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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

Agile Tribu – What it means to me? (In France (the country) and in English (the language)


2012 was the year I learnt about agile. To be faire, I had probably used it without knowing it. But as ancient history will say, there is power in words and calling something what it is. “Je m’assume”. This is my favourite French phrase, a state of being explained in simply 2 words, I assume (take on and be at peace with the position).

Beginning of 2015, I started discussing with Yannick and Nathaniel about setting up a structure together. The question on my mind is what will 2 agilists with extensive agile and technical background do with me, a non developer (not even html), HR and change management background. But we had a vision, even though it was just the beginning of a sort of a vision.

We started with lowest hanging fruits. The problems we all face as independents. As independents, we work alone, we find work alone and once we had work, we may forget to look for future projects. We wanted to create a space physical and virtual where independents can exchange, find solidarity with other independents and a convenient place to go to work and give trainings or hold meetings.

But we had a question, are we just a co-working space provider or a “mission” provider? That’s when we started debating and refining our vision. We are not just running away from something but we are running towards something. And that something is about advancing the practice of agile. This is the heart of the matter and the subject close to our hearts.

And this is where my heart lays – the dignity of work. Talking about happiness, talking about scrum, kanban, waterfall is just describing the waters when we are drowning. If we look at the spirit and essence of agile and the manifesto, it’s about communicating and gaining understanding among people, producing things that works and hence has value, working along side each other to achieve a goal, ability to adapt to seek improvements. How does that not describe the human spirit and being a human being in an ecosystem of people? And how can we say we can find dignity in work when we don’t have these, when we work by ourselves to produce outcome that benefits no one and has no contact with other human beings and has to work against other people? If we have these, how can we say we are still unhappy and why would scrum, kanban, waterfall matter? Aren’t these just the rules that define the game so we can succeed in working and enjoying this game of work?

And maybe that’s the HR in me speaking. And I digress.

We wanted a structure that will be open, transparent, provide teaching and learning opportunities, auto-organised. Most of all, it is to achieve better adoption of agile, not just in IT but in all professional communities (and private lives too, in my opinion). It’s not because it’s fashionable (but we like the trend), it’s not because it’s money making (that will be help!) but really because if we want to achieve all these values we talked about, agile propositions will get us there. In my opinion, if we were to achieve dignity at work and a happiness as a by-product, agile works. And it’s because agile already expressed these as values and principles.

Stephen Covey also proclaims that values govern people’s behavior, but principles ultimately determine the consequences.

Hence, practicing the principles will determine our arrival at expressing those behaviours in the values we promote. And why I put my trust in agile.

As a group, we debated about the name and finally, we arrived at Agile Tribu. A tribe is a group of people who is community driven and organises itself automatically according to a code. A tribe also has unique qualities that non-tribal members may not understand or join without displaying them. And a tribe has an insanely tight cultural code and belief system. And this is what we would like our structure and the network we build to do – a tribe obsessed with agile and advancing these principles and values, not as individuals but as a community, to hold each other up to these high standards and also to help and build each other towards the practice of agile.

We have also evolved in our thinking. We believe whether a person works for a company or works for themselves, they are still an individuals. And coming together as Agile Tribu will help to advance agile in their company or in their personal growth and work. But we hold true to the idea that we need a physical space to do that, a time to come together, to share, to learn, to teach, to think, to explore and to create.

And our business will be to help people in companies or individuals to advance agile adoption.

Finally, on a personal note, it is a community that I hope will consider my skin colour, my language and my origin as additions to a similar passion. Et oui, je parle français également.

And I hope, we will attract like minded people to come join the tribu and participate in our work, most of all, to work with us to uphold the vision we have on agile.

Beginning and ending with Total Talent Management, a widening systemic approach.


The title is a mouthful and a way I round up 2014 into 2015, with a few hours to spare. The world of work has changed progressively and even more so with the latest financial crisis. According to a Deloitte report, non-employee workers can reach up to 40% of a company. And it will likely to continue in trend with skills gaps and structural differences in the economy. So I’d like to kick off the new year summing up what I’ve been posting about in 2014, a systemic view of the workplace, a consideration on Total Talent Management.

