HR, AI and the Metaverse(s) with Melissa Crawford, CEO and Founder of Tech with Heart

HR, AI and the Metaverse(s) with Melissa Crawford, CEO and Founder of Tech with Heart

HR and Tech cannot continue to work in siloes. The magic is when we connect the two – and optimize for the best of both. Here’s how.

Melissa Crawford is the CEO and founder of Tech with Heart, advising companies how to connect HR and Technology, two normally siloed areas of business. She explains why it’s crucial both disciplines better integrate and understand each as tools and technologies continue to rapidly evolve and impact all of our lives, at work and at home. She combines two technology degrees and her metaverse expertise with some 25 years’ experience in HR to help leaders optimize for the best of both.

Follow her or her company Tech with Heart on LinkedIn – she’s constantly posting interesting articles around Technology, People and psychology. She has  a program on An Introduction To Future technologies For Curious People Like You.

Introducing Melissa

I am the director of a company called Tech with Heart, which is about the intersection of future technology and human potential.

I’m really interested in the future of work space, and how to optimize the best of future technology and the best of people.

It’s kind of a mixture of consulting with companies on their future of work strategies. I get asked to do a lot of keynote speaking around the world, because I have that unique crossover of people and technology.

There’s a lot of people that have a lot of HR experience, but they don’t have two technology degrees. Likewise, there’s a lot of people with a lot of technology background, but they don’t have 25 years of people and organizational psychology. I work in that really interesting mix between.

What was the journey to starting Tech with Heart?

I started my career in technology. I came out of school and did my first Technology degree then. I really love learning. I found it a very exciting industry. I knew it would be constantly changing and evolving, and there also wasn’t very many women in that space at that time, so I also found that a little bit intriguing.

I found myself involved in projects at that time when we were evolving from paper to technology, which was this really exciting phase, but one where people were also scared that computers were going to take their jobs. I was sort of helping in that intersection.

The more I got involved in technology projects, the more I felt that wasn’t really a focus enough on people: the impacts, the design elements of technology, et cetera.

So, I ended up pivoting my career for following 25 years, building my experience in people and organizational psychology and behaviors. I was in the people or HR teams across a lot of large corporates here in New Zealand. I was studying all sorts of the positive elements of high performance: engagement, culture, diversity, and inclusion, all of those kind of elements.

But I found that in that time there was a lot of people teams really getting into the transactional side of things, rather than focusing on people. I could see this evolving time coming again where there was this fear of things like AI and robotics and people thinking computers are going steal their jobs, which sounded very familiar to me.

I felt that particularly the HR space really had a role to play in helping with this digital disruption that was coming and planning for the workforce of the future. How could they do that if they didn’t understand the technologies that were going be impacting it?

I stepped out of my career and went and did my Master’s degree in Technological Futures, focusing my project on artificial intelligence and how it could cross intersect with leadership. I then got the opportunity to work in a role that worked across technology and people, which was really interesting because most companies want to put you in one department or the other.

From there, I really just took the leap to create my company because I saw a real gap for people that understood both and could help to optimize both.

Hence the name Tech with Heart, which is kind of like unashamedly saying I actually have both.

I don’t want to just look at the technology part, I don’t want to just look at the people part. The magic is where you look at how to optimize the best of both.

Why is it so important for Technology and HR to work more closely together?

Well, I think they’re the most powerful forces shaping the future of work people and future technology. So, I really think those two departments should be working much closer together to help shape this future.

The pitfalls are kind of where they keep staying siloed because they both have great strengths but they also are separate, so they also have great weaknesses. So working together I think is really where the magic would be.

Is there a talent shortage or a talent wastage?

I just think there’s so much untapped opportunity. There are a lot of great people applying that are getting missed out. The technology is so cumbersome that people disconnect and say, ah, this is too complicated. I can’t be bothered with this. So even through those kind of elements we can start to change that wastage.

There are a number of elements of the workforce that are underutilized.

So, if you think about people with disabilities or the aging workforce, there are massive components that you could tap into there. Especially again, if I look at that cross intersection with technology, with the fantastic technology that’s really enabling people with disabilities to step into the workforce now.

I think even people within current employment within a business are not being able to use their full skill range.

They’re often in a particular role and they have talents way beyond that, that are not being tapped into. Some of them are using their extra talents inside hustles because they’re just not having the opportunity to use it within their role. They may have past lives working in other industries or fields where they’ve got this rich knowledge that they could be using, things they might be doing with their local community even.

Sometimes there are people in a company that have aspirations of what they want to be doing that aren’t being realised. And then companies are looking to employ external talent to fill those roles and that is noticed by the internal employees. So, I think there’s a massive opportunity for that upskilling and reskilling options for people internally who already have that great base knowledge and IP for your company that you could then help support them, potentially pivot their career.

