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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?

Agile in Organisation Transformation


MetaRecently I was involved in a project that uses agile methodologies and gave me the opportunity to deepen my understanding and see agile in action. Agile methods originated in software development.

“It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development and delivery, a time-boxed iterative approach, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.”

In agile, I found a practical companion to change management.

In the organisation transformation and change management, I had often advocated for the importance of step-change to increase adoption and to ingrain change. In many instances however, I had seen organisations embarked on change programs with lofty ambitions only to let it frizzle out or stopped midway due to lack of funding, buy-in and/or change in focus, typically after spending a lot of money with no real evidence of benefits. And this is largely due to a lack of detail application of step change.

Take for example, implementing a personal development program. An organisation had decided to overhaul the people management program through its HR department. Once the team set out to shop for toolsets, it encountered a large variety of choices and methodologies. In an effort to create a holistic approach, the team worked on a blueprint of requirements that may include competency framework, balance scorecard, 360 feedback, review process and etc. Typically, it is followed by numerous RFP process to select the right vendors and consultants. Before long, it had become a huge project with large financial investments implications that would require further board and management approval who would raise concerns on benefits versus cost, investment timing, impact to share holder value. While the efforts were plagued with indecision and continual budget revisions, the next economic cycle would have hit and a new recession in sight., thus further pushing out the decision to more “suitable” times. Sounds familiar?

Perhaps the story is too simplified and a stretch from reality. Reality may not be far behind. In the best of instances, an organisation came out of a transformation process full of fatigue and unable to leverage on the changes for positive impact. In others, an organisation is so scarred by the process that any future change efforts is viewed with cynicism and resistance where necessary change do not happen until too late while more adaptable competitors change and overtake in market position.

It is easy to understand that step change is important, it is quite another to build out the details behind it. This is where I borrow some key terminologies in agile to lend some insights into the practicalities of step change.

Commander’s Intent – The objective of the organisation is expressed as its vision. This vision does not include details in “how”, it is only a view of the future state. In the example of a people development program, the intent should be what the company is trying to achieve and not the specific toolset. And perhaps, the program is only a building block and not the intent itself.

Minimum viable product – MVP is about creating the smallest product that is operable to test a hypothesis and learn from it. In the same example, it is important to define a problem statement that is top priority in achieving the vision. Then create the smallest potential solution that can either prove it is the right solution or if the problem statement is the accurate. There are 3 key steps in the process: build-measure-learn. It is important to decide early the KPIs and the intended learning.

Pilot or Prove of Concept – Both are ways to implement the MVP. In a pilot situation, the solution is deployed in a real scenario with a small set of users and prove of concept is where no real users are involved. Let’s say a competency framework is identified as key solution to assess accurately and create focus in personal development. An MVP is a small set of core competences and it can be piloted with a selected team or a specific group to test out usability. Alternatively, a proof of concept can be used to compare the competences with vendor options prior to purchase committments.

Short release and frequent release cycles – Shorter release cycles meant that the scope is reduced to MVP from idea creation to initial release. Small frequent releases follow for continuous build on the MVP or create other MVPs so that multiple products are released to complement each other. In the same example, the next release could be an extension of the framework to the pilot team and the MVP to other teams and continue simultaneously until the framework is being rolled out.

Feedback loops & Retrospective – Learning from the process is important for adaptive planning and evolving solutions to fulfil the vision. In some instances, the feedback is also used to converge initial ideas. Feedback loops complete a release cycle prior to the next release where KPIs are measured and applied. Retrospective refers to a critique on the process of roll out and people involved. It is key to ensure all environmental factors like buy in, communication, business readiness are reviewed and to provide learning required for continual process improvement.

Fair process – All change efforts have a people impact for success. Fair process ensures that all parties involved have a chance to learn about the intent, provide input and ask questions. Whilst the solution is not a patchwork of individual intents, the process allows for communication, creates understanding and encourages innovation in solution creation. It gives appropriate time for people to debate, question, consider and ultimately accept the changes to come.

Most recently, I had used the above in creating a new team including job profiles and competences necessary to build in-house capabilities to delivery a solution. It helped me frame the process to create a small enough team and feedback loop to add resources as required. The organisation chart was reviewed and built out through feedback and provided me with opportunity and time to coach and integrate new additions to the team.

A suitable consideration in using agile in organisation design is that whilst building a software where codes can be erased and redone, hiring and firing is not as easy. Thus, it is even more important to ensure the right team is created and built on without unnecessary expansion. Using options such as contracting, 3rd party becomes important, a topic I will discuss in the next post on Total Talent Management.

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