Back in 2013 in a world wide HR conference in Orlando, I’ve heard someone mentioned the term, Total Talent Management. Traditionally, talent management is about actively looking at resourcing and planning the human capital in the company. Some companies have strategies for development and training with a selected group with leadership qualities, others may have a broad stroke approach and others non at all. But in all the practices, this is mainly tied to employees in the companies.

Employment laws have often dictated how HR can behave with non-employees. To protect workers from being excluded from employment benefits through engagement under interim or contract, there are typically tight laws around engagement of temporary workforce. This limits the number of years a person can be a temporary worker in a company and to ensure the line is clear, HR has also created walls to prevent ambiguity and potential lawsuits. The limitations vary from country to country, some relaxed and some stricter, typically in Europe and US. Some are enforced and some have common practices.

The result is a general deterrence from considering non-employees and hence any form of management.

If non-employee workers remain a minority of 5-10%, we can argue it is better to avoid all risks and it doesn’t impact the company largely in overall performance and strategy.

The challenge is whilst terms of work and its contribution has evolved, the laws have not. In a company today, there can be a percentage of temporary workers to complement for productivity surge and employees on leave. In addition, there is also an influx of contractors due to skills gap in the company. This is particularly prevalent with newer technologies and advancement in digital transformation. To compete, companies either seek expertise outside or outsourced a particular work order. Hence, outsourcing partners also becomes an extension of the workforce. There is also an increasing trend of independents who would not want to be employed and are happy to continue as consultants and/or contractors to companies to provide their expertise. Non-employeed extension of the workforce is growing and can sometimes represent up to 40%. What is this 40% really?

From a systemic view, a system includes contributors and includes any influences. If we think about throwing a stone into a pool of water, the rippling effect is the layers of systems. There is an immediate system and external systems connected to it. So where do we draw the line? It’s hard but one thing is sure, it does not stay with only employees, not when the rest of the system could make up to 40% when we consider a wider system.

And here we come to the HR challenge in 2015, if it has not already peeked in 2014. The question is, will HR step up and step out beyond the comfortable legal system of human capital in their company or will they take cover under the law and abdicate the responsibility to management? So what are the considerations of Total Talent Management?

Ensuring common ways of work in selection

A company, like a system, has an established way of working (sometimes called culture). In selecting independent contractors and even outsourced partners, this has to be considered. An external injection to the existing system with a completely different way of working and functioning will create misunderstandings and slow down progress. The efforts to correct it will be greater after engagement then selecting the right people and partners. HR has started to play a greater role in engagement of individuals who are hired on temporary or contractual basis. However, the greater impact is when injecting a whole group of people such as outsourcers or consulting partners. To ensure there are enough common grounds in ways of working, this has to be considered at selection stage. If HR is not managing this, then it will be up to hiring managers and management.

Ensuring team work in integration

Most HR will recoil at providing any form of training or leadership development to non-employees as this can give rise to potential law suites or ambiguity. However, team work can benefit from good facilitation during the integration process. Hence, HR will have to explore potential ways to help teams function together within the limits of the law. This can mean facilitation workshops, identifying problem areas and reflecting to partner companies or individuals as a form of improved service provision. A simple induction session given to all non-employees on the company culture and objectives will also be helpful without crossing the line extensively. This is the most challenging area and will require innovative HR approach.

Ensuring sustainable benefits in knowledge transfer

Finally, the benefit of external workforce is the expertise they bring and help during productivity hikes. The benefits can extend over longer period of time when their knowledge is transferred to existing workforce. Knowledge transfer can happen when people work together. With a concerted effort, knowledge transfer is not by chance and can directly impact in-house expertise. This can mean creating pair working, mentoring and strategic placement of external workforce with in-house. External workforce can also provide objective feedback on teams and leadership. Hence, with their exit, interviews and handovers are just as important as it is with employees.

Stepping into 2015, why not extend the vision and assess your current management of talents and how far it reaches. And from a classic systemic view, think about your resources and not your lack of. You’ll be surprised at how much you and your team can achieve.

Happy New Year!

So you hate job descriptions, how about personas?


I was torn. One of the biggest debate I had encountered when presenting in agile tours was the concept of job descriptions and competences. In an auto-organised world of agile, why do we need job descriptions? Isn’t that too limiting and will be outdated? While I agree that HR tools are traditional and lack innovation, I stand by the need for a point of reference. But I had left the conferences with a heavy heart.