That costs you a lot less than trying to bring somebody completely new on, on board.

I mean, even in my experience within companies, as I said, I have this rich Technology experience and this rich people experience, but if you look at a typical HR system or the recruitment platforms, I initially have to pick from a dropdown to select which department I’m looking for a role in, and so I literally have to pick between People and Technology. Once I pick that, it then filters it even more to roles within that particular area. Well, that completely strips half of my experience out.

Really my magic is in having experience across both.

I don’t think I’m alone in that and talking to a lot of people over the last couple of months since I started my business, I see so many people in those same positions that have such rich experiences, their companies are not tapping them.

This is where my intersection of people and technology is so important because I look at it from both perspectives. I understand the technology and the design and the core of it, but I also understand the human coming through and also the fundamental problems within corporates to be able to figure out how to optimize the best of those. At the moment, they’re built by one direction or the other, and they’re missing pieces of, of the picture.

Tech with Heart brings a human lens to technology projects. Why is that so important to factor in?

Sometimes there may be unintended consequences of design.

So, for example, we just talked about recruitment systems that you pick from a dropdown, what department you’re in. Well, that has an unintended consequences for people like me. It completely strips out half my experience. I’ve put my CV through various programs and it doesn’t even know what to do with me. So when you look at it with a people lens and a technology lens, then you’ve got I think a much better perspective on it.

Looking at it with a human lens, you’re looking at the roll down effect. You’re asking how are we actually going to embed this? How are you going to make sure that people get on board with this?

You can have great ideas that sound right in theory, but then you actually look at how people are using it or how they want to use it, it can be quite different.

When it comes down to it, people are the key target audience for whatever system you’re building. So, it should be a no-brainer that you focus more on that element of it. It creates a much more rounded design. People have strengths in different things, and sometimes technology designers might be quite black and white and practical about the coding of it and building these beautiful systems.

But I think that that could be really enhanced if you added an extra element for somebody that understands the technology, so it can converse easily in that space, but also add that People lens.

What is the Metaverse?

You would be surprised how many, how many times they get asked that question, but I absolutely would love to answer this one, because the more people that understand it, the better!

So the first thing I would say is there isn’t one the Metaverse, which is probably the first thing that people assume. That’s the vision that at some point, but for the moment the best way for me to explain it is to kind of take people back a little bit so that they can see the evolution.

Web 1.0 was flat.

When we first started in Web 1.0, when the internet first started, for those that can remember the screeching modems, you pretty much got flat text. So, you opened up a web page and you would just see data there. Text and there may be a graphic. Maybe a few rich companies were on there with their services and contact details – but in general it was really quite flat.

But that was actually flipping incredible coming from the encyclopaedias Britannica, where you used to have this volume of 26 books on your bookshelf and that was your resource. Or you’d go to the library to look at stuff.

Suddenly you had this available on your computer and you had access to all this information globally. So this was a massive leap, but, when you look back at it, it was pretty bland.

Web 2.0 is interactive.

Then we had Web 2.0, which was also a big leap. So rather than just being able to read things on the internet, suddenly you could interact with it.You could actually contribute to it. You could put up your own posts and your own information. Then we had social media and you had people interacting in groups with similar interests and your Facebooks and all that sort of stuff.

So it absolutely exploded. And again, this was a massive improvement from what you had with that kind of flat data on Web 1.0.

We’re kind of at Web 2.5 now, but we’re heading to this thing that people talk about Web 3.0, the next evolution.

Web 3.0 is immersive.

It’s much more immersive. So, when they talk about metaverses, it’s this virtual world where you are an avatar, a digital representation of you, and you’re in this world and you can move about it, connect with people, talk to people, but it feels much more like you are there than just on a Zoom call or typing a message to somebody.

Again, just like the Internet’s not owned by one person, the idea is that a Metaverse will not be owned by one person, and that it’ll be so much more decentralized. But, at the moment, metaverses are owned by separate companies that have started to build their versions.

So, I’ve been to conferences in the Metaverse where I’ve been with a global community, and I’ve been walking around as a little avatar. I’ve virtually shaken hands with people. I’ve watched these amazing speakers and as you move around, you feel like you’re there. Like you can actually hear your shoes making noise on the ground as you walk around.

This has huge, huge potential. And people think, oh, that sounds a bit weird, or that sounds like a game that I’ve seen my kids play. Well, that’s true. They’ve been kind of playing in these baby metaverses, like Roblox.

Web 3.0 has much more potential than gaming.

