah? And I think we've gone through the face of getting it here, get your artificial intelligence-driven, watts it. When we would never, we never cared about PHP or any other language used in the back end of things. We want to know, will this thing match people quicker? Yeah?
Will it give me an answer to someone, will it allow me to find the right people I need to do the following job, you know? Will it allow me to collaborate? I want to know the utility of this in my day job as I go from the start to the end.
And so that's why we've got to get a real sense of technologists to take a little step behind the curtain. Do your amazing things. But allow us to do the simple problem statement. Yeah?
When I open it, can this happen? And if that happens, I’m really happy. And I don't really care what's going on in here. I marvel at it, but I don't really, you know, lie awake at night wondering how it connects with you actually in, in the other part of the globe.
Absolutely. I love your ideology there.
And I knew you were also a believer in chatbot. Do you think it makes things easy? So when you have an HCM that's integrated with a chatbot, does it kind of make things easier for especially, the new-age people, the millennials, who are going more from the manager end of applications to something that's more, conversation as we call it?
Yeah. Look, this debate, it's really interesting to get because it gets the opposition to this or people who've never grown up in that environment. Yeah?
So you've got people who are in charge of the budget or need to develop a strategy, who are of a certain age, with certain life experiences and certain perceptions that are biased towards it. And one of the big things is always that, my goodness, I wouldn't use this. Yeah? Just poked.
And then we go into the science and the data of understanding that we have the whole population that does this in their everyday life that can fit this particular function and the features that are in. I bet it's an answer. It's not the entire answer, but it's clearly an answer to, If I think back to simple, rudimentary HR support, a lot of the people that I dealt with wanted an answer 24/7.
"If I think back to simple, rudimentary HR support, a lot of the people that I dealt with wanted an answer 24/7."
They wanted at times the ability to know, did they have enough holiday at 10:30 on a Friday evening? Because their wife or their husband is booking a holiday, and they just want to be able to press the button at that point. Yeah? If I could phone or I can go in or someone can tell me that I have enough. That is a great piece of because we find out that that stops its productivity.
Answering that question a dozen times. So we'll replace it? What problem are we solving? Where does the capability end? Where does that case say that how far in it will it always be the chatbots in a big way. We've all heard those. They're fine questions. Some of the debates frankly are a bit ridiculous. I had it. They're here to stay. They will refine. They will get better. We've got to stop bringing such snobbery to this idea when we don't even think about it elsewhere.
Absolutely. I agree with you. And so what I'm hearing now is that there will be a set of features that will be used more after we're done with the whole pandemic scenario. And one fine gentleman told me that succession planning would be one feature that would be used more, probably after the pandemic is over.
So do you also kind of have something in mind that would be used more than other features in a platform?
In that particular context, you mean?
A post-pandemic world, in terms of look on, so look, we're currently rewriting the rules to absolutely everything. So, look, I think feature-wise some of those problems that we're going to step into are about high, robust and resilient, have our organizations been in meeting this particular crisis?
So beyond the existential do we have, frankly, enough cash to burn in the next few months until we can begin the operation? There is a whole series of other problem statements which I think will say, organizations try and tap into the whole analytics piece in a real sense of early warning. Yeah?
So how can we build knowledge and understanding the data that our organizations have that allows us to be as best prepared as possible? How well do we know our people beyond some of the great stuff we're doing on the cultural system side of things, but some of it being the core heart, how do I tap into other things that the individual has?
How do I tap into the sorts of ways that they want to work? How do I understand where my resources or my supply chain is actually operated out of?
If I can’t get on a plane and go to the Far East anymore, do I need a nearshore on one of those capabilities in place, how does my deployment strategy from a resourcing point of view factor in the people who are with me, I need to be furloughed in this strange way of managing and I didn't flexible with this thing that I haven't really embraced, which is the broad atypical space, that spawns everything from crowdsourcing to gig workers to payroll on demand, etc.
I think we will get organizations that will return. I think that that's what the right strategy is and they will die because I don't think we can return. I think there are those who will be very Business Continuity Management liking, how do we get the robustness? How does our remote working capability look and feel like? How does our collaboration feels like?
And then I think others are thinking we've sort of not stepped into this problem enough. But a black swan pandemic will reach us again next year, and the year after, and something else will happen. Unless we have a robust, resilient organization that actually allows us to be able to buffer against things, we will die on one of these ways.