How can we not do something for the sake of doing it? And how can we look past it’s ugly form today to see it and use it for what it is?

Let’s take a step back. A job description has 2 main functions, 1) for recruiting 2) for a summary of the job. If we take away job description, then we had to assume that a job title says what it does. So when we recruit a scrum master, we would assume that all scrum masters are the same and does the same thing. Hardly. Otherwise, all scrum masters would be cookie cut and replaceable by another seamlessly.

How do I hate you, let me count the ways.

So what do we hate about job descriptions? There are so many things to hate about it. The endless list of requirements that only a superman can fulfil and maybe not. Some of the qualifications are so ridiculous, I would have to cross breed spiderman’s ability to climb walls, superman’s ability to fly and then that wouldn’t be enough, because we would want that person to be resistant to kryptonite too. Then, the description of the job itself would either be too general that it seems anyone can do it or so specific that no one could have done all that and then be immune to kryptonite. And after all this, the person may still not be suitable because there are cultural and environmental factors not considered.

Different as night and day

Let’s look at the scrum master role (non-cookie cut version). In broad sense, the scrum master is the person that helps to identify and removes obstacles for the team to achieve a release in the time and budget allocated repeatedly. The success of this person will depend on his / her ability to resolve issues and motivate team forward. The difference is, every company has different issues and different team dynamics. Some simple, some complex. Some stable in agility, some still adopting agile.

Personas

In agile, personas are used to address a segment of users / customers. It is a fictional character / profile who has needs and wants and display characteristics and behavioural. We often give this person a name, age and income and we describe the problems we want to solve for this persona. We can create several personas who would be potential customers for a product.

Personas as Job Descriptions

In recruitment, the best recruiters and head hunters will usually as the hiring manager, “what kind of person are you looking for?”. And here’s where a persona began to make more sense. Some job descriptions already look like this but let’s take this a step ahead and call it a persona.

3 types of information

Scott the Scrum Master

We are looking to hire “Scott the Scrum Master”. He doesn’t have to be called Scott or be a man, but let’s call him Scott first. He should be in x age group with about x years of work experience. (Let’s tackle legal issues later, e.g. age gender etc). In this area, we use only basic information.

Scott’s personal traits and behaviour

Here, let’s describe this person in terms of behaviour and characteristics according to the demands of the environment. It would also include what the person must know. Here, we would include competencies that will help to describe Scott as the kind of person to succeed in the environment presented.

Scott’s goals

This area describes Scott’s critical success factor, what he is expected to do in the role. We can include a vision of success, what Scott would have done to be considered successful in the role.

A rose by any other name? 

So am I just changing the name of job description to persona to please the agile community or sound innovative? In my mind, a job description has always been a point of reference to hire and induct the person into their job, even if it is for internal hire. The purpose and use is the same.

But in working and debating with agile teams, I think a Persona takes on a very different form than a job description. In a persona, the cultural aspects and critical behavioural traits are emphasised whilst skills and specific knowledge are added as required. The significance is that even if we have 2 rocket scientists considered for the same job, we will be able to know what kind of person we want and choose the person who most mirrors the behavioural traits. And more importantly, we can also consider a non-rocket scientist for that job as they as they can achieve the goals described.

What then?

Persona in itself will not be enough. If we do so, we fall into the same trap of a job description, using it as a form of checklist to hire. When it comes to hiring, there is a  simple law of 3.

– creating the persona to describe the person desired and what success means in the job. Be clear but keep it simple. Remember, the person shouldn’t have to climb walls, fly and still be immune to weaknesses.

– creating a list of competences that make sense to include in the persona. Eg. if spiderman is to climb walls, then he wouldn’t need to fly like superman. Or maybe we don’t care about flying or climbing, what we want is to get to the highest or lowest place in the fastest way possible.

– creating a list of questions to qualify the person. If we want a person who can work in a complex political environment, we must know what it takes and ask the person to describe how they had worked in previous similar environments or how they would act in this situation.

There is much to be done in the way we look at HR tools. But let’s start here. Let’s recognise that a job is more than a job title and a person is more than his collection of job titles and certifications.

