Leading with Technology: Asking Questions

March 5, 2020

Leading with Technology: Asking Questions

This is the second article in a three-part series on HR executives utilizing technology to better lead and empower HR. Read the first article here and the third article here. 

When leading with technology, we often think that we have to have all of the answers. However, one characteristic that differentiates average leaders from great leaders is the ability to ask thought-provoking questions of others and to learn from the answers.

Creating an HR Technology Strategy Requires Asking Questions

If you feel that you need an IT expert to perform this task for you, think again. You are the person who understands the big picture including the vision for your HR department, the budget, the goals, the needs of your workforce and what is presently being done. There is no one better to create an HR technology strategy than you, the HR leader. So, don’t relinquish the task to another department. Rather, ask questions before participating in the technology strategy formation.

Questions Are Powerful

The Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Surprising Power of Questions” demonstrates the importance of asking questions. This article emphasizes that it is through asking questions that we:

  • gain needed information,
  • cause others to explore alternatives,
  • exchange ideas,
  • build relationships and trust, and
  • stimulate innovation.

Further, we have to take the process of asking questions seriously. In the book Leading with Questions, Dr. Michael Marquardt provides this advice about questioning:

  • Prepare yourself to learn and not to judge.
  • Ask questions when there are no distractions; if no such opportunity exists, eliminate distractions.
  • Use questions that are open-ended. 
  • Listen and show interest in the responses to your questions.
  • Follow up with a “call to action” or more questions. 

When you are open-minded and purposeful about your questioning, you will receive positive, actionable suggestions. 

Do Your Homework Before Asking Questions

Before you start to ask questions, do the following:

  • Consider who best to answer your questions. They may be members of the IT team, other executives, your HR department members, employees or others. Do not rely on vendors. 
  • Examine the organization’s mission and vision in order to ascertain the role that technology should play. The organization’s culture is one that you know well. How is your organization disposed toward technology? Is it a technology averse organization? Is it an early adopter of technology? Or is it something in-between?
  • Identify, with the help of the IT department, the present systems that are being used to manage HR functions of talent management, knowledge management and learning management. 
  • Obtain a high-level HR systems architecture if possible. This is called the “As-Is” state. Talk with knowledgeable IT representatives who understand and have an overview of these systems.
  • Determine (with assistance or have an IT professional identify) where any of the systems may be overlapping or perform redundant functions. 
  • Locate where the data from these HR systems and software reside. If there are multiple databases, find out if there is a connection between them. 
  • Evaluate what systems provide data that is used for decision making and the type of data that is provided. Which is the best source of reliable information?

Once you have done this pre-work, then you are ready to ask questions.

Ask Strategy Questions

There are general questions that must be asked that will drive the overall strategic planning process. These questions offer a starting point for designing a digital HR strategy. Most of them are questions you should answer with the assistance of other executives.

Involve Employees Through the Questioning Process

Gather information from employees. Their responses to your questions are directly relevant to the HR digital strategy. Remember, questions should not entrap. Questions are for discovery, increased understanding, capturing and sharing information, nurturing innovation, gathering data and collaboration. 

For example, general questions of managers and their team members that may elicit innovations could include 

  • What tools do you need to improve efficiency at work? 
  • How could inter-business unit or department communication be improved? 
  • What is the best technology that we presently have or could use in the future to facilitate the exchange of ideas? 
  • What preferences for accessing personal information do you have (e.g., accessing healthcare, vacation time, family medical leave, payroll, performance feedback, etc.)? 

Often the employees and frontline managers have the best ideas on how to improve work processes. A question can elicit suggestions for process improvements, technology investments, or other innovative ideas.

Additionally, there are specific questions directly pertaining to technology that will yield helpful information for creating an HR digital strategy. They are ones like: 

  • What personal information do you most frequently need access to in the workplace?
  • How do you prefer to access that information?
  • What technical training would benefit you in your work?
  • What kinds of job aids or online/mobile assistance would make your job easier?
  • How would you improve and maximize the use of our present technologies?
  • What technology tools would improve your work?

You can think of others. The goal is to determine how to maximize existing technologies or discover if there are technologies that are needed and desired in the workplace. The answers to these questions should impact your decision making regarding the HR technology plan. 

Listen to Employee Answers

When you ask questions, be sure to listen to and collect responses. Listening occurs when we put aside our personal, internal thoughts and focus on what someone else is saying. Listening requires emotional intelligence. A signal that you are listening can be to follow up with another question. Always document answers in digital form. This data can then be analyzed for emergent patterns and recommendations. 

Use questions to gather the information needed to design a powerful and useful HR digital strategy. Filter responses to questions through your organization’s vision and mission. Identify suggestions that are in scope, out of scope or simply not aligned with the mission and vision. Once you have done your research, collected information and asked all of your questions, the compiled results should inform your digital HR strategy.

The Authors: 

Deborah Waddill, Ed.D., is an adjunct professor of leadership at The George Washington University and the author of Digital HR: A Guide to Technology-Enabled Human Resources (2018).