Every business, from retail to leisure to professional services, has an increasing reliance on digital technology and expertise. Ecommerce is a growing component of every organisation’s strategy and generated more than £130 billion of revenue for UK businesses in 2016, a figure that will continue to rise in the years to come. What does this mean for HR in the digital world?

It is easy to assume that making a success of the online component is dependent on good IT systems and a solid digital marketing plan, but that is to overlook the most important foundation of any thriving organisation. For sure, a successful digital strategy needs the technological infrastructure in place, but it also needs the right people behind it in the most effective organisational structure, in order to succeed.

HR in the Digital World

The role of HR in an e-business is therefore a challenging one, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, while the sector is clearly becoming huge, it is still relatively young. There is not a broad pool of ecommerce experts with well defined roles from which to select.

The discipline is a blend of selling, marketing, IT and other skills, so the HR professional is often looking to related sectors to find individuals who have some of the requisite skills, and the adaptability to grow with the role.

But finding the right people is just the start. There is also the question of identifying and implementing the right training and development and of completely redefining human resource policies, management processes and reward structures to meet the new dynamic.

In a rapidly growing and evolving environment, the role of HR is to act with speed, agility and imagination in the hiring, retention and rewarding of the best people for the job.

The right people for the right job 

Given that filling key roles in ecommerce and related functions relies on finding and building on close matches in talent from other areas, it is essential to look beyond the immediate skill set. Attitude, values and potential are just as important, and it is down to the HR professional to understand how the candidate will fit into the moving and evolving target that is the digital business.

While it is important to have the right blend of skills in place from the get-go, in terms of digital marketing, sales expertise, IT acumen and so on, it is also essential to have a team of people who understand the “big picture” of the sector as a whole. 

Redefining HR Practices

HR has always been seen as being highly process driven and rigid. For many companies, the “my way or the highway” attitude means they are prepared to let good talent walk out of the door rather than exhibit any kind of flexibility to these policies. In the tech environment, this is an attitude that will no longer cut the mustard.

In the brave new world, the adaptive individuals we talked about earlier, are also likely to be the more opinionated, aspirational, and unconventional, and the way they are treated needs to be adaptive.

This has manifested itself in a number of ways among successful ecommerce organisations, who see that new business situations demand new solutions. These include such components as flexible working hours, remote working and better maternity or paternity benefits.

Perhaps the most important word is flexibility. This is key to every aspect of technological culture, and needs to be recognised in HR practices too. Many top ecommerce firms have, for example, chosen to completely do away with formal monitoring of performance, attendance, etc and instead focus fully on creating an environment in which employees will be able to reach their full potential.

Structure and culture

When Marks and Spencer hit the headlines in 2014 for blaming its poor financial performance on its new ecommerce strategy, management consultants the world over saw a case study in the making. M&S is a prime example of a company that tried to launch a dynamic and evolving strategy using a structure based on rigid and outdated practices, and something had to give.

It is, perhaps overly optimistic to suggest that an established organisation like Marks and Spencer can simply adopt an Amazon-type structure overnight, and a detailed examination of the lessons traditional businesses can learn from these relative newcomers is something we will save for another day.

However, it is clearly the case that any digital business needs to build its team in an environment and culture which has learning, development and problem solving at its core. 

Freedom and flexibility all sound great, but given that the average ecommerce team is hailing from such a wide range of areas, that should not imply a complete free-for-all. Every team member is going to have knowledge gaps, and some might have only a rudimentary idea of just what they are getting into.

This means that clearly defined processes that unequivocally define the “who, what, when, why” aspects are absolutely essential to avoid confusion and frustration.

Transparent processes 

Among the most noticeable attributes of the digital age is the speed and transparency with which information flows. This has to be just as tangible an aspect of the underlying culture and structure of the business. Newcomers need to be able to get up to speed rapidly, and everyone should be encouraged to express themselves and contribute from the word go.

A new breed of HR professional

Technology and ecommerce represents a new, dynamic and rapidly changing area of business, and to work successfully, it needs an equally dynamic and flexible organisational structure to support it. This extends as much to the HR function as to any other area.

The sector is one that does not observe traditional working hours or geographical boundaries, and the HR function needs to exhibit the same qualities to ensure its professionals are adequately supported and motivated 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

The modern HR professional is, in many ways, an entirely new breed. Flexible, dynamic, technically savvy and ready to adapt to the changing environment. Is your HR team ready to meet the technological challenges of the new millennium?

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