Taking cover in Brussels Agile Tour 2014


Last week, I spoke at the Brussels Agile Tour 2014. It was an impressive event with great organisation and a few great things that should be kept as traditions. Firstly, the speaker teaser to introduce their topics is a really fun way for every one to decide which session to go to. Some of the teasers are so funny that I thought, I’d just cancel my session and go attend theirs. Secondly, I like the fact that we use our name tags to provide feedback. It’s a great to recycle and return the badges. I never know what to do with mine from all the different events. Finally, I enjoyed the pace. 30mins break in between has provided opportunities to exchange and catch up if previous sessions overrun. Bravo Team Brussels. #atbru

My session was the grave yard slot of 2pm. I was wondering if I’ll be speaking to a sleepy crowd or none at all. (The other sessions at 2pm sounded really interesting!) And I was greatly humbled with the presence of senior agilists and long time practitioners like Pierre, Yves, Jurgen, Patrick and others. (See Pierre’s blog on the event.)

It was a lively debate and I was challenged and also inspired. It was not easy and there were moments when I wanted to run for cover. But through all these, I deepened in my convictions and matured in my thinking on the topic of HR and Agile.

Agile is a culture but the building blocks of culture are principles. 

I used an example of a board game to explain agile to people new to agile. There is an objective to the board game and in designing the board game, we have rules to help us achieve that. Badly designed games have rules that conflict and not fun to play with. Great games have rules to promote the objective. Rules in agile world are the various tools we use. We have daily stand ups because that helps in collaboration. It’s well and good to say “Individual & interactions over tools and process”. If we don’t have events to promote interactions, then we leave this to chance. We talk about short release cycles and sprints because these increase the frequency of collaboration with our clients. It might not have been designed as such but without sprint planning and release cycles, clients collaboration will be up to vigilance of teams to seek communication. Stephen R. Covey says that habits need to be cultivated. I think of agile like wanting to be lean and fit. It requires exercise but if I don’t develop a healthy habit of exercising and eating right, then wanting to be lean and fit is a wish with no commitment.

“… values govern people’s behavior, but principles ultimately determine the consequences.” Stephen R. Covey

Organisation & HR is the set up of players

One of the biggest debate in the session is about competences and job descriptions. It’s a hard one to advocate because so many of us have been burnt by this. There is a legacy hatred towards people limiting our capabilities and using HR tools for that. Opponents of these will say, they are limiting and inaccurate. It creates boxes and people are not things to slotted into boxes. Especially in agile where auto-organisation and team work is a mantra. I’m in change management so my take on this is about point of reference and fair process. There are roles to play and agile falls apart if the roles are not taken care of. There is a concept of Forming, Storming, Norming et Performing (noted in Pierre’s blog). That is often used in team building and set up. For me a job description list out the possible things the person should be doing and the team will work it out and probably trade some of the responsibilities but the key function does not change. And in using it as part of change management discussions, it promotes involvement and facilitate discussion. In a high level of consciousness (Peter Moreno – who presented enneagramme –  puts it nicely), we probably don’t need these anymore. That is at performing stage. Personally, in the case study I presented, the job descriptions was mostly used in discussion and setting up the teams and recruiting. After that, I don’t think we ever refer to it anymore.

Competences however is another matter. I’ve advocated hiring by competencies AND potential rather than qualifications. And I’ve advocated hiring a super team and not a superman. If agile’s final mantra is responding to change and it’s principle in continuous improvement and seeking excellence, then personal development has to be an individual mindset and mantra too. I wasn’t very elegant in my explanation on competences vs skills. Competences is about behaviour, skills is about knowledge. We tend to hire by knowledge. Have you worked in this industry and this function? Competence will be about “Have you worked in this type of environment and how do you manage this situation?”

This is where I am convinced. We cannot let go of human resources practice because letting that go is letting down the human aspect of work. AND we cannot continue as we do today in human resources practice. Continuing to do so is the very definition of insanity and failure. HR needs to revolutionise in the way we operate and keep up with times. We have to unleash human potential and not limit human development. If anything, we need a spotlight on HR and forced through change.