And if I was to once again go back to what wins between technology and organizational systems, I think the massive growth in decentralized businesses will glow cause I think we're finding in our responses that those organizations closer to the problem and the problem are they know the people and they know their market.
Other ones are gonna be more resilient. Rather than the organization that’s still got a very strong, commanding control.
Right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It's time I think that we change the narrative of these platforms, and I'm gonna put them on a track that actually works from home sensitive, and it's kind of how do you kind of know remotely work and integrate with a lot of collaborative tools to maybe make the whole employee experience smooth and kind of make it very intuitive. And really robust. I agree with that.
Yeah. Look, all roads in that particular debate go back to my hopeful takeaway, which is, if you do not have a positive view of the people you've hired or engage with, you will be incredibly half empty when approaching remote working. Yeah?
You can't see them. You cannot feel the controlling manner that too many organizations are addicted to today. You're not focused on outputs. You are lost in your own ability to inspire people from a distance.
You know when to back off, to watch the signals. All that stuff is very different. So the organizations who prior to this upset, I'm gonna have a remote working organization that's gonna be the center point going up. We're not moving our office work to people's homes. They're recognising that the dynamic in that needs to be nurtured, managed, factored it in a very different way.
But it's not about just holding off people. It's about understanding that how do you make people belong in a place like that. What systems allow them to fail they could work at any time, that they can turn up and they haven't shaved. Yeah? That they can, you know that they can step away because they'll come back to it later on.
All of that stuff that ultimately says, I think you’re brilliant! I trust you. And I want you to get support from me and not fail the other way around that I want you to tell me, what have you been doing all day. Yeah? I don't want that anymore.
So it's those organizations, I think, coming out of this and we're seeing it in a very open way. It's a lot of judgment being made of businesses. Yeah? From those who are sacking people very quickly to incredibly rich sponsors of organizations who don't seem to be doing enough to people who have horror stories on remote working.
I think we'll regret how it will feel after this, when good talent will go, I don't care how good your EVP or your recruitment marketing looks. I’ve seen what you did. And I don't want to work for you.
Absolutely. I think a lot of people are going to look at organizations and they are going to ask them tough questions like, what did you do during the pandemic? What have you been doing? Have you helped anybody? Or have you just been sitting there and hatching eggs, so absolutely agree with you.
And it's very important to these times, especially for managers and leaders, to look at the teams and trust them, have that bridge build out that, I understand that you're working from home and you’re bringing home into work. So there would be a lot of empathy that would be required by managers and leaders and absolutely agree with you on that one. And I love it.
I love your outlook of positivity, how you have to look at the glass half full and not half empty. That's really what's required. I really appreciate that.
Look, there's tremendous opportunity for us here. It is a massive shock to the global system. Yeah? We're here to talk about it in the context of work. But in that example, I've been trying in an era of enlightening organizations when the burning platform wasn't there.
So, when I've asked him to trust people and let them work from home, there's this suspicion what has now fired my enthusiasm, of course, is we're going to have, let's say, six months of people settling in on being productive, finding their way around it and doing their job from remote.
So when we go back and we make that manager, we're gonna be able to look at me and go, what is your case for not letting us happen? We have operated brilliantly. We have developed the organization this way. We've got a percentage, maybe a high percentage of those people. We want to stay in that demean. I don't really want to go back to traveling. You know, long hours away and everything that goes with it.
Not all, and then we've got that other piece we spoke about earlier, which is the resistance piece. We've got the manager re-examining the fact that their role is in its historic way, dying in front of them. What are they doing anymore? What is this space fill when a lot of automation, a lot of productivity ups and a lot of ways that we wanna work, which is about getting out of the way, suggests that we should just get rid of millions of managers. And, there is an argument, to do that from a very productive per point of view.
But of course, the last thing we want our millions of middle managers suddenly lets loose on society for every two cents. So look, we have a Duty of Care. We've created the system. We’ve said that's what we want you to do. Hold that together and controlled and report upwards and show it downwards. So we owe it to them to say, well, actually, the game's changed.
And this is what it looks like and it's your friend technology and the algorithm and the machine and people and stop doing lots of this and do lots more of that and whatever that all starts to come out like will be incredibly scary for some of these individuals.
