The Need for Innovation in Human Resources is Real (and How to Get Started)

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The need for innovation in Human Resources is real. By Human Resources, I don’t just mean the HR department, but everything that has to do with the interaction between organizations and their people.

When we think of innovation, we immediately assume this is about bringing in technology, certainly in this age of digital, Artificial Intelligence and robots. Time for a reality check, because this is the one thing innovation in Human Resources nowadays shouldn’t be focused on.

Two examples

Imagine a company of over 7,000 people. The company’s management has just signed a deal with an internal communications platform. The goal? Reaching out to and engaging their dispersed, mostly blue-collar workforce.

Truth to be said, technology does sound like an appropriate solution here, doesn’t it?

Within the management team, there is a heated debate about whether or not they should participate on the platform. Some managers argue in favor of full disclosure, others just want to monitor what people are exchanging without allowing the workforce to send them messages.

Do you reckon technology will save the day if the management team doesn’t align on full involvement?

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Let’s look at a different example. This one is from a company that needs to increase its workforce by 27% each year to keep up with its business growth. They operate however in a talent market with an extreme talent shortage and where talents are easily tempted to job-hop.

Last summer, they hired a seasoned HR manager with an excellent knowledge of the best and latest HR Tech solutions. The company expected he would soon bring in technology to attract more candidates into their talent funnel. He didn’t, because he realized they missed the solid foundation (structure, process, and mindset) to enable the technology to make a difference.

The underlying message in these two examples is that we need to keep in mind that technology is always a means to an end, never the solution.

As such, it needs to be applied in the right manner and in the right context with a clear vision of what you want to achieve. If not, well, ask any carpenter if you can blame the hammer when you’re trying to get that screw into the wood.

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The VUCA understatement

Maybe the hammer-and-screw analogy made you smile, but sadly it’s a harsh reality for many organizations when it comes to HR. Mind you, I am not pointing the finger at HR professionals specifically here – as should be obvious if you look at my intro and the first example I gave.

The truth of the matter is that the context has changed drastically over the last years and that there is no longer one right way to do things. It has also become more and more difficult to clearly define an organization’s goals in this VUCA age… or so all those who stopped formulating long term or even midterm goals claim.

The VUCA acronym (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous), together with the word ‘disruption’, is often used to justify not having clear goals for the years to come. These words emphasize the era of change in which we live in, but the truth of the matter is that we are not living in an era of change….

We are living in a change of era!

An era of change of change is the appropriate term for the continuous advancements of technology and its effects on processes and structures within organizations. Basically, it’s the way to describe the further deployment of the scientific approach towards organizations as defined by Frederic Winslow Taylor; the organization is a machine and management makes sure every cog sticks to its specific job description.

The change of era – a term coined by Dutch transformation professor Jan Rotmans – refers to the increased empowerment of people.

They challenge the way things have been done over the last century. They demand innovation in the way organizations interact with them – not just as external customers, but most certainly also as (potential) employees, as the organization’s internal customers.

If you analyze what big HR thinkers like Josh Bersin (learning in the flow of work), Jacob Morgan (Employee Experience) and David Green (HR analytics) have been pointing at over the last year, it is this change of era.

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Employees are demanding to be in the driver seat and you better give them the steering wheel.

After years of HR talk about the War for Talent and with the C-suite having come to accept this reality too, it’s now that same Talent that is fully grasping its position of power. This power won’t diminish any time soon because the talent shortage will only increase:

  • WEF states that by 2022, 75 million jobs will disappear while at the same time 133 million new ones will be created.
  • Korn Ferry estimates that by 2030 the global talent shortage will be 85 million.
  • Population pyramids of the Western world reveal there aren’t enough young people to fill the gap (chart 1). Even rising economies like China, that abolished the one-child policy to overcome this shortage, are now realizing that this attempt failed and that it doesn’t provide a larger talent base (chart 2).