Individual coaching is the 3rd pillar of a 3 prong approach

This is where I have developed in my thinking. I learnt so much in Peter Moreno’s presentation on enneagramme. He talked about the law of the 3. And I thought, yes, that’s it. In agile adoption, we have agile coaches to cultivate the agile practices. I also believed that we need organisation and HR for the structure and hiring and finally individual coaching to help in the personal transition. The most common is the obstacle of “giving control”.  A 3 prong approach will ensure the ways of working are in place, the people are in place and the heart is in place. In my case study, I had worked with an agile coach as the organisation and HR expert to coach in set up and work with HR. But I’ve always felt that we needed a coach to help the people overcome their own fears and queries. I am convinced of this but my articulation is at its infancy.

As Pierre says in his blog, we have work to do.

So for now, I ask my colleagues in agile to keep an open mind and an open heart. Don’t treat HR like enemies but think of us as willing comrades. I’ll admit there are not many of us yet across the river. But with help, we can bring more to us. I’ll put on my change management hat and say, it’s like reversi. The pieces are there, just waiting to be converted to white. The first step is conversation.

The link to my presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/JasChong/agile-tour-v-english

Speaking Events – Agile Tour 2014


Last week I spoke at Agile Tour in Toulouse and Montpelier. It was my first speaking event in agile tour and it was in French. I was glad I had a rehearsal in a meetup event in summer. So this was easier.

Speaking about HR in an agile tour is a risk for so many reasons. Firstly, agilists (coach and IT teams) do not usually have good experiences with HR. At best, it’s a polite existence, at worst, HR is seen often as an obsolete practice or obstacle for change and advancement. Secondly, with an agile structure, there is a common perception that agile organisation is flat and thus has no need for management, after all, auto-organisation is a modus operati. Finally, in combination, if there were any HR issues, these were inherently dealt with in the team or ignored. After all, it’s an agile tour and people will be keen to learn more about agile and not HR.

The turnout was what I expected and a nice cozy group of just over 10 people in each session. It was a great group for conversations and the group was curious as well as reflective.

My key message: Agile Coach and HR can be great partners. 

The Batman & Robin, Bonnie & Clyde, Sherlock & Watson, a formidable duo. That was my experience when I worked as HR with an agile coach in setting up the team. The agile coach wanting to break all conventions, bring new practices, innovate and improve. The HR, the voice of reason, doing what is necessary to set up the scene, clear administrative and people hurdles.

The sub-title: Agile teams are made up of people and will have HR concerns. 

It may seem counter-intuitive but each organisation is different in size, culture and practices. But every individual is a human being with human concerns such as career development, pay check, sense of belonging. While an agile organisation based on auto-organisation is rather flat in structure, it will still have a form of structure and roles to play.

The characters: Product, Delivery, Project Management (and more than 1 each)

A typical scrum team is made of 3 types of roles, product, delivery (architects, developers, testers etc), scrums master (agile project managers). While a scrum can be formed and disbanded to reform based on delivery, each role distinct. But in any team, everyone has a role to play and we can’t be all and do all. Clear understanding of roles and accountabilities are important for auto-organisation to work. These are horizontal functions, it also exists with vertical teams. For example, product owners as a vertical can develop expertise and share best practices.

The weapons: Agile have tools and so do HR

HR can bring in expertise in agile teams with competences and development, job description as a point of reference, group and individual evaluation. HR needs to innovate to match with agile development such as iterative recruitment and organisation set up, piloting and testing competency programs to developing organisation and adapting job profiles to agile requirements.

The storyline: Australia

There are no villains or crime to fight. It’s about building a country, working together for city development. If agile coaches can call on the expertise of HR to work on people issues and HR can call on innovative methods of agile coaches to provide structure, transition and change can be effective and deep setting.

The challenge: Acknowledging and appreciating one another

The challenge I left the group to ponder. How can both collaborate and communicate to begin working together? It requires the crossing of worlds, stepping out of comfort zones and reaching out. As I said, if there is no knocking on the door, there is no opening of the door.

All slides are in french.

http://www.slideshare.net/JasChong/agile-tour-2014

I presented this with Pablo Pernot, an expert in change and agile. We’ve also recently launched our offer in HR transformation. http://transformationrh.fr . Yes, because HR really do need to transform their practice.

HR Transformation – Improvements Just Won’t Do It


Dali Atomicus

Photography by Mike Stimpson. Dali Atomicus.

