Dr Dieter Veldsman

Dr Diter Veldsman

Dr. Dieter Veldsman is an organisational psychologist and HR leader who melds professional excellence with academic rigour.

Dr. Veldsman is currently Chief Scientist: HR and OD, at the Academy to Innovate HR, an organisation that upskills and future-proofs HR professionals. He was recognised as HR Executive of the Year by the CHRO Society of South Africa in 2021.

I spoke to Dr. Veldsman about the future of HR as a function, what HR leaders should be doing and looking out for, and whether he thinks AI is coming for his job.

Cecily Motley: Let’s start with a couple of fun ones. If your career were a bestselling novel, what would the title be?

Dr. Dieter Veldsman: I think I’ve got two answers for you. I would love it to be something like “Making Rocket Fuel,” as I’ve always believed that HR is the rocket fuel that helps organisations achieve their potential. I’m also a big mystery novel lover, so it might also be “The Case of the Missing Psychologist,” or something like that.

CM: I’d buy it! And what’s an HR horror story that you whip out at dinner parties?

DV: One that piques a lot of interest when I mention it involves a funeral parlour, a sex change, and an unfair dismissal. I’ll leave it at that. That one usually gets a couple of raised eyebrows.

CM: That’s got to be in the novel, surely. What are the biggest behavioural shifts that you have observed from the beginning of your career to now?

I think there has been a positive development in terms of the growing appreciation of “human” skills, if I can call them that. So things like relationship building, leading with empathy, thinking analytically, dealing with complexity. There has been more recognition that those skills matter, alongside the more technical or functional skill sets that often get celebrated - coding, working with data etc. All skills are important, but I think it’s positive that we acknowledge them all in their own right.

CM: What do you think will be the biggest behavioural change of the next 15 years?

DV: Generative AI will cause us to ask new questions around the human contribution to work and I think that will make certain skills more and more important for us to master.

One of those is resilience. We’re still seeing high levels of burnout in different professions and it’s going to be important for us to know how to look after ourselves in this constantly changing world.

Other qualities will also become more important, like the ability to apply sound reasoning and judgement. The future is going to be full of moral dilemmas that don’t necessarily have a “right” answer, particularly when it comes to technology. I’ll give an HR example. We talk about the fact that AI is going to take some jobs away. But another side of that argument is that it will bring new opportunities. There is a moral dilemma around what that transition will look like. The responsible adoption of AI entails the reskilling of workers to give people new viable opportunities, it isn’t just saying, you know, these 10,000 jobs are no longer available.

So this isn’t necessarily about right or wrong, but rather, what is the responsible way to do it?

Other qualities will become more important, like the ability to apply sound reasoning and judgement.

CM: Where are we on the AI adoption scale now, for HR?

DV: It’s worth remembering that we’ve already been using artificial intelligence in HR for a few years. But in terms of the recent developments of generative AI and Chat GPT, we’re still in the early stages. What has been different in the last 12 months is the accessibility: everybody with access to the internet is now able to access AI in a meaningful way.

For HR, I think the responsible adoption of AI is the future. There are opportunities to increase our scale, our coverage and the accessibility of HR services to all employees regardless of rank. On the other side, we can’t just say “more AI, all the time, everywhere.” That’s where things like bias risk creeping in when we don’t fully understand how the technology learns or what data it is utilising to optimise our practices.

So I think we’ve made progress but there is still a long way to go and technical skills we still need to develop. These include “digital agility” and “data literacy”: organisations’ ability to leverage technology and understand where it fits as part of an HR solution and HR practice. This means asking questions like: where do I not want to apply AI? What is the human moment I want to keep in the interaction with HR?

What I hope doesn't happen is that organisations see AI as just a risk that needs to be mitigated. In my view, it is an opportunity that we need to capitalise on for additional benefit.

CM: What would you pay good money to know about your peers and competitors?

DV: One, what keeps them awake at night? What are they worried about in terms of their business? Two, what do they think we’re good at? I would love to understand what they rate us on and then what is the stuff that we do that they're actually not worried about at all.

CM: Is AI going to take your job?

DV: It’s definitely going to change large components of my job. I think it's going to change most of our jobs to a larger or a lesser extent. For me, that's something exciting to look forward to and to evolve with as opposed to kick against.

I think AI can act as a good companion in the work that I do - I spend a lot of time on things like content creation, for example. I think it can also open up new avenues for me in terms of things that I’m not able to do at the moment, or things that an AI companion can approach very differently. So will my job in its current format exist in the next couple of years? Probably not. Will it look very different? Most definitely. I think it's exciting to try and craft what that's going to look like.

CM: What has been the most valuable finding in your research over the past year?

DV: We’re running a research project around how people view their own careers and a really interesting insight for me has been the fact that for the majority of people, careers are something that happened to them. Their career is not something that they craft intentionally. I mention that because if we don't have clarity on how people want to develop their careers in alignment with something that we (AIHR) call “work-life fit”, then all these tools like Chat GPT become threats as opposed to opportunities.

I had assumed that people have career plans, that they know where they want to get to, but for most people that's not the case. And that was quite an interesting insight for me just if we think about the downstream implications.

I try to keep myself comfortable with silence. It might seem like a strange “life hack,” but I find in most conversations that people neglect to listen

CM: What is your ‘life hack’?

DV: I try to keep myself comfortable with silence. It might seem like a strange “life hack,” but I find in most conversations that people neglect to listen. They try to fill silence as opposed to taking a step back and really listening to what's happening in the moment.

As human beings, we are uncomfortable with silence because it feels that we are being put on the spot. It feels immediately like I have to respond or I'm not going to look clever.

Something I've tried to intentionally do, both professionally and personally, is to be very comfortable with silence. Sometimes that's your biggest ‘weapon’ in terms of taking a discussion forward.