Thursday, July 13, 2017

Is HR Agile?

The term "agility" comes from IT development methods where applications move through a continuous, iterative and collaborative process seeking to make incremental changes based on continuous feedback.

Over the last 10 or so years, this concept has been applied to other areas of business, including human resources. 

Josh Bersin has developed his Agile Model of HR. Examples of agile HR practices listed are:

  • Training leaders at all levels of the company to act as hands-on coaches, not "managers"
  • Designing the organization into small, high-performance teams that set their own targets
  • Creating customer interactions within all groups and functions in the company
  • Delivering a strong, focused mission and values to keep everyone aligned
  • Creating systems with lots of transparent information, i.e., what are our goals, who is working on what project, who are our experts
  • Implementing "systems of engagement" not just "systems of record," i.e., collaboration, information-sharing, project management
  • Building a focus on continuous learning and learning culture at all levels
  • Implementing a strong external employment brand that attracts "the right type" of people
  • Hiring and promoting experts, not general managers
  • Encouraging and teaching people to give each other direct feedback
  • Creating programs for peer-to-peer rewards and recognition
  • Developing programs to foster diversity in teams

I can get behind many of these practices, although I also believe that some of them will depend on the organization. For instance, having several small, "high-performance" teams that set their own targets may not work for all. And, isn’t that simply a new label for "departments"? Care also needs to be taken to ensure that ineffective silos are not created in the process.

Hiring and promoting experts, rather than general managers, may seem like a worthy goal. However, we’ve seen the problems created by promoting someone because he was a great individual contributor who knew the job, but has no management skills whatsoever. This is where continuous learning and development opportunities can be very helpful, given the right goals and direction.

Any business function, including HR, can always find ways to improve. I believe that HR has been functioning in an agile manner in many ways for quite some time. The issue is sometimes that it is not always seen as such by others external to HR.

In order to find and hire the best talent possible, we have to constantly monitor the often-changing nature of the available workforce, and how best to identify, recruit and hire among them. We have to understand the changes occurring to the labor pool, whether those changes are due to economic, social/cultural or political factors. 

Those same changes also inform how we approach performance management, employee relations, and professional development. This requires feedback from all involved so changes can be made incrementally and early in the process. It’s vital to work closely with employees, supervisors and all levels of management – and those same groups have to be willing to work in concert with HR to the same goal. None of these areas are the sole bastion of HR, they all require collaboration. However, in some organizations, that is exactly how they are seen – HR is expected to deliver a perfect system that’s effective and easy to use – without meaningful input from other stakeholders.

The current (or reemergence) of the criticism of traditional performance management tools is a great example. The main complaint appears to be the once-a-year and static nature of performance evaluations. HR absolutely agrees that once a year isn’t enough and isn’t effective. The best performance management process is frequent, continuous and collaborative and HR has advocated for those very factors all along. The challenge appears to be getting buy-in and participation from those who have to collaborate to make this work.

While often seen as the "compliance trap", staying up to date with employment law and workplace regulation is vitally important to ensure our organizations can continue to operate in a successful manner. This is an area that is constantly changing and evolving and therefore, it constantly changes how we work and demands we evolve to meet the challenges.

Any business function needs to be adaptable in the face of changing business needs, foster simplicity so everyone can – and will – participate, transparent such that everyone knows and understands what the goals are and what it takes to achieve those goals, and unified so we’re all moving in the same direction at relatively the same speed.

We can always do better, but I believe there is much more agility in HR than is often perceived. What HR needs to do better is helping others to understand this.