The pulse of any organization lies not just in its products or services but in its people. At the heart of managing, developing, and retaining people is Human Resources (HR), a function that has grown far beyond its rudimentary beginnings.
HR now acts as a compass, guiding businesses through the shifting landscape of the corporate world. Based on my new book ‘Data-Driven HR: How to Use AI, Analytics, and Data to Drive Performance’ (2nd edition), let’s explore the evolution of HR — focusing on its past and present and also providing a glimpse into what lies ahead in the future of work.
The Early Beginnings of HR
The late 19th century was a time of enormous technological and societal change, in part due to the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization accelerated at an unprecedented rate, and many previously manual processes became mechanized, radically changing the work people did every day.
Business owners, now in charge of large workforces, hired people to manage employee relationships, which led to the birth of HR departments. Initially, HR was tasked with “personnel management,” including basic administrative functions like maintaining employee records and managing wages and salaries (as opposed to looking after people).
HR departments in this era were mainly reactive, addressing issues as they arose rather than proactively strategizing for better working conditions or employee satisfaction. There was little foresight into employees' needs or wants. The primary concern was ensuring smooth operations.
During the Progressive Era — a period of social activism aimed at defeating poverty, corruption, and the exploitation of labor — the focus of HR shifted to managing relationships with employees and dealing with grievances. HR professionals were also responsible for making sure organizations complied with labor laws.
In the 1960s and 1970s, HR began to focus on organizational development and strategic planning. HR professionals worked to align their departments’ practices and processes with their organizations’ goals.
In the 1980s and 1990s, HR continued to change. Human resource departments began to see employees not just as "personnel" but as valuable human resources that could contribute to the overall success of the organization. In this time period, we saw a larger focus on the importance of performance management and employee development.
The adoption of HR information systems (HRIS) also gave HR professionals access to vast amounts of data and enabled the automation of typical HR functions like recordkeeping and benefits administration. This set the stage for a new era of data-driven HR.
HR In The Digital Age (21st Century To Today)
In the early 2000s, talent management systems allowed organizations to better track and manage employee performance and development. With these systems, HR professionals had access to sophisticated data analysis tools that gave them the ability to make more data-driven decisions about managing talent.
The introduction of big data took this a step further, shifting HR into a more data-driven function. With the ability to gather, analyze, and interpret large sets of data, HR departments could gain deeper insights into employee performance, satisfaction, and engagement. This paved the way for predictive analytics, empowering HR professionals to anticipate issues and proactively address them.
At the same time, digital innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, people analytics, blockchain, and virtual reality (VR) started to redefine HR's landscape. AI and machine learning automated mundane tasks and helped HR teams personalize learning and development programs, while people analytics offered a magnifying glass into workforce trends and employee behavior. Meanwhile, blockchain improved data security, and VR created immersive, realistic training scenarios.
An unforeseen challenge — the COVID-19 pandemic — continued to push the boundaries of modern HR. The transition to remote work required a massive adjustment in human resource practices. HR professionals had to innovate to keep decentralized teams engaged, productive, and mentally healthy. This shift, as challenging as it was, broadened the horizons of HR and cemented its importance in managing the dynamics of the modern workforce.
HR's Evolution: Reflecting on the Past, Preparing for the Future
Over its decades-long evolution, Human Resources has grown into a pivotal, strategic function for organizations of all sizes.
HR has moved from managing employees' needs and shaping organizational culture to leading digital transformation and ushering in data-driven decision-making. As the realm of HR continues to evolve, harnessing the potential of data will be paramount.