Five Digital Business Capabilities to Accelerate Human Resources Digital Transformation

Despite a growing business case for digital transformation – according to our recent analysis, the return on investment could be as high as 600%[1] – progress has been measured. Until last year, that is. The pandemic triggered the digital wake-up call that many organizations needed. Companies made massive changes to maintain business and operations through digital channels because they had to. Now, we have to maintain that momentum while working from a proactive rather than a reactive position. The way to do that is to focus on building five core digital capabilities within your human resources (HR) function.


The mandate has strengthened

The experiences of 2020 underscored the value of a digital operating model and solidified perspectives about the role of digital transformation in the next normal. In our 2021 Key Issues Study, approximately 73% of respondents said they expect acceleration of digital innovation to be a permanent characteristic of the business environment after the return to stability, and 72% expect an enduring shift to digital delivery channels.

Not surprisingly, enterprise digital transformation catapulted to the No. 1 priority for 2021, up five spots in the ranking from the previous year. HR executives ranked digital transformation seventh in priority, but it will also be critical to advancing many other goals on the 2021 HR agenda.


A framework for accelerating digital transformation

Today’s HR technology landscape is broad, with rapidly evolving tools and players, and ambiguity that still surrounds the potential benefits and return. With the stakes high and investment dollars limited, how can you be sure you are making the right moves?

We have found it effective to focus on building five essential digital business capabilities (Fig. 1): digital engagement, digital workforce and organization, digital service optimization, digital ecosystem, and analytics-driven business insight.

FIG. 1   The Hackett Group’s Digital Acceleration Framework

To illustrate these digital business capabilities and the technologies that enable them, we gathered examples from across our work with various HR leaders.


  1. Digital engagement

A flood of technology innovations has transformed the way companies and business services functions engage with customers, suppliers, partners and other stakeholders – and the field is still rapidly evolving. These technologies can optimize stakeholder experiences by digitizing and integrating interactions across channels and leveraging data. Broad-based capabilities for digital engagement encompass front office automation, customer self-service, e-commerce and social media platforms.

Digital transformation requires evolving culture, capabilities and behavior to achieve the full benefits. Development of digital engagement capabilities should focus on knowing the customer – employees, managers, candidates and other stakeholders – across the journey, customizing interactions, enabling stakeholders to access services or information in different ways (web, phone, app, email, etc.), ensuring consistent interaction across channels, and providing analytics and insight in real time.

Examples of the digital engagement capabilities that HR organizations are developing

  • End-to-end employee life cycle enabled by smart workflows
  • Consumer-grade, personalized customer experience enabled by artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Integrated chatbots and other interactive tools that provide 24/7 tier 0 and tier 1 support
  • Data, analytics and AI-enabled insights available to all relevant stakeholders

Enabling technologies

  • Chatbots/intelligent agents
  • Experience platforms
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)/service management systems
  • Self-service workflows
  • End-to-end integration
  • Virtualization and reporting tools


  1. Digital workforce and organization

Technology has changed the nature of work by automating routine tasks, digitizing workflows, connecting co-workers in virtual teams, and untethering and empowering knowledge workers with personal productivity tools. These capabilities use digital tools and platforms to maximize productivity, intellectual property creation, and the value contribution of both individual workers and the teams in which they work. Most of today’s digital capabilities enable workers through remote access to applications and self-service provisioning: knowledge management tools; workforce collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack; and other means of communication and engagement.

The next wave of digital transformation will have an even more profound impact on the workforce than traditional automation and, for many roles, will change the nature of work beyond recognition. This will be the result of a perfect storm: the entry of a digitally native generation into the workforce, the mass adoption of traditional technologies that eliminate most repetitive tasks, and the rapid maturation of cognitive technologies.

Examples of the digital workforce and organization capabilities that HR organizations are developing

  • Paperless HR designed for end-to-end digital employment
  • Clearly defined roles mirrored in system security and workflow
  • Intelligence embedded in HR work and employee/manager self-service tools
  • Consolidated and dynamically updated HR knowledge management systems
  • Advanced use of collaborative and case management (CRM) tools
  • Employee listening tools and interactive feedback loops

Enabling technologies

  • CRM/service management systems
  • Role-based integrated security
  • Knowledge management/collaboration tools
  • Visualization, reporting and analytics tools
  • Virtual collaboration tools


  1. Digital service optimization

Historically, business process automation has never fully lived up to its promise due to the inherently dynamic nature of business processes and operating models, and the inability of business applications to adapt to changes at the speed at which business operates. Without a major overhaul of technology platforms and upgrade of information technology (IT) capabilities, this agility gap will only widen. Digital service capabilities center around the use of content and process digitization, business process management, automated workflows and approvals, robotic process and cognitive automation to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of HR services, and the execution of underlying processes.