“When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls, so that the real person appears.” Philippe Halsman

I don’t know of any young people who wants to be in Human Resources. Then again, I don’t know all the young people in the world. I don’t know of many companies who have Chief HR or People officer. The again I don’t know all the companies in the world. So, is this indicative of HR today? That our young people are lacking aspirations in this profession and companies do not reply include HR in management boards? 

Management committees and boards today are typically made up of CEO, CFO, CIO/CTO, sometimes COO and CMO. They advocate for different interests of the company. The CEO is concern with profits and growth of the company. A CFO on cash and financial stability and investments. CIO/CTO looks at technology, infrastructure and innovation in these areas. COO considers operational efficiency and CMO on branding and marketing. While this is a simplified view, their key interests are in their area of expertise and they advocate for it. However, a lack of HR representation means that there is a lack of advocacy for the people.  Interests of people becomes sidelined and at the mercy of the people management skills in C-Suits. In good times, people are important to serve the purpose. In bad times, people become an overhead costs. People need a better advocate in management and it is not union or employment laws. HR needs a voice to represent the people and shouting won’t do it if they are not in the same room. 

When HR is invited into the room, it is often to support strategies. As a support function, HR provides value if they can support their colleagues’ strategy. It could be when CIO/CTO embarks on digital transformation where new headcount or skills are needed; CFO leading a merger and acquisition plan where restructuring and streamlining is required to reduce or reassign workforce or COO needing to improve efficiency through skills upgrading, training and development. In good times, HR is involved early. In bad times, HR is called in after plans have deteriorated and union concerns require management. When the value of HR is how well they execute the plan and assist their colleagues, they can only meet expectations and the alternative is failure. HR has a voice but singing in the background or back up won’t do it if it it is only to harmonise. 

When HR has a place in the room, they are on the starting line as their colleagues. They can advocate for people development, talent management strategies and seek support and investment in the people. Their success, as their colleagues, is how well they can execute the plan, bring return to investments. Traditional IT and Finance functions have undergone much change due to the changes in the market place. Digital transformation and changing customer behaviour online and offline has propelled changes in IT and marketing to work together for integrated sales. The recent crisis has forced finance to rethink financial modelling, regulations, cash-flow management and short cycle budget planning. Operational efficiency has since adopted lean and worked with other functions on outsourcing, offshoring, integrated supplier chains. In people management, there is no lack of tools to support, 360, People Management Programs, competency, profiling, tests, assessment centres and balanced scorecard. But these are continual application of traditional practices and often in silos. HR can sing beautifully but when it’s not in synch with the rest, then the best classical singer has no place in a jazz band. 

Whether HR has a place in the room or not, improvements is not a game changer. The practice of HR has to modernise to keep up with the times or be obsolete as a profession. It will require value creation and not just added value. And considering the changing parameters will be an important consideration. 

Total Talent Management 

Legally, employment laws has an imposing influence on HR practices and thus orientate them towards compliance. It also meant that HR considers only salaried employees of the company. In this HR, interim and part-time agencies have clear mandate to manage their staff. And employment laws forbade HR from over involvement for fear of being sued for employment benefits and employment. It’s all understandable when the laws are meant to protect workers’ rights and prevent foul play. However, most companies today have a large mixture of interim, independents, part-time staff in addition to full time employees. On top of this mix includes external vendors are who are working onsite. Globalisation also meant that employees in another geographical jurisdiction has management jurisdiction in another geography. While these seemed a form of complexity for HR practitioners, these practices are actually enriching the workplace and are required strategies for the company to excel. HR has to act within the bounds of employment laws but has active contributions outside of these boundaries. They have to consider that a company is no longer a stand alone nucleus but an ecosystem of talents that will contribute to the success of the company. 

Culture and Ways of Working

While HR cannot legally advocate for employees outside of the company, they have to ensure that the ecosystem works for performance. The selection of vendors and actors in the ecosystem becomes important. Traditionally, independent contractors and vendors are selected by functional requirements and competences. The way they work has lower bearings in the procurement exercise and choice of onsite staff from vendors are left to vendors. Yet, these often have direct impact on outcome of the partnership. If a vendor has a very different culture from the company, employees on both sides will have a steeper learning curve to work together where productivity will dip or not realised. HR can help to:

  • set guidelines on ways of work
  • introduce vendors and external teams on company value and mission
  • conduct team building exercises to enhance understanding and working relationships 
  • assist in vendor selection and exit to find continual improvements in ways of work. 

