With over 15 years of professional experience in HR Management, People Analytics and Organisational Development, Ross Sparkman aims to improve a company’s performance through the investment of its most valuable asset – the people.
He considers himself as a People Leader, which is a vital characteristic in Contemporary HR. This modern approach to leadership rewarded him with multiple accolades, such as Best Practice Winner by the Best Practices Institute (BPI), and not to mention, numerous recognitions for his innovative and results-driven approach to HR Operations, Strategic Workforce Planning and Analytics.
We have interviewed Sparkman and discussed pressing issues on HR in the digital era, including the biggest challenges he has faced in his career and his advice for HR professionals.
You started your career as an HR Generalist in the US Navy for 8 years. Can you describe your career journey going back to when you first entered the industry, up to your appointment as the Head of Strategic Workforce Planning in Facebook?
Ross Sparkman: When I was in the Navy, I was fortunate enough to attain a great deal of education and practical experience in a variety of fields from HR to workforce planning and even logistics. I valued my time in the military, but also wanted to leverage some of that experience to pursue a career in the private sector. So, when my time was up in the Navy, I joined Deloitte as a management consultant focusing on people analytics, workforce planning and strategic HR. After gaining more valuable experience in consulting, I decided I wanted a role in a company where I was doing more than merely providing recommendations. I wanted to actually implement those recommendations. To that end, I started my career in the industry by first joining Devon energy. Then, I joined GE Aviation, and finally Facebook, where I’ve had roles leading the organisation’s People Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning functions.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered upon your appointment as Head of Strategic Workforce Planning in Facebook? What did you do to overcome this?
RS: I’ve found that the biggest challenge, regardless of the company, is the change management component of bringing new ways of doing things. When I first joined Facebook, I really wanted to introduce the company and the department to alternative and contemporary approaches to the way that we thought about things in the Strategic HR space. Since this introduced a change to the status quo, it was natural for some people to resist the thought of coming out of the ‘comfort zone’, so to speak. I overcame this resistance, by spending a lot of upfront time developing relationships and trying to see the world through my clients and stakeholders’ perspective. In these discussions, I focused a lot of my messaging around how the concepts that I was introducing stood to benefit them.
What are the biggest differences/changes in comparing the pre-digital era, to today’s age of disrupting technologies?
RS: I think there are a few themes that differentiate the pre-digital era from the current digital era. First, the sheer volume of data that is now available to organisations is a stark contrast to what was available in the past. This, coupled with a significant increase in computational efficiency, has made this data much more valuable than it used to be. These two factors are key reasons why technologies like AI and Machine learning have become so important – not to mention pervasive – in many of the technological breakthroughs we’re seeing in modern times.
Another key point is the ease and access to data and technology that the average employee now has. As the cost to develop and rollout technologies has dramatically decreased, employees now have the access to countless tools designed to make them more productive and efficient in their daily tasks right at their fingertips. Many of these technologies were unheard of 10 years ago.
The final factor has to do with how small and connected the world has become. Social media and the internet have completely changed the way people interact and connect with each other. For better or for worse, this connectedness has changed how we think about our work and professional lives.
Define being a “People Leader.” Why is it important to be a People Leader in Contemporary HR?
RS: It’s really important because of the sheer amount of change that is taking place in the world right now whether it’s because of technology or other reasons. This change can often lead to employees feeling a great deal of anxiety due to the uncertainty associated with some of this change.
A good people leader, especially in HR, can help reduce some of this anxiety, by bringing employees together to focus on a shared vision. This is vital if organisations want to realise the true value that the digital era can potentially create.
What are the vital qualities of an HR professional in the digital era?
RS: In addition to more of the traditional ‘softer’ skills needed by HR professionals, the digital era requires HR professionals to possess an understanding of data & analytics, how HR and people affect the business, social media fluency, technology awareness and a general curiosity and willingness to learn more. These are all qualities that are required and needed in this era of digitalisation and modern HR.
What are the skills required for them to overcome digital disruption?
RS: Certainly, having a solid understanding of some of the factors that have led to this disruption in the first place is a good start. To that end, either gaining skills or a better understanding of concepts such as statistics & analytics, basic programming, machine learning, virtual reality and blockchain will help these professionals overcome some of this disruption. Increased insight into some of these technologies will also help HR professionals be better able suited to serve and relate to their clients in a world where the acceleration of change and disruption is increasing every day.
What is your advice for HR professionals to thrive in this digital era?
RS: Embrace the change. Be curious and ask as many questions as possible. Grow your networks to include people who are thought leaders and trailblazers in this space.
Be creative and think through how this disruption and technology can open up new opportunities to improve and optimise current processes and policies. Know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, but make sure these feelings don’t paralyse you and impede your ability to get things done.
What are your future plans for Facebook in terms of People Planning? How do you see your organisation in the next 5 years?
RS: The vision for Strategic Workforce Planning at Facebook remains largely unchanged. We will still continue to develop data driven insights and strategies that will help develop and create a workforce that is engaged, happy and productive, and one that is optimised to meet the challenges that Facebook as a platform will require as we continue to scale and grow.
Learn more about Ross Sparkman and his thoughts on how the HR industry addresses the collaboration and augmentation between humans and machines in our Digital HR & Analytics in Malaysia, on the 27th February – 1st March 2019.
“In my presentation, I will provide the audience with insight and details on how HR can become more strategic through different levels of analytics. I will also spend time discussing best practices on how to build a high-powered Strategic Workforce Planning function and I will talk about the type of skills required to be successful in this space. Finally, I will share some of my experience on tips and traps that I have learned over the years.”