Yeah, definitely would be scary. And you're right. Middle management is, they can cost a lot of confusion because they're conveying messages and the kind, kind of, that would be a lot of miscommunication.
And there is a reward that's coming up that you don't need middle management to kind of have a good organizational system is equality. So I completely agree with that.
Absolutely. And the cascade of information going in an organization to the middle manager and into what I call the periphery, where you're sitting next to the marketplace, which was fine 50 years ago. So my argument with lots of businesses, you get excited that we're in future of work today.
Actually, our future of work clock started in the mid 1970s when the world changed forever. Yeah? The old production line of Ford, I can give you any car you want, as long as it's black approach is gone. We got complexity. We could not plan against the market but we can plan against the complexity of people.
We have struggled and the manager in that scenario has struggled in there for over five, you know four decades now to try and find their way of existence as the world has moved and as technology has exponentially gone through the roof. So I feel sorry for them until I'm subjected to them. And then my sympathy goes very quickly.
Absolutely. So what is your message for our viewers? And this is the last part of it really.
What are some important takeaways that you'd like our viewers to really ponder on or you'd like them to know, from your perspective, from your knowledge, from your experience?
Sure. Look, as you go away from this and look as we are all in the CM boat together, look, we should never ever underestimate the magnificent resilience, intelligence, innovation of individuals, of human beings. So we will all get ourselves out of this.
Our ability to go back and solve these new problems are equally within the gift of the most magnificent machines on the planet, the human and we'll go, and we will go and solve these particular you know, issues that we have in there.
But I think the true takeaways are as you go and find the headroom to return and answer those questions, think about how your organizations treat that question of McGregor’s Theory X, Theory Y.
Do you trust your workforce are people who have great intent, and if they do, the second part of it is, what have you got inside your organization that, frankly, runs kinder to that? What are the sorts of traditions, rituals, things that are just there that we just won't question and many of those are in the HR domain. Should we frankly put into the museum? Should we stand back and say to really flourish we need to find mastery, be really good at the technology, the experience, people. But actually we cannot be interfering.
You cannot go in and interfere with people doing a job they love doing, if we don't put the answer in their hands, Let them design learning in the flow of work, let them design how they produce in the flow of work. Yep? Let them create as many opportunities for positive feedback flows, don't harm them on annual appraisal. Yeah? Let them understand the sentiment of their people.
Don't have an annual engagement surface. Yeah? Lots of things are on the continuum, making people miserable. So being badly delivered as an experience, so do that work. It's great problem solving. Every organization will be different, and we need to be honest about that. We have a window. I think we should go and use it.
I absolutely agree with that. I think a lot of workplaces are like living museums in this. It's really important now that we ask ourselves, are we giving employees a great experience? And do they really feel belonged? Do they have a purpose? Do they feel like they’re adding value to organizations, an those are interesting questions to ponder on.
Absolutely, but the great questions and when we run out of questions is when humanity will end. Yeah? We’ll just fall over like a machine. Yeah? Like some sci-fi movie, but we won't. We are here because our brain, that wonderful muscle wants us to solve those problems, and that's great. So let's get the data. Let's get the evidence and let's start burning some of these awful old rituals and watching the return we get on the value of people.
The terrific stuff about technology is that it comes in and it provides us with the tools, the capability and the insight to do things that we don't want to do because we’re really bored. And nobody wants to count things for weeks on end but the machine loves it. Give them the stuff that's boring while we go and solve the problems.
Absolutely. It's time that we start doing some higher order thinking. And we've got everything in here, right? Even technology is something that we produced out of here. So, really. We must work in conjunction and create something beautiful. That has value more than it goes beyond us. And that would be beautiful.
Absolutely. Couldn't agree more. That's the excitement beyond all the daily news items of doom and gloom and look, I don't want to underplay it. There's some terrible things happening on it, but post for those of us that vast vast majority, we are gonna have wonderful opportunities to solve some terrific problems.
Absolutely. It's time we stay positive and get this going. Thank you so much. I loved, I loved having this conversation with you Barry and I really appreciate your time and sharing your views with us. It's personally been a very enriching experience for me and surely for our viewers as well. So thank you so much.
Look, thank you. And I'm honored. I really appreciate getting the time. Stay safe and hope to speak to you again soon.
Absolutely. And I’ll stay in touch with you.
Take care. Buh-bye. Have a good day.