Adapt & Innovate

There are innovation in many different areas that can borrowed and adapted. Chinese has a phrase: “融会贯通”(rong hui guan tong). This means understanding the principle essence of something and apply it. In agile, there is a Japanese phrase “守破離” (she ha li) and it means learning in 3 levels, learning and applying, breaking the rules and departing into new practices. HR can keep themselves updated on management innovation and innovation in other areas to find new practices and logics. The application of theories in consideration of contexts is where execution will be enhanced and change is powerful. Consider:

  • technology can improve communication and ways of working
  • agile deployment methods can be applied to deploying HR policies
  • capital investment can apply to people investment and measuring return of investments
  • digital marketing can also be applied to recruitment practices and promotion of company. 

Social Responsibility & Global Advocacy

Employment laws and workers unions were established to protect the rights of workers. Yet, are these laws updated to protect today’s workforce? HR can play an active role updating and modernising legal practices with local governments. They can also be global advocates to eliminate slavery, child labour and exploitation of workers. Working hand in hand with supply chain units, they can also ensure that their supply chain, partners and vendors are held up to highest integrity in employment. HR can work and walk out of the office:

  • talk to colleagues and business units regularly to keep up to date on hiring trends.
  • work across the aisle with HR of vendors, partners and suppliers to ensure integrity of supply chain
  • participate in government boards and work with ministries to update employment laws. 

I don’t think there are easy answers nor convenient steps. As I reflect on Philippe Halsman’s quote, I think it requires a leap into the air, see the real person behind HR and create a ripple in the calm. It’s not about running faster in the box, it’s about thinking and operating out of the box. And who’s to say if enough people jump at the same time, the ground wouldn’t shake?

Rendre Heureuse (RH) – Render Happy – The New HR?


LeapWhile speaking about HR, human resources recently, someone said to me, “RH est pour rendre heureuse (RH) aux salaries”. Some linguistic explanation required. Human resources is “ressources humains” in French, thus the acronym RH, the same for “rendre heureuse” which is render or make happy. So is HR the new Happiness maker in the company?

It’s been circulating recently, the idea that HR should rather be Chief Happiness Officer and happiness in employees will make them better at work and thus make the company better and more profitable. But can HR really be the holder of happiness of people at work? And is happiness really the key to a high performing company?

The amount of research in this area is rather extensive on both sides. Happiness at work creates a joyful culture and people are more helpful and less cases of burnt out. It made sense. So can a bunch of very happy employees also turn a 10-man company to 20 to 1000? I doubt it. Unhappiness at work can create very toxic environment, create residue stress that seeps into personal life and create more unhappiness where people burn out and leave. Will a 1000 plus employee company become inefficient and reduce to 20 people? I doubt it too.

The pursuit of happiness is natural in human kind. That’s just a natural law. But happiness is so many things to so many people. More importantly, work is only part of our lives and can only contribute to part of our happiness.

When is it the responsibility of the company, mangers or human resources department to make us happy? Isn’t that our responsibility to create a life we want with the brand of happiness we define? Why would I cede this power to make me happy to someone or an institution and why would I hold someone accountable if I’m not happy?

No, I think the pursuit of happiness is my business. Work is a path and HR can clear the path!

What do I mean?

There are several well-written articles from the perspective of the organisation. I’ll take this up from the perspective of what I think HR can do.

Clear the recruitment path

Today’s recruitment in many protective labour markets is very risk averse. This means recruitment is based on all the criteria of the past (good education, experience in the same job, doing exactly the same thing elsewhere). It’s not future or potential looking. When HR succumbs to the pressure of “no hiring mistake”, the perversion is to hire like for like for current need and render the future needs of the company to luck. The person hire for the existing job may or may not be able to grow for the next job in the company. Without potential leaders, succession planning is hampered and the flow of talent will be choked.

If I’m recruited on my potential and capabilities, I’ll feel appreciated and motivated to prove my worth.

Clear the development path

Training and development prevalent today reminds of tuition, supplementary to help employees do their work today better. The educational path of an employee should be forward looking and requires a development and a career path. When HR do not help to facilitate identification of leaders and development for management teams, it’s allowing upward movement of unqualified managers who might be star players in their current job and a generation of unqualified managers and leaders. It also loses the opportunity to unlock potential in people and help employees strive to excellence.