To optimize digital service, HR organizations will need to apply smart automation technologies – both to run traditional, rule-based processes and enable the efficient delivery of new services. These tools are faster to implement, easier to configure and more intuitive to use than tools HR has used in the past.

Examples of the digital service optimization capabilities that HR organizations are developing

  • Accessible, easy-to-use, cost-effective and reliable digital HR service delivery channels
  • User-centric, integrated and workflow-enabled end-to-end HR processes
  • Fully digitized employee records provisioned via role-based security

Enabling technologies

  • Robotic process automation technology
  • Business process management, workflow, orchestration or integration platforms
  • Integrated document imaging
  • Smart data capture


  1. Digital ecosystem

Traditional organization structures and value chains are evolving into networks of digitally connected resources, service providers, and consumers. The business-to-business networks, knowledge networks and internet of things (IoT) are examples of emerging digital ecosystems. Within a knowledge network, companies may, for example, crowdsource innovation, collaborate with strategic suppliers to innovate, or incorporate customer feedback into product development. An ecosystem based on the IoT may enable entirely new business models, products or service offerings.

The digital ecosystem is increasingly vital for finding and bringing talent to the organization in the new normal, where remote work will endure and physical location matters less than in the past. Digital pathways – enabled by intelligent search capabilities – that connect the organization with third-party service providers, social media networks and, ultimately, qualified (active or passive) candidates will enhance HR’s value to the organization. These also augment process efficiency and improve user experience.

Examples of the digital ecosystem capabilities that HR organizations are developing

  • Consolidated human capital management platforms tightly integrated with point solutions
  • Integrated talent networking with external talent sources
  • Real-time or event-triggered and monitored integration
  • Secure, fully integrated third-party service provider platforms
  • Clear, rigorously enforced data protection and ownership protocols for employees, HR, and third parties

Enabling technologies

  • Social media recruiting platforms
  • Vendor portals
  • Virtual collaboration tools
  • Application programming interfaces and other integration tools
  • Third-party cybersecurity services
  • On-demand labor pools


  1. Analytics-driven business insight

Superior ability to mine data for business insight is an important – and for many industries, the most critical – competitive differentiator. Digitally native companies like Uber, Amazon, Facebook and Google optimize their service offerings almost in real time based on analytics-driven insight. Established industrial age firms like Caterpillar, GE and Bayer are redefining their business models, generating analytics-based revenue streams. Consumer packaged goods giants like Unilever and Procter & Gamble compete based on the analytical capability of their marketing functions.

The pressure to deliver on enterprise talent strategy – and then monitor and assess performance against that strategy – is driving HR to adopt more sophisticated tools and look at rich datasets. By modernizing data management platforms, managing data as a strategic asset and applying new analytics solutions – for example, analytics-driven “moneyballing” techniques to filter and select talent – HR can accelerate speed to value.

Examples of the analytics-driven business insight capabilities that HR organizations are developing

  • On-demand analytics, reporting and insight generation
  • Advanced models and algorithms to drive decision-making and execution
  • Rigorous data-quality practices and the ability to combine cross-functional data
  • Strong analytical team, including quantitative and storytelling capabilities

Enabling technologies

  • Machine learning
  • Visualization tools
  • Quantitative analysis tools
  • Predictive HR analytics
  • Data lake/integration layer

Of course, your specific priorities for developing digital business capabilities will depend on unique enterprise and functional business strategies and objectives. Also, keep in mind that these capabilities are highly interdependent, with business insight as the thread that ties all of them together. Therefore, you cannot decouple and approach them as discrete concepts.


Fast-track your HR digital journey

While HR organizations are increasingly becoming the owners of their digital journey, you will still need to work closely with the technology organization to ensure that system/tool selection is consistent with the overall enterprise direction. You will also need to make sure your own organization develops and maintains adequate capabilities to execute its digital business strategy. This includes capabilities for identifying and prioritizing opportunities, implementing new solutions at speed, and optimizing digital functionality following deployment.

The following steps can help you mobilize quickly yet intelligently for digital transformation:

  • Segment HR digital capabilities into the five categories described above.
  • Determine the baseline maturity of these capabilities using an established maturity framework.
  • Identify the key gaps and opportunities within your HR processes.
  • Develop a heat map that prioritizes areas for digital innovation.

From there, you’ll begin to see a clear picture of the direction you need to take.


[1] Our analysis of benchmark data projects that a $10 billion company, with business services organizations operating at a digital world-class efficiency level, spends $15 million more on technology than the typical organization of its size, and it has a $106 million lower operating cost.