For example, I might be applying for a job at a company. They may have a virtual metaverse of their company, maybe they’re a global company and they have a virtual campus, and so I go for this interview in this Digital world.

I walk around and as I’m walking my avatar around, I walk up to the reception area and, and I say, I’m here my interview, they walk me into this little virtual meeting room, but on my, on my way there, through this metaverse, I can see all their branding on the walls and I can see there’s videos playing of functions that they’ve had or products or services that they have, et cetera. So, I really kind of get a feel for the company as I’m walking around.

I also see other little avatars walking past who actually work at that company. And as I walk past and they’re like, hello, welcome to X, Y, Z company. I can’t even describe to you, but it really feels like you are there with them. This is really a step ahead when it comes to human connection.

And so, I walk around, I have this interview with these other people and these little avatars maybe from different places around the globe but they’re in this meeting room with me, and then I finish my meeting and I disconnect, or I close out of this metaverse just like I’m closing out of a Zoom meeting and I’m back into the real world.

But then what’s great is maybe one day I get that job and then I get to go to the global conference, and when I go to the head office, I walk into the building and I go, oh wow, this is the building that I went to in that interview! So I feel like I’ve already experienced it. I know where the staircase is, I even know where the bathrooms are because I remember walking past them and when I went for this interview.

You could use the metaverse for onboarding purposes, you could use it for training purposes. Especially where you couldn’t get people all together face to face, which obviously is the best if you can do that, this is a real big leap from just having a sort of straight conversation.

People are using it for, as I said, training, conferences, inductions. Even some companies, people work virtually in this metaverse every day, so they walk around and they can interact and actually have water cooler conversations as they pass each other.

There’s some amazing stuff happening in the creativity space where you have a lot of artists who are doing some incredible stuff for Metaverses, where they’re able to actually showcase their work and do exhibitions and all sorts of exciting things .

Why do HR and People teams need to engage with the Metaverse?

Understanding younger demographics joining the workforce.

So I mentioned before that there’s these kind of baby metaverses: Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnight. They’re the common ones. So, the point of that is your incoming demographics to your workforce are already all over this technology, navigating it every day. Stats from Gartner predict just how often we are going to be using the Metaverse in the very near future. So, this is coming, and so I think that’s why they should kind of get on board.

Improving connection and engagement across your workforce.

One of the big things that Covid taught us is how important connection is. Any opportunity for a technology that actually enhances connection, I think HR should be leaning into.

I’ve seen some really interesting research that talked about bias and empathy. By people taking different avatars and different characters, they actually experienced better empathy just by being in a different avatar body than their natural selves. So there’s some really interesting stuff coming out and that’s the sort of stuff I’m kind of monitoring at the moment.

And also engagement. So, you know, during COVID, people were really good at having a special quiz on a Friday night, or planning virtual events. A lot of this stuff’s kind of dropped off.

The metaverse creates another opportunity for them to do some quite lavish activities that they certainly wouldn’t be able to afford to do in the real world because they can design this metaverse to look how they want and act how they want.

I was in a metaverse for a company that does design experiences and one of the other people that I was with suddenly found this feature where you could ride a dolphin. You couldn’t really do that in a normal workplace!

There is a surprise and delight factor, which people love, which you can do on a really interesting scale in the metaverse.

Training, development and learning from each other, wherever we are.

Training and development can simulate things at very low cost within a metaverse. So for example, some hospitals are doing some work with doctors where they’re simulating operations with doctors around the world learning from each other.

Say you have this doctor Metaverse and you have these top global doctors from around the world, and they’re in this room and you are simulating an operation: in front of you is the actual simulated body with all the organs and the top cardiologists, for example, can get in there and show exactly what they would do. You feel like you are there. You could even pick up bits and pass pieces around to the avatars, which is quite a different experience to someone just talking and presenting something on a Zoom meeting. You can even have a go, which you’d never be able to do normally.

Another example is unconscious bias or empathy training. One example is of people in the metaverse being put into the avatar body of a pregnant lady. Even how they walked around and how they interacted with others. they couldn’t believe how different it felt. And, also experiencing first-hand how other people reacted to them was so eye-opening.

How will AI impact HR in the coming years and how can HR teams prepare for the impact?

So first of all, I think they need to understand what it is. People have a fear of things that they don’t understand. Or they will avoid it because they don’t understand it.

The first thing I would say is find out more about it. It’s already in the HR world, there’s a lot of recruitment systems and learning systems that are using it. Some companies that have got sophisticated people data analytics are using it.

Find somebody they can trust to talk them through the technology and to help them under understand it a little bit deeper.

Also, get involved. Your company may be creating artificial intelligence projects. Perhaps your Technology team is. This is a perfect opportunity for People team to get much closer to the Technology team, so that when they’re looking at those projects, they can help look at the people impacts or look at a people design element to those projects.