If I knew that someone is working with me on my career development path, putting things out for me to reach, I’ll feel interested and motivated to learn to get there.

Clear the mobility path

The mistake most people in mid-career make is to think that only promoting to a higher position is a sign of success. There are multiple paths to reach capacity and some includes horizontal moves and working in different environments. But it disrupts teams and managers often try to keep their good people than letting them go. Mobility is also difficult in cultural adjustments and provides a new set up challenges in living skills. HR can help to promote mobility within the global working environment or across teams rather than looking at legal implications, releasing liabilities and tenures and thwart movement in the process.

If I had HR support in protecting my tenure while I move across countries and teams, I would feel helped and focus on the move and new job.

Clear the political path

Every workplace has politics, as each employee is different in character, communication style and ways of working. When there is an absence of a strong culture that focuses people on working together and achieving common goal, these politics come into play for personal protection, bargaining for gains and often an expression of frustrations. With HR taking a backseat in culture, they become the undertaker when things have really gone wrong often resulting in lawsuits, firings, employee relations and unions discussions. HR can take a more active stand to assess how people are working together and steering in team building activities, working through differences and strengthening team communication and common understanding.

If I feel that I can ask HR for help in conflicts and that we are all playing for the same team, I’d feel understood and more tolerant of differences.

Conclusion – Happy or not happy?

I struggled with this. Perhaps at then end of all these is indeed happiness. If I feel motivated, loyal, listened to, appreciated, respected and developed, this would mean I’m happy. But this can’t be all of what happiness means and that’s just too easy to say HR, be Happiness Officers.

Happy is a feeling. I can be happy or sad because of so many things. But I want to wake up and want to go to work because there is a challenge out there I can solve, I can do something, be useful. I want to earn my keep that I deserve.

I think I’ve said. It’s the dignity of work. It has nothing to do with happiness. And HR can help me keep my dignity, not my happiness.

(Will update links to articles on this topic.)

Talking about HR in Agile Meetup


It was 29°C outside, 7pm in the evening and one of the 2 days in between the world cup matches. I thought everyone would be off somewhere in a bar, movie theatre or somewhere cool. But it was a full turn out. And it was in front of some very lovely and patient french people that I presented a case study on Agile in HR and HR in Agile.

To begin with, it was based on an project I was involved in. And to be honest, before this project, agile was really just an adjective. It still is but there is so much more depth to the agility used in software development. And this group of people I was standing in front of were all practitioners of agile methods for many years.

Agile, whether referring to being flexible and adopting to circumstances or tied to a whole library of terminologies like scrum!, kanban!, XP programming!, burndown! or for that matter burnup! (all terms that made me stopped in my track at one point or another to say huh?!), is irrevocably, undeniably, incontestably about people.

So it was to great wonder why there haven’t been much talk about HR in agile. And even more curious is how the basic principles of agility can be applied to HR? Because, how can an arm in the company (usually IT department) be agile whilst the rest of the company be fat and heavy?

And so it was, after reflections on that project, the hits, misses and the “je ne sais pas quoi” that I attempted to be honest in this sharing about my involvement, my learning and most of all, why if we want to talk agile, we should talk people and if we talk people, we can be agile too.

With or without the library of terminology tied to agile, most business leaders today have to battle with rapidly changing consumer behaviours, disruptors from non-traditional competition, globalisation and accelerating innovation. Thus, being adaptability as Darwin first proposed is really the only contant and means of survival. And so agile or capital A-gile is a logical response.

This is the case for the example I provided. The company had to be quick in time to market, they had to deploy digitally sound solutions across various parts of the customer journey. And they had to use a combination of acquired expertise and in-house capabilities simultaneously across various markets covering different technology platforms.

The example I presented was on a part of the project where adapting agile methods cannot be independent of helping people adopt the change. And where adopting to this change cannot be done through traditional HR means.

The challenge was to condensed it to 1hr 30mins and respond to any questions from the floor. I think we did well as a group, 29°C and hungry to share on a hot July evening.

The english version of the slides are now available on: http://www.slideshare.net/JasChong/agility-in-hr-hr-in-agility-july-2014

Oh did I mention that it was in French, a first for me in terms of public french presentation.

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