Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

nigel-cox's picture

Throw it all away

By Nigel Cox on June 24, 2022

Hacking Team

Put HR flavour of the month into reverse. Look at everything you are doing and, unless you have evidence it is working in your organisation, stop doing it. 

And by evidence, I mean genuine, statistically valid, experimentally tested results. 

Of course, this also means, don't introduce any new initiative until you have proven it will add value, however defined, to your organisation.

To follow my own principles, you might start by testing this "throw it all away" process with some experiments. Work with a local higher education establishement with a maths department to help develop the statictical models you will need (I am assuming that few HR professionals have deep mathethamtical capabiliites). Look for a high maintenance process (eg your competency model), identify some activities that make use of the model (say, recruitment - you will need to define what success means in recruitment terms), split your organisation into experimental groups and use a variety of recruitment approaches. Assess and validate the results. 

If there is a difference in outcome, does it generate a sufficient return on the cost and effort of introducing and maintaining the process 

HR process being hacked:Other

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andy-lippok's picture

HR and many practitioners are stuck in an old way of thinking. They're hooked to a traditional command-and-control thinking that is incabable of recognising the way the world and the workplace now needs to change fundmentally. I would hope these hacks will help, but at the moment I'm really doubtful. It needs revolution not evolution, otherwise HR will be left firmly out on a limb!

heidi-de-wolf's picture

This is the whole debate about where OD should sit in an organisation. Sitting with HR, with direct reports to an HR Specialist Manager could result in OD being put 'back in the box' and kept away from the projects they can help to revolutionise. OD's strengths are seen as highly disruptive and inviting risks which HR colleagues deem unnecessary. Our major difference - OD works with conflict for the purpose of innovation, while HR tries to avoid conflict at all cost out of fear of litigation.

Bring on the revolution!

bruce-lewin's picture

Exactly... OD/Strategic HR, call it what you want may well benefit from being separated from transactional issues/legal/holiday etc. etc. Jim Scully and I kicked the tyres of this one a while back over here.

Stepping back howerver, other functions have created distinct and well understood 'sections' as a result of adopting/implementing new processes, tools and techniques. Six Sigma experts sit within manufacturing or related, but it's quite clear what they do and what they contribute. Equally, the creation of social media marketeers/managers/monitors have all emerged in the last 5 or so years but these roles typically all fall under the marketing department. Likewise, as companies get larger, their finance functions grow in complexity, credit specialists, expense processing, treasury functions, FX hedging activities and so on all emerge as distinct disciplines or specialist parts of finance. The same will be true in IT and elsewhere.

Looking at how other functions have tackled this, perhaps the question is not about splitting HR/OD up but about working out how value is added in a consistent and scalable fashion from different parts of HR e.g. OD/L&D/Payroll/Legal/Comp & Ben etc. Once the methods, techniques and processes are understood and the value added is acknowledged by the wider part of the business, this 'splitting up of OD and Strategic HR' problem disappears quite effortlessly...

heidi-de-wolf's picture

I suppose we here have to apply the other principles described elsewhere in the hackathon, namely those of removing hierarchies and having role descriptors rather than job descriptions.

Having overlapping job descriptions appear to cause conflict and resentment, including within HR. Your comment about 'OD/Strategic HR, call it what you want' has caused - within my own reflective self - a discomfort (just being honest) as HR generally hold a qualification while OD will be less likely to have a relevant qualification, which in times of restructures and redeployments cause a lot of conflict and anxiety as traditional recruitment processes still highly value qualifications.

bruce-lewin's picture

>I suppose we here have to apply the other principles described elsewhere in the hackathon

Agreed - there's also some interesting talking going on about establishing a skunkworks, post hackathon, to turn these ideas into action (as per the link, Peter Cheese is open to this). The idea is that the CIPD acts as a broker between hackers and organisations who want to pilot hacks and innovations.

>Having overlapping job descriptions appear to cause conflict and resentment, including within HR.

Exactly, the ambiguity around OD/Strategic HR/Parterning and so forth is far from ideal. I've been chatting with David D'Souza about this. One of our conclusions is that there's no consensus around a mental model for HR. What is best practice in one organisation might well be alien and unknown to another and so on it goes. Throw in debates about goals, objectives and priorities for the function and things start to get very complex, very quickly. Contrast this with the other departments who, in broad terms, all have a well recognised mental model which translates easily into day to day activities and related approaches and ways of working.

I think this Hackathon has come at a great time, the question remains though, will we all be able to turn ideas into action and genuinely shift the work done and perception of HR? I hope we can, but I think the skunkworks, or something similar is going to be an important part of that journey.

heidi-de-wolf's picture

One reservation I have about the pilot work (sorry) is that much of the discussions so far are showing the interdependencies which all make the bigger 'system crash'. Can we really create pilots big enough to show the systematic benefit across a larger organisation? If we are looking for a revolution we are relying on a 'flashmob of people who think differently'. Leave it with me and I'll probably join you on Twitter with some further thoughts on taking this forward.

bruce-lewin's picture

Sounds good Heidi... I agree that a lot of the hacks do present threats to the larger system, but then I guess it's a case of working within the context and constraints that are presented. For example, is there a department head or several team leaders who would sponsor a new approach, rather than the whole organisation, or is an innovation better in a startup business with no HR infrastructure? Finding out which hacks can be piloted in a given context is one of the steps that needs to happen...

