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Lucy Adams on why HR has to be more disruptive

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Get ready to give up HR’s role as ‘rule-producer and police’, and learn to work instead with employees and clients in the new ‘disrupted world’, writes Lucy Adams.

Demands of the HR world

If you’re an HR professional worth your salt, you’ll know about the demands of a ‘VUCA’ [volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous] world, the knowledge economy, the rise of the millennials and the more globalised, networked economy. What you really need is some help figuring out what to do about it all.

Most of the HR professionals I know are worn out from being stretched too thin. They are worried about the capability and capacity of their teams to deliver the day job, and sick of having Google paraded as the only example of HR innovation. After all, they have just a small fraction of the multinational corporation’s budget at their disposal.

HR certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of advice. Aside from the many academic articles and blogs, we’ve all been to conferences to listen in awe and disbelief as an HR director explains all about their latest initiative, knowing that change in HR rarely goes smoothly. How do we filter out the noise and identify what might really make the difference to our businesses in the future? 

Preparing for a ‘disrupted’ world

To look at HR afresh, I propose using a model based on three basic principles: a new trust, the power of the individual and inherent disruption.

We must reframe the relationship between companies and their employees to rebuild trust. There are some exciting developments in the exploration of this idea – at Netflix, for example, petty rules and compliance have been replaced by a relentless focus on employing ‘even better’ people.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman’s new book, The Alliance, offers a powerful alternative to the nostalgic notion of a job for life, based on an honest commitment to different career paths. And we have the tentative but critical exploration of the future ‘low-ego’ leader who creates value through relinquishing control, who builds trust through humility and who is no longer judged by what they know, own and do personally. Instead, they are recognised for the talent they create and empower, and for the connections they form. 

The power of the individual

There is mounting evidence that traditional HR process solutions – such as annual appraisals, nine-box talent grids and engagement surveys – are failing to drive performance or value. For too long we have pedalled tired processes because they at least provided a guarantee that we could apply them consistently, measure and monitor inputs (if not outcomes), and convince ourselves that we had a solution. Now, the nascent sophisticated data modelling used by West Coast hi-tech giants, and the emerging use of neuroscience by the HR avant-garde offer some genuinely fresh thinking about how we might improve performance, develop talent and engage our people.

Organisations that are putting the employee at the heart of their HR solutions report some exciting results. We are seeing the annual appraisal replaced by regular human conversations, marketing colleagues bringing their customer insight analytics expertise to the development of employee brand and engagement activity, and “sheep-dip” leadership programmes abolished in favour of individually tailored development.

These approaches might be messier and more demanding of us than the traditional scalable processes, but progressive HR directors are now beginning to welcome the challenge.

Inherent disruption

Increasingly, the HR profession is aware that we spend too much of our time and energy complying with the present and nowhere near enough on preparing our companies for a disrupted world. At our annual conference, futurologists discussed how the pace of change obliterates some business models almost overnight. They also outlined the necessity of anticipating the need for change and responding with ever-increasing speed, while adopting different mindsets, skills and capabilities and managing an increasingly disparate, multi-generational, fluid and knowledge-based workforce.

Smarter organisations are already beginning to build in disruption to their people plans. We are seeing greater investment in predictive people analytics and the criteria for potential talent is changing. There are emerging alternatives to the slow-to-change command-and-control organisation designs. The growing need for a greater sense of purpose leads some to place this at the heart of their employee proposition and close down the CSR department. We are seeing an almost fanatical desire to get into the mindsets of millennials and there is a growing proliferation of digital solutions, social media and smartphone applications in the HR space.

Evolve and be creative

Success in the future will be determined by the ability to respond to challenges with strategies that have an inherent disruption at their core – in other words, we must appreciate the need to evolve and use creative solutions.

By developing a new trust with our employees, placing the individual at the heart of our HR strategies and increasing the focus on our role as “disruption-enablers”, we can give our contributions and reputations a much-needed boost.

We must give up our role as rule-producer and police, and instead embrace the expertise of non-HR colleagues such as those in marketing and technology. We must also rely less on process and more on client relationships, and admit we may have got it wrong.

It is only by giving away our power that we will find the headspace, resources and talent to really make the contribution we are so eager to make.

Lucy Adams

By Lucy Adams

Lucy is the founder of Disruptive HR and ex HR director at the BBC.

Since leaving the BBC, Lucy has been speaking, writing and helping business leaders on the issue of remaining resilient in the face of increasing scrutiny.

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