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Human Capital

Agile HR – A developing vision towards HR transformation


For a few months now, I’ve been running experiments. And I’ve been running Agile HR meetups in various places, Brussels, Paris, Hong Kong, with various people. And I’ve been speaking, at conferences, meetups and coffeeshop conversations. And I’ve asked questions and asked more questions.

So, here is a summary of the meetups and reflections.

In the beginning, my conviction is that HR must be closer to the business, stronger in support and more present in the boardroom. After a year, my conviction remains stronger and my articulation clearer. We simply cannot continue to use conventional workplace management methods towards an evolved and evolving market place.

But there is also nothing revolutionary at its core. When I look back at the agile manifesto, it is the most basic and common sense of things. We need to interact more, collaborate more, adopt more and produce working outcome. But to do all these, we can’t leave it to chance, we need to synchronise and practice the principles and ceremonials.

HR – So few and so far away

The first couple of meetups in Brussels and in Paris brought forth these points from participants. Even though the invitation is open to all, HR and agile practitioners, the people who came were mainly agile practitioners or people keen on agile. There were hardly any HR participants.

When I look at the social media groups for professionals linkedin and meetups, HR groups are few and far between. And the image to business has been the same, they are never available. I even joked with my friends, when I tried to set up meetings with people, the people who were consistently cancelling or not available or not responsive were HR. I’ve never had it with finance, IT or operations. Even with mobile sales people, they are usually a phone call away. It seemed they had hidden somewhere or enclosed themselves in the room. Or lat least that’s the sentiment people have mentioned.

When we look closer, the sad truth is that there are only so many HR people hired in the company. Sometimes, in a company of 2000 thousand people who over 150 people in technology, there is maybe only 20 or less HR people. When you divide 20 HR with 2000 employees, it’s a ratio of 1 to 100. If we look into a company, often, the smallest department in the company is the HR.

In a meetup, after much criticism and debate on whether we should fire all HR, I thought I’ll say something in defence. (After all, I have been in this world for over 10 years.) When I asked:

“So you say HR doesn’t approach you to understand your needs. Have you gone knocking on their door?”

“So you say HR doesn’t care for you. Have you told them how you would like to be cared for?”

Maybe they have, maybe they haven’t. But as in interactions and focusing on individuals, it really takes 2 people or more to talk. Should we be calculative on who makes the more effort to try to communicate?

To the knowing, and I count the alight to be among the “knowing”. We can practice the manifesto by reaching out and communicating more. Because, the knowing knows that shutting down communication will beget more communication.

And HR can be more organised in communicating with business. Instead of the big annual headcount, performance review meeting, try shorter feedback loops and frequent discussions on needs. If there are more interactions, there can be less paperwork and misunderstandings. And people strategies is not a form filling and paper pushing exercise.

HR & Technology teams – 2 different languages

I invited 2 recruitment experts whom I worked with in a project to share their experience in a meetup in Paris. We had participants calling from different places and some in person. My invited guests were dealing in from Netherlands.

One of the key points we kept arriving at was, HR and technology teams speak different languages and sometimes, they simply don’t understand each other without interpretation or time and effort. It’s like the Gershwin song, “Let’s call the whole thing off.”

“you say tomato, I say tomato; you eat potato and I eat potato; tomato, tomato, potato, potato
let’s call the whole thing off.”

Sone of the most common challenges that HR, especially the recruitment team, expressed is that when it comes to technology teams, hiring managers or teams don’t want to spend time explaining what they want and when they do spend a bit of time, they expect HR to get it quickly. Let’s not forget that while technologists spent their time with technology and is still catching up with the latest, HR doesn’t. It’s like a product owner expecting developers to understand their requirements without spending time grooming and explaining them.

Collaboration takes time. Especially in the beginning, it takes a lot time to understand each other and decoding the messages. But the time spent is often rewarded with stronger working relationship and effectiveness as a team. Crossing the aisle to communicate is not enough, building a bridge together will make the passing easier in the future.

HR can collaborate more to create a profile of the requirements instead of asking to fill out job description forms. With the HR I work with, filling out job description forms is probably the last thing we focused on. The first thing we talked about is who do we need now and why. I left them alone in how to find these people and give them ideas when I have. The followup discussions have always been why some candidates are rejected and some are great to calibrate our understanding of what’s needed.

HR is an obstacle

That’s the other thing I hear often in these meetups. The situations can be headcount freeze, can’t hire, can’t change job titles, can’t change teams, can’t … In many case, there were frustrations on things they can’t do because they were blocked by HR processes. Some of those I came across in agile teams are, we can’t have a scrum master because scrum master is not part of the list of positions we have in the company. Or, you can’t hire this person until next year when the headcount is released.

This is when HR fails the business completely because it seems to be blocking and helping. If we look back into the reasons why these came up, it’s often not because HR were the ones responsible for the set up but are accountable for it. And they lack the will and courage to find break through solutions.

In Europe, unions often determines many of the policies from increment, hiring and firing headcount to creating new positions. Headcount and/or budget freeze for hiring is often decided at top management at the beginning or end of financial year. And HR is held not only as guardians but penalised if these are not adhered to.

Fundamentally, if the practice is waterfall, then even if there are collaboration, interactions and a desire to produce a working solution, adapting to change cannot happen. And it’s rather unfair to blame HR when we / business were the ones who put them in that position.

To change, some of the bad practices needs to be abolished. Annual and x-year anything is by nature very waterfall, if the world remains unchanged for that period of time. The reality of agility is that an organisation has to be able to react to business demands very quickly and smoothly as if it’s in their DNA. Most companies understand that and yet will follow-through hours and hours of year end meeting for next year plan and x-year plans with nothing during the period to iterate and make adjustments.

HR can be brave and abolish some of the practices while updating others. HR can also be more creative when it comes to adapting to changes. In one of the project, with early interactions on changes required, collaborating on the resourcing requirements, HR could update unions early on and kick off some difficult discussions to reach satisfactory outcome for both. Instead of annual headcount requirement, they can also look into monthly and quarterly adjustment for the needs of the team and advise some of budgeting red alerts for the business.

Reflections

I am convinced we are at the tipping point of change for HR. People strategies simply have to catch up with technology driven strategies. There are be other drivers but I still believe technology drivers to be the biggest. And I believe agile to be a coherent and encompassing path to change. Maybe there are other paths and there are other big consulting firms to produce mountains of studies and papers to bury me in. But when I look at the need for HR to recenter on People over all the process, tools laws, obligations. I come back to agile manifesto inadvertently.

Maybe there are other ways, but how about we just simply start talking. Let’s listen and talk. And let’s not leave it to chance, let’s plan and co-ordinate these interactions. How about we just start with that? How beautiful is the world when people try to understand the other and talk!

Agile HRagile HR 2

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About Jas Chong

Organisation change and transformation.

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