Looking forward to your additional thoughts via twitter...

nigel-cox's picture

It seems to me that the most interesting interventions have, in the main, appeared to present visions of HR outside the mainstream.

Is the implication that those thinking deeply about HR (and its contribution to business or society) are somewhat sceptical that it can deliver real added value and genuine difference without radical re-invention? So, if we look for the small, evolutionary changes that are more likely to get taken up do we miss that bigger picture?

HR as a stand-alone function is a potpourri of activities whose only association is that they all have "people" impact - and this makes it hard to differentiate from the responsibilities that lie at the heart of all leadership, of all management. We appear to be a function that provides the armaments for use by others (we facilitate engagement of business leaders in the development, help explore its scope and agenda, but ultimately fail to take ownership because it is management's responsibility; we promote employee engagement not because it makes for a more pleasant place to work but because the evidence is that it helps increase performance and productivity, but make line managers responsible for the delivery; etc). The list of arm’s length interventions goes on. Except when providing processing and administrative functionality HR is most effective when fully integrated into the business (whether at a strategic or a tactical level) because, in the end, it has no other place to be.

When it comes to taking action on the back of this work, let's not fall into the trap of following the "best practice" model, nor of treating these hacks as solutions in search of a problem. Few of the hacks should be presented as universal paradigms. We can help those interested explore which of our many ideas provide potential to address their problems.

I believe the trick we have to find is how such ideas as we have can be transferred into the wider business community to provide a vocabulary and framework for understanding and insight, not how we transform the HR function. Then we will have made a difference.

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Nigel,

I believe the trick we have to find is how such ideas as we have can be transferred into the wider business community to provide a vocabulary and framework for understanding and insight, not how we transform the HR function. Then we will have made a difference..

If I've understood you, I think you're on to something here. Regardless of whether one takes an evolutionary or revolutionary approach to enhancing HR, my sense is that the best way to make a difference is to create the catalysts for change such that the business pulls HR in to help on various problems and projects, as opposed to HR constantly needing to push the next initiative and often finding itself struggling to be heard.

HR typically struggles to generate high levels of demand for the expertise and problem solving skills it offers and yet, as you say above, in order to make a difference, the business must embrace whatever variation of HR that is proposed, both strategically and tactically. If this scenario can be created on a regular basis, both within a single organisation and ideally across multiple businesses, then HR will be well on the way to something much more valuable and something very different to what we see today.

Incidentally, there is another hack on push v. pull which Heidi De Wolf wrote - this may chime in with what you're saying. Are you planning on joining any of the hacking teams?

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Bruce, Thank you for promoting the Hacking Team on PUSH vs PULL.

This principle has such wide implications so it may be useful to just focus on one particular scenario such as how can HR build better rapport with the services to be invited in? Once we have a hacking team, it may be useful to explore that first so that we can come up with something practical and ease to implement as a pilot.

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Heidi, no problem about promoting the Push v Pull hack, I think it's got to be one of the key features of any successful hack, at least if it plans on being implemented and used in practice.

Maybe building rapport with the services is a good place to start. Whatever the starting point is, I'm of the opinion that for any pull-orientated approach to work, decision makers in the business (and ideally as many people as possible in the business) need to be comfortable with the proposed business case/strategy, along with the planned execution/tactics. Once the strategy and tactics are clear and are understood, the conditions for HR to be pulled into the business are set...

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Andy,

>Revolution not evolution - I concur... many of the models and techniques are 20, 30, 40 years or older. Ulrich's Business Partnering was arguably the last major innovation in HR and this has met with a great deal of criticism, not least from the originator himself...

It'll be interesting to see if a group of people with a more radical perspective emerges from this hack...

bruce-lewin's picture

Great hack Nigel... I wonder if there are any HR departments who could justify even half of what they do via genuine, statistically valid, experimentally tested results.

heidi-de-wolf's picture

This has made me think about how simple it is to create something complex and how complex it is to create something simple. If a large team of people struggle with their workload, and in HRs case a workload created to support employees and managers across an organisation, then how will employees and managers cope with this information and integrate it into their daily practice of serving customers? Plus HR is not the only service whose purpose is to support others across the organisation. The only way to simplify support to the organisation is to break out of the silos and collaborate across all the support services.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

nigel-cox's picture

Dan Pink made an interesting observation about recognising the split between compliance and administrative activity and what he, loosely, described as Talent. What HR does as a support function or to ensure compliance needs to be efficient and effective, but the users define that requirement. I suspect it's when we try to apply our functional mastery and shape the agenda that we potentially add complexity and this is where we need to be more robust about validating our interventions.

And, to your first point, I think you are right but I think HR practice is particularly culpable. We see what we think is a bright idea (dressed up as "best practice"), make it yet more complex by modifying it for our own organisations, and apply it without discrimination. Someone else can probably identify the literary figure who wrote "excuse the length of this letter, I did not have time to write a shorter one". Is the problem that HR practitioners have become too busy to think deeply or too afraid to challenge?

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Nigel,

>Is the problem that HR practitioners have become too busy to think deeply or too afraid to challenge?

I'd say in part, this is a contributing factor. I often come back to the great rush to get level A and B psychometric training completed during the 1980's and 1990's i.e. the paper and pencil years. Working out the statistics, normed scores and various levels of interpretation must have been very tedious and to then have managers fail to embrace and champion this work must have been very demotivating.