From paper records of employees to AI: two leaders reflect on a combined 60 years in HR
Alison Paton, CEO of Align People HR, and Lyn Spence, HR consultant, have both recently reached the milestone of 30 years’ membership with the CIPD. They share their thoughts on what has changed in HR – and what the future holds
What were the key focus areas or priorities for the CIPD when you first became a member, and how have they evolved over the years?
Paton: When I joined the CIPD in 1993 it was the Institute of Personnel Management. HR was known as personnel in those days and was often viewed as an administrative function. There has been a big shift, with the HR profession becoming more strategic with a focus on aligning HR with overall business objectives. More recently, there has been a shift from the HR function to being known as the ‘people’ function and, in my view, it better represents us all as individuals rather than resources.
Spence: I joined the CIPD in 1992. I wanted to develop my knowledge in the personnel function and the CIPD qualification was delivered across three main areas: employee resourcing, employee relations and employee development. At the time, this was fresh thinking and moving personnel away from being an administrative function. HR has evolved further today to cover the full employee life cycle, developing business culture, organisational development and partnering with business leaders at a more strategic level.
Can you describe some of the major changes or advancements in the field of personnel and development that you have witnessed during your 30 years of membership?
Paton: The major changes for me are the strategic focus for the HR function, the focus on creating a positive working environment, equality and inclusion, work-life balance and the role of technology.
Spence: It has been great to see HR evolve as a function and be given a seat at the management table as respected business partners. There has also been a major shift towards seeing employees as people to be looked after and valued in an organisation, rather than as just another resource.
How has technology impacted the work of HR professionals and what role has the CIPD played in adapting to these changes?
Paton: In my first role after graduating I didn’t have a computer; we had an employee records office, which contained all the paper records for all the staff, with a team employed to maintain employee records. These days, no matter the size of a business, there are efficient, cost-effective digital HR systems available.
Spence: As with everything, embracing technology has helped HR professionals operate more effectively. The online meetings culture is here to stay. The biggest impact of technology, in my mind, is yet to come with the speed of emerging AI. For example, AI-generated CVs will result in employers having to be much more mindful of skills testing during the recruitment process.
Have there been any significant shifts in the skills and competencies expected from HR professionals over the years? How has the CIPD supported its members in developing these skills?
Paton: Yes, as well as the shift to strategic HR, employment legislation has developed significantly in the UK. The CIPD has adapted significantly over the years and the current CIPD Profession Map is an international standard for the people profession.
Spence: There are many skills, competencies and knowledge a respected HR professional is expected to have. On top of the usual we also need to keep up to date with the external business environment, political agenda, sustainability, employee benefits and the recruitment market, as well as signposting employees with wellbeing or financial issues and being a sounding board for managers.
Have you observed any changes in the organisational attitudes and approaches towards human resources and people management during your membership with the CIPD?
Paton: I think organisations are increasingly understanding the value that a people/HR professional can bring to an organisation. The role of CHRO (chief human resources officer) or even CPO (chief people officer) is now much more commonplace and reflects HR’s strategic presence in organisations.
Spence: CIPD membership has supported me throughout my career with HR insights, advice and forward thinking over the last 30 years. By championing the profession in this way, it has helped change organisational attitudes towards HR and elevated the importance of it.
What role has diversity, inclusion and employee wellbeing played in the work of the CIPD and its members over the past three decades?
Paton: Employers are much more aware of the positive benefits of creating a diverse team and the pandemic has raised the importance of wellbeing, along with more flexible working options and the move to hybrid working.
Spence: The diversity, inclusion and wellbeing agenda has progressed greatly over the past 10 years. People should feel able to come to work and be themselves without being treated differently or marginalised. CIPD-led education and increased awareness in this area has resulted in more acceptance and understanding of issues and has helped companies become employers of choice.
Looking ahead, what do you foresee as the most significant opportunities or challenges for the CIPD and HR professionals?
Paton: Technological advances – in particular AI – both in terms of the different skillsets required and the type of work available in the future. Helping businesses to attract, recruit and retain the right people as they grow. We have such a tight labour market and I can’t see that changing any time in the near future.
Spence: The opportunity for HR professionals is to continue to make a positive impact with HR strategy and management-level decision making. A positive HR presence in an organisation gives businesses a competitive edge.