The Business Value of Putting People First (And How To Do It With Automation)

Seth Colaner
Seth Colaner
September 13, 2023
September 5, 2023
min read
The Business Value of Putting People First (And How To Do It With Automation)

In two recent episodes of the Modern Business Operations podcast, guests explored the concept of bringing your whole self to your work, and how a human-centric approach to organizational leadership brings out the best in people—and contributes to an organization’s overall success. 

In one episode, Meg Bear, President and Chief Product Officer at SAP SuccessFactors, spoke with host Sagi Eliyahu, co-founder and CEO of Tonkean, about human experience management (HXM). In another episode, Electra Japonas, CEO and Founder at TLB and co-founder at oneNDA, spoke with host Seth Colaner about getting more out of legal ops teams.

When Millennials first began matriculating into the workplace, they quickly gained a sour reputation for being entitled. Older workers would complain that these young people wouldn’t just do what they were told—instead, they were always asking questions and trying to insert themselves into decision-making processes, even making suggestions that their older colleagues felt exceeded their seniority. 

Fast forward 20 years, and it’s become clear that Millennials were simply misunderstood. This generation has never been interested in merely following orders and performing rote work. They’ve always brought their whole selves to their careers—their brightest creativity, best problem-solving skills, and unique worldviews. It never occurred to them not to. 

This concept has become central to a newer way of thinking about workers, work, and organizational thinking. 

Leaders in multiple disciplines, including legal, procurement, and HR, want a seat at the C-suite table. They want to know (and contribute to the planning of) the organization’s larger strategic business goals.

“It's not just about grinding, it's not just about completing tasks. It's about going to work and feeling like you are making a difference,” said Electra Japonas, CEO and Founder at TLB and co-founder at oneNDA. “[It’s about] going in and actually contributing to something that's bigger than you. If we take that away from people, they get demotivated.” 

Meg Bear, President and Chief Product Officer at SAP SuccessFactors, is all about human experience management (HXM). She said it’s key to recognize the value of people. “And when you put people at the center of business, you can help business thrive,” she said. 

The power of “people-first”

“[HXM] was our mindset way before the pandemic, so it’s what our customers were talking about with us and what they were interested in. And then, everything accelerated,” said Bear. Navigating an at-home workforce in the pandemic was an eye-opening experience. It taught her how to better think of workers through the lens of their human needs, not just policies. 

As companies scrambled to figure out how to facilitate working from home, a lot of those efforts were from the IT side, like bolstering virtual conferencing capabilities for everyone. But when they surveyed their employees further, they learned more.

“The kinds of things that were coming through from those surveys were actually pretty pedestrian,” Bear said. “[For example], people didn't have good chairs. And so it was very hard for them to work from home.” She also noted that people needed a lot of flexibility with the hours they worked, because suddenly they were home with their families and had to take care of them instead of leaving them every day to go focus at work. 

If you understand and embrace the human side, it’s easier to think of good solutions that actually work for people—not just making policies and then trying to fit people into them. 

Organizations succeed when they maximize their employees’ potential. So how should they do that? “The cultural foundation is to recognize that people are not just interchangeable boxes, but [...] that people are full humans,” Bear said.

She said people need to be empowered and equipped to do good work and to adapt to the ever-changing requirements of work. People do best when they’re put in positions to succeed—where their natural strengths lie. And it’s important to understand that people are capable of more than what they’ve done in the past—eg, what’s on their resume. 

Organizations have to be able to adapt too, Bear said. “And here's where it's actually probably even harder: because organizations, especially successful ones and big ones, have built some habits and some muscle memory that may be not serving them as well in the needs of the future.” She said there’s an opportunity for “co-creation” when organizations understand what their workforce is capable of, support individual growth, and ensure everyone’s aligned with a business’ long-term goals.

“All of these things become much more powerful when you can engage every person in the organization, as opposed to just expecting HR to figure all of this out for you,” she said. “Because every piece of it is adapting. The individual's adapting, the work is adapting, and the organization is adapting. That's where technology can be really helpful—to understand and create a better adaptability layer underneath.

How to put people first with technology

Technology can absolutely play a huge role in helping people work better and more efficiently. Automation can eliminate rote work, and no-code tools make it easier than ever for non-developers to gain agency over process improvements, workflow design, and more. 

But ironically, as the bleeding edge of enterprise technology becomes ever sharper and more powerful, people are more necessary than ever. And it requires a shift in thinking.

Legal ops is a great case study. So much of the focus in legal ops is about efficiency—get things done faster, do it with fewer headcount, do it for less cost. Japonas said that this is the wrong approach, because it puts the focus only on trying to fix things that don’t work. 

Instead, she said, “What I think legal ops should be focusing on is: How do we engage people more so that they are helping legal to alleviate some of its workload?”

She said that organizations should be user-centric and design-led. In legal, lawyers typically just think of worst-case scenarios, with a judge as their “audience.” But in reality, their “audience” is the sales team, marketing team, finance team, and so on. 

So a wiser goal for legal ops is building out processes internally such that others can use them and want to engage with them. That way, people on teams other than legal ops and the legal department will take on some of the work, because it’s easier for them to do it on their own.

“It's quicker for the sales guy to self-serve with an NDA than to go to the legal team and say, ‘Can you do an NDA for me?’ But if you set up a process that's really convoluted, if you have an NDA that's just loads of legalese in it and is really long and horrible and boring, the sales guy does not want to engage with that,” Japonas said.

Instead, they’ll bypass the legal function and end up with something that’s outdated or inaccurate, which will lead to more work for the legal team down the road. It also increases the risk profile for the organization.

And in terms of technology (especially AI) replacing lawyers, Japonas said that’s just not going to happen. “I think lawyers will always be needed,” she said. Even though generative AI lets people ask questions—even legal questions—all but the simplest of responses will need to be reviewed by a human lawyer. And, Japonas noted, “That's just going to lead to more litigation, which is going to need more lawyers.”

In other words, AI will just remove the grunt work. “I think the profession of the lawyer will change to an extent, so we will be freed up from administrative routine work. And we'll do more with our brains. We'll have more cerebral problems to solve,” she said.

She added: “No one studied law to view NDAs all day long.”

Individuals and collective success

Twenty years ago, what Boomers and GenXers thought was a sense of entitlement and insubordination was actually Millennials offering their best in the workplace. Though all agreed that these younger workers did want to be individuals, it turns out that’s not a bad thing. 

All this drive to have a seat at the table—to be part of and have an understanding of a business’ larger strategic goals? That’s how Millennials have always oriented themselves towards work. 

It’s just that now, as the eldest Millennials creep into their mid-40s, they’re the managers, decision makers, and leaders. And they understand what it means to lead a group of individuals, all of whom have something unique to contribute to their shared goals. This shift in thinking—to appreciate individuals, and their strengths, and how they actually work—maximizes their potential and contributes to the success of their organizations. Smart organizations encourage and enable this view. Because they recognize there’s business value in doing so.

Learn more about how Tonkean helps organizations put people first with AI-powered process automation.

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