My intention with this article is to shock HR professionals out of their status-quo mindset. I want to help them think more deeply and critically about the role of work and people in our evolving world, and by extension, to challenge their own thinking about their HR role.
Much of what HR does today – and in fact the whole historical construct behind all of our organizational forms – is oriented around creating structure, consistency, predictability and rigidity in the way that people work in organizations and in their expected outputs. For example:
Job descriptions: hard wired, not fluid, adjusted infrequently. Compensation levels: structured, hierarchical, non-adaptive. Working hours: consistent, predictable, and monitored. Performance Reviews: typically annual and well after-the-fact. Culture: focus on mono-culture building and all too often a “do what we say, not what we are seen to do” dysfunctional culture.
Of course, anyone that has operated in any organization for any length of time will quickly tell you that much of the good work that happens is not because of these HR processes, but in spite of them. Regardless of what’s written on our job description, most of us just try to get on and do what we think needs doing. We attend the mandatory company-wide training day, and then go back to our interrupted pile of work items and dig back in again. We’re asked to dream up some key objectives from our work of the past year so we can meet with our boss and discuss how we did against them. And so on.
In a stable calm, somewhat predictable working environment this self-imposed rigidity of “best practices in people management” is perhaps just a cumbersome tax on us and our organizational performance. Despite what we may think of its actual value, frankly it’s mostly just easier to not fight it outright and grudgingly “go along to get along”.
But going forward, that thinking becomes increasingly dangerous to the organization’s very survival.
Think about our turbulent 21st century work world, where there is a technology-induced disruption around every corner and a deeply funded new market entrant that doesn’t have to play by the incumbent rules, or even be profitable in the short to medium term. Long term success in such an environment requires organizational forms that are agile and adaptable. That can morph and shape-shift on the turn of a dime. That can culturally embrace disruptive idea incubation while simultaneously encouraging hard-driving efficiencies in the core business. That can shrink and expand capacity gracefully to match market demand.
This is the natural and ultimate form of a true “on-demand” organization. And we desperately need to learn how to design these organizations; the quicker the better.
It seems to me that the function that should be thinking about this most deeply and should be actively experimenting with new constructs and approaches is the HR function. But today HR is saddled with an inferiority complex, status-quo thinking and only has blueprints and instruction manuals to build rigid, structured policies and processes.
By all rights, HR should be in its ascendancy in our organizations today. With employee engagement levels stuck at 30%, there is a massive pool of energy, creativity, innovation and capacity sitting dormant in most organizations while those same organizations are continually pushing to “do more with less” and “work smarter not harder”.
On the surface anyway, it seems like a call to arms for “the people that really get people”. Isn’t that the informal working definition of most HR professionals? Isn’t that what attracted them to HR roles in the first place?
It’s the perfect time for the HR profession to rise up with a single voice and state “We know how to stitch the business and people together to create truly agile, adaptive organizations (or at least we’ll buckle down and figure it out). Trust us”.
Too bad the HR profession seems to be so terribly unprepared for leading this charge, which just means deeper disruption than necessary for all of us, HR professionals included.
In the meantime, what happens to us in the absence of well functioning “on demand” organizations? Freddy Mercury nailed it: “Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. And another one gone, and another one gone. Another one bites the dust, yeah. “
So again I ask: Where is HR when you really need them?