The information that’s being used in some of the machine learning, for example I think HR could play a really great role in testing the usage of that and the implications of how that information might be used. I also think there’s a lot of opportunities for better personalization the use of AI, and I think that personalization is something that the HR department should be very interested in.

Around a decade ago, customer service departments got much more attuned with personalization to customers. Remember back in the day, you would’ve got a dear customer kind of letter, and then it was quite revolutionary when you got a Dear Melissa letter. Well, even our employees to an extent get a bit of a sheep dipping process a lot of the time.

I feel like there’s a lot more opportunities for personalization. You’ve got the HR data, there’s a lot of information that you could leverage to personalize experiences much more. AI will be doing that, so that’s where I think they should lean in a little.

Is there any career advice you wish you’d heard at the beginning of your working life?

Yes. I think one of the things that I now find myself telling a lot of others is that your greatest moments of discomfort are your greatest moments of growth.

They don’t always feel like that at the time, so I think that’s something that I would like to pass on to people.

If you’re uncomfortable, then you’re not actually growing. If you’re in too much of a comfort space, I would challenge you to think about how are you actually stretching yourself.

Get uncomfortable. And when you are in those moments in your career where you are feeling a little bit uncomfortable, get into it and go, because actually something’s going come out of this. Out of those moments that have been the most uncomfortable for me are moments that I’ve had the biggest growth.

What’s been the biggest learning moment for you?

I think probably two things. One would be a project that I ran for two years called Realize Your Potential, which was a positive psychology program that we ran for 12,000 global employees.

That was life changing from both being a project manager for that project, because I learned so much, and the scale and breadth of what I was doing across different cultures. But also the program itself. I think those positive psychology elements have definitely stuck with me constantly. I’m always referring back to some of those elements of self-talk or mindset and your reticular activating system and some of the kind of psychology terms that were part of that. That had a big influence because it affects your daily life and I think that that’s kept me on a really good path.

The other thing is what I’ve learned a lot from observing leadership behavior at different organizations. I’ve learned a lot of what I like, and what I didn’t like from observation.

I’ve seen some powerful impacts, for example, across organizations where I’ve watched exec team changes and the rollout rent down effect that that has and how that impacts culture, how that impacts engagement et cetera. What’s role modeled, what’s deemed as important and the impact that that leadership can have on really helping somebody shine or what I call sandpaper off somebody’s shine.

Observation teaches you a lot about human behavior. It teaches you a lot about, this sounds awful, but pack mentality, the power of when different dynamics get together. There’s quite a lot to be learnt from pure observation.

What is some recommended reading about the intersection of HR and Technology?

Yes, I would recommend particularly my favorite book which is well thumbed with lots of my notes in the margin: The Future is Faster than You Think which is by one of my idols, Peter Diamandis and is co-written by Steven Kotler.

It talks about how converging technologies are transforming business industries in our lives. What I like about it is I think that it’s not too nerdy for anybody that’s worried about it being too full on, but it talks about all sorts of different industries and so it’ll catch most people’s attention because it just covers so much. So, for example, it will talk about the future of shopping, the future of advertising, the future of entertainment, the future of education, of healthcare, of longevity, of finance, of food, you know, et cetera, et cetera. So lots of different topics!

One of the first topics is on flying cars, so I think that gets people’s attention straight off from the first chapter!

It also explores how lots of different technologies that are coming in, like AI, robotics, Internet Of Things (IOT), drones, metaverses, et cetera, are all quite powerfully interesting on their own, but also how they start to converge. You have one technology working in a lot in other technologies, so for example, robotics and artificial intelligence. This starts to kind of create these even stronger mass changes across our world.

Peter Diamandis does a podcast as well, if you prefer that kind of format, called Increasing Abundance and Exponential Technologies. Exponential Wisdom is probably the easiest way to search for it. It talks about all sorts of different topics. That was a great one to follow in little bite sized pieces.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

This one’s fascinating. I wanted to be a police woman. I really liked the challenge of it. I thought that it would be a challenging role that would be helping people, which I thought was pretty exciting. I thought it would be a lot of variety, so I’m the sort of person that gets bored easily, and I’m also, as you can tell, really interested in human behavior, so I thought that would be quite fascinating from that perspective as well.

I even used to go out on night patrol with the police when I was in my late teens, early twenties to kind of see the realities of it.

When I look at those elements actually, in my current role, I get a lot of challenges, I’m helping people, I get a load of variety, so I’m never bored, and I learn a lot about human behavior. So I still get to do that in my current role, but it’s a little more safe!

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