Introducing Lisa Highfield, Principal Director of HR Research and Advisory Services at McLean & Company

Author(s): Lisa Highfield

Lisa joined McLean & Company in September 2023 as Principal Director of HR Research and Advisory Services, focusing on Technology and Artificial Intelligence.

In this Q&A, Lisa talks about her background, what drew her to this role, how we can bridge the gap between HR and IT, and the challenges at the top of HR leaders' minds.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. How you got your start in HR?

My career path has been unique, as I have had both breadth and depth in HR, IT operations, finance, and even sales!

I started my career in IT and worked for several years in various capacities, helping organizations through successful digital initiatives, including leading enterprise implementations around ERP, CRM, and HR systems. I know how intensive and risky these projects can be and have worked to understand how to maximize their success.

One career-changing role that I often think back on is an operations management role at a large global manufacturing organization. This organization was going through a worldwide merger and acquisition, and I had an opportunity to step up to the plate and help lead our employees through disruption and change. That role sharpened my core HR management skills but, more importantly, it opened my eyes to the critical roles employee engagement and organizational behavior play in successful business outcomes.

Five years ago I joined Info-Tech Research Group as a Director in the Enterprise Applications practice. I have now moved over to McLean & Company to focus on helping our HR members with technology and AI, and I am excited to build this out with an HR lens.

Through all these experiences, I continue to grow in my love for technology, strategic leadership, and the opportunity for cross-functional collaboration across the organization. My experience has led me to understand how HR and IT can significantly impact organizational culture, digital transformation, innovation, and strategy.

What does your role as Principal Director involve? What drew you to it?

My role as Principal Director is to develop research and advisory services for McLean members, write relevant research, and advise members on technology and AI topic areas.

Technology is currently experiencing significant growth. Not only are technologies getting better, but they are also becoming more accessible and have the potential to change every aspect of organizations. Organizations need strong people leadership, and HR has a huge opportunity to both embrace technology for HR operations and manage through change, ensuring the organization is prepared for its future state.

I was attracted to this role because I believe in the power of collaboration. In the current environment, HR and IT have a huge opportunity to work together for the success of the organization. My experience puts me in a unique position to help with that.

What piqued your interest in the tech side of HR, and why do you think this is an important area to explore?

Organizations will be going through digital transformation in the coming years like never before, and I want to help HR leaders step up to the plate during this time of transformation. Some thoughts on this include:

  • Most HR leaders I talk to still need to be more comfortable talking tech. I hope to break down that barrier and meet HR leaders where they are to allow them to embrace technology and AI, not only for HR but for the organization and the people functioning within it so that they can understand the impacts and the path forward.
  • Organizations need HR to help with digital transformation strategy. Digital transformation is not an IT-only topic. Change management, communications, organizational culture, and skills will all lead to enabling the digitally enabled organization of the future.
  • Having good technology that supports HR and organizational strategy is essential. Technology strategy, selection, implementation, and continuous optimization are core areas where we can help.
  • Good employee data and analytics will be more critical than ever before in running an organization in the future.

It is important that HR thinks about these things. In many cases, these aren't technology conversations; they are people conversations that technology is driving.

Can you discuss potential opportunities for HR to leverage technology?

One of the clear outcomes of our research is that HR can embrace technology to enhance efficiency and effectiveness. We must take a proactive, ongoing optimization approach to get the most return on our technology investments. I always suggest revisiting the HR digital strategy, conducting a current state analysis, determining priorities, and working toward improvement. Improvements can mean better processes and technology, consolidating technology, or even filling gaps in the technology portfolio.

Another area to highlight is data and analytics, which include not just HR metrics from an HR perspective but also HR metrics from a business perspective. Our HR data has so much insight and value that it can bring to the organization, even more so when we can integrate it with broader organizational performance data. We can gain insights around that data to help the organization achieve its strategic goals, whether increasing revenue, reducing costs, or enabling business agility, so that our employees and businesses can adapt and thrive.

From your perspective, what do you believe are the current priorities for HR professionals in terms of leveraging technology, and what obstacles do you foresee them encountering in addressing these priorities?

Two areas that should be top of mind for HR leaders today:

  • The broader organizational impacts of AI on the organization and HR’s role.
  • Leveraging technology, including AI and analytics, within HR operations.

Technology, including AI, is experiencing a period of exponential growth. This means that many organizations will be embracing technology in new ways, and these technological impacts will change organizations in ways that we cannot imagine. Yet, at the same time, we need to manage through that change. Technology will impact every HR function in the coming years. HR will need to deliver new services and products to engage and prepare the workforce for the road ahead, and HR will be tasked with leading through change and remaining relevant in an AI-enabled world.

Leveraging technology may mean looking at your foundational HR software portfolio and finding out what is working and what is not, and putting in place a proactive improvement plan to optimize, consolidate, or replace. It could also mean building the case for better software and technology to support HR strategy and operations.

The challenge is that this will mean different things for each organization based on their current maturity. Also, technology is evolving rapidly, so HR must take an agile approach to developing an HR digital strategy that enables organizational agility. Innovative organizations must proactively look at enabling technology across the board and build cross-functional teams to ensure they are prepared to seize opportunities and mitigate risks.

How do you propose improving collaboration between IT and HR to better align with organizational objectives?

Organizations rapidly investing in technology and AI will only be able to manage that change with a holistic, proactive approach. HR and IT are uniquely positioned to facilitate the success factors that enable successful digital adoption and transformation. The first part is creating a unified strategy, building relationships, and getting buy-in. IT and HR must support and hold each other accountable for their role in this journey. A clear vision, mission, guiding principles, and governance are cornerstone tools that can help these efforts.

What fuels you?

What fuels me is collaboration. When we come together as a collective sum of our parts, amazing things can happen. I have seen this a few times in my professional life; when I do, it is gold. Opportunities for collaboration, paired with the technology enablement we are on the precipice of, have me energized and thrilled to be in the role I am in right now.

What is top of mind for HR leaders right now? What challenges do you see for them in this moment?

HR leaders need to think about the changing world of technology and its impacts on their organizations and HR operations. They must step up and help lead technology and AI strategies, prepare their HR capability areas for changing roles, and simultaneously think about technology enablement within HR operations. Challenges will be building relationships with IT, becoming comfortable talking about technology, advocating for HR, and remaining agile and relevant over the coming years.

What advice do you have for someone starting out as an HR leader?

My most concise advice is to be a strategic business thinker and to think about HR, both operationally and strategically, within the organization. Consider how the work you do can support and enable the HR function, understand and clearly define HR's value drivers, and take an agile, innovative approach to managing HR.

For more of Lisa's perspective, see The State of HR and AI.

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