Q&A: IOM head of HR on the possibilities of digitalization in the sector

Michael Emery, director of human resources at the International Organization for Migration. Photo from: Michael Emery

Human resource leaders from over 100 international organizations will gather in Lisbon, Portugal, next week, for the 15th annual Career Development Roundtable to discuss and share ideas on human resources in the digital age.

Michael Emery, director of human resources at the International Organization for Migration, is leading the event and said he is excited for the opportunity to get people thinking about the possibilities of HR digitalization in the international sector.

“Look at an organization like Ikea — it basically has a robot going through an initial screening with you when you apply for a job. There's great scope for that in dealing with bulk applications to the multilateral sector.”

In anticipation of the event, Devex spoke with Emery to discuss the ways in which HR has evolved over the years, how digitalization is changing the way HR is done, and why and how organizations should embrace the change.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This year marks the 15th annual Career Development Roundtable event. Looking back over the past 15 years, how have you seen HR evolve?

There has been an incremental shift away from predominantly “personal administration” and more toward a more strategic HR, with an increasing focus among a lot of organizations on soft HR and bespoke interventions and services to clients, and a much stronger understanding of the business of the organization. In some organizations, the actual positioning of where HR sits has also changed, with the function generally getting closer to the head of the organization.

How have you seen attitudes change over the years when it comes to HR roles? As you mention, the positioning of HR within some organizations has changed and it certainly seems like more importance is now given to this function.

Fifteen years ago, there was a prevailing attitude that anybody can do human resources. There's a much stronger recognition now that HR is a profession, a discipline, and that organizations are looking to professionalize the HR function; that's well overdue because we often say that HR is the worst at protecting its own profession.

Smart organizations have put a stronger investment in human resources. I look at the ones that are doing really well at the moment — such as UNICEF and UNFPA — they're actually making investments in human resources and strengthening this function, which I think means that ultimately, you get a much stronger organization.

And to complement this investment, what skills or approaches do you see making the difference when it comes to HR professionals or their teams being successful?

As with any position, anybody with strong emotional intelligence would do well in an HR function — but also strong empathy skills, strong humility, a strong sense of organizational savviness. These are the things I think make for a successful HR person and also a strong attachment to an understanding of the mission of the organization.

This connect was, in previous years, kind of missing. Often you'd have staff that had never been to the field and yet were servicing the field. Now there's a much stronger emphasis on staff understanding the business, and spending 2-3 months in the deep field to get that sense of understanding.

You mentioned earlier that HR has changed its focus over the past 15 years to become much more strategic. What role do you see HR playing in the future, particularly in helping organizations adapt to changes such as tech innovation?

I don't think HR is quite there yet but this is an opportunity for the HR function to leapfrog a few generations of digitalization. That's the exciting thing about this event coming up next week — it's there to put the ideas into people's mind about what the possibilities might be. Still, we haven't really got our head around artificial intelligence and digitalization, and how that's going to fundamentally change the way that we work.

What’s the general feeling toward these anticipated changes? Perhaps some organizations, particularly those more cash-strapped, could be reluctant to embrace these changes, or fear they are going to fall behind?

That's a genuine concern, although with the prevailing philosophies in the United Nations at the moment in particular, and I'm talking about the U.N. as a distinct part of the multilateral system, there's a huge emphasis on collaboration and cooperation.

I see the wealthier U.N. organizations investing in this sort of stuff and then the rest of us coming along and benefiting from that investment. It's like anything, in any industry — some will be trailblazers and others will follow, and I think that will be the case in the U.N. system as well.

When we talk about these changes and digital disruption within HR, how might that look and what kind of benefits could it present?

One way that I see it being very useful is taking out the hackwork in recruitment. Look at an organization like IKEA — it basically has a robot going through an initial screening with you when you apply for a job. There's great scope for that in dealing with bulk applications to the multilateral sector. I also look at it as being very useful for predictive screening of applicants.

We are going to be trialing something here at IOM on an AI buddy — an orientation buddy for new staff. The possibilities are quite amazing.

You mentioned IKEA as one example. Are there a lot of lessons to be learned or inspiration to be taken from the private sector in HR digitalization?

Yes. There's a caution there though that also to a large extent it depends on who's coding the technology. We need to be particularly cognizant in the multilateral sector — and particularly those in a very diverse workforce — that we're still maintaining our emphasis on diversity. By diversity, I mean with a capital D, so diversity in all its forms — not just gender and geography but also LGBT, disability, indigenous, etcetera.

Looking forward, how do you predict digitalization playing out and impacting the way HR is done over the next 5-10 years?

U.N. will continue to be a little bit slower than the private sector and it will take some time. I wouldn't say that we would have anything tangible in the next 2-3 years, but certainly, in 5-7 we'll start to rapidly embrace that sort of technology.

There will be some drivers for that — one will be member states themselves who are beginning to embrace this technology and now are asking the U.N., “well why aren't you doing this as well?” There will also be an argument from a necessity point of view — “if we don't do this, we die” type of thing.

How is the U.N. working with or helping those member states that are ready to embrace these new approaches then?

One of the exciting things is that we've got a secretary-general that not only understands that we are in a profoundly changing world but is encouraging the U.N. to embrace this now. Leadership starts at the top and there's a very, very clear message at the top that is, “embrace this and let's see how it can help us deliver on what we are supposed to deliver on.”

There will be probably a collection of member states that will really be championing this and that's probably the high tech countries — the Koreas, the Japans of the world — that will be encouraging the U.N. to go forward with this sort of stuff. There are also a couple of member states, in particular, the Fins and the Danes, encouraging innovation in international organizations.

Finally, what advice do you have for organizations — whether it be member states, U.N. agencies, or others in the sector — for embracing and keeping up with the changes which digitalization will bring about?

Encouraging them to put resources into being innovative is very, very important. It's difficult in the way that a lot of organizations are funded at the moment — project tied funding — to have any sort of budget line to dedicate to innovation and technology. We have to encourage member states to think that it's a false economy not to be investing in this. We also need to be savvy at building partnerships with tech companies and with foundations to help incubate these sorts of technologies.

Devex is a media partner for the 2018 international organization’s Career Development Roundtable to bring you key takeaways and insights from the event taking place next week in Lisbon, Portugal.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.