EU Population Pyramid

Population pyramid China

The divide between technology and organizational reality.

It is safe to say that Bersin, Morgan, Green and other HR visionaries are on one side of a canyon, whereas the organizational reality is on the opposite side. The multitude of HR Tech solutions that have arisen over the last couple of years can be situated close to the side of these visionaries.

As demonstrated by the two examples I gave at the beginning of this article, organizational reality, and thus that of HR finds itself at the other side.

For HR professionals, what they do on a daily basis hasn’t really changed in the last couple of decades. They are still trying to solve the same issues in ways they have always been doing.

Why?

Because changing habits is difficult. Because they haven’t acquired the skills needed to operate at the other end of the spectrum. Because they have been ‘raised’ in an organizational reality in which HR follows. Because they don’t know how to lead and participate in the business side of the organization.

When they do venture to cross the canyon, it is as if they are picking up their courage to cross a bridge made of glass. Praying it will hold them. Afraid to look down. Pretending to know what they are doing for those watching them from the side of the canyon.

But because they stepped onto the bridge without a full understanding of why they need to cross and why this is the right bridge, they get scared easily and blame the bridge and the visionaries calling them.

These facts pinpoint the real innovation needed in human resources:

  • The innovation of the mindset towards HR
  • The innovation of the role of HR and;
  • The innovation of its position within the organization.

Slippery bridge

Bridges can be slippery if you’re not
sure why you’re crossing them.

To courageously add value

This threefold innovation just described requires more courage than simply asking for a budget to implement a tech solution. It is about having the courage to make a conscious choice to adopt a different way of thinking and acting to solve the problems of this changed era. 

It is the courage to question what you have been doing in order to add value for yourself, your organization and every employee. It is the courage to leave behind the safe ego focused thinking for an ecosystem thinking.

On the innovation in mindset and role, I recommend you read ‘My vision of HR for this changed era’. When it comes to the innovation in the position HR takes up within organizations, I believe the analogy with marketing is one that can be made.

Where marketing about a decade ago was regarded as ‘those people doing fun stuff but cost a lot of money for no real return’, the adagio nowadays is that everybody within the company is a marketer.

Marketing became of real added value by putting customers rather than products or services at the center of what they do. For this, it has found strong allies in technology and data.

The same holds true for HR. Its customers are however not only the company’s talent (employees and candidates), but also its organizational leaders, the organization as a whole and the stakeholders of everyone involved (family, friends, peers).

To reach all of them, HR needs to leave its island and become a common denominator, something to which everybody contributes because everybody is involved.

There is, unfortunately, no magic formula to make this change happen.

The driver and best approach to get this innovation going depend on the main HR-related issues that exist within a given organization, and on the mindset of its HR professionals, its management, and its employees.

How to get started with innovation in Human Resources

To discover how you can make your first steps towards the HR innovation your organization needs, I encourage you to bring together a couple of courageous, open-minded colleagues and dive into these three questions:

1. What are the biggest HR-related hurdles for the company and why?

Subquestions:

  • Which ones are internal and which ones are external?
  • How are you currently dealing with these hurdles?
  • Who are the stakeholders/ the parties involved?

2. Why are these hurdles such an issue?

Subquestions:

  • What’s the root cause for this issue (think 5 Whys)?
  • In an ideal situation, what should be different from the current situation?
  • What’s specific about this issue for your organization?

3. What are at least three innovative ways to tackle this issue?

Subquestions:

  • How can you frame the issue differently?
  • Who do you need to tackle the issue?
  • What arguments will convince these people to help you?
  • What are the three first steps to tackle an issue? (think small steps!)
  • Which obstacles do you expect for these steps and how can you get them out of the way?

Working on these questions together with a group of committed colleagues will provide you with valuable insights. By translating these insights into small steps, you can really start the much-needed innovation for this changed era within your organization.

Keep in mind, however, that these steps will be no walk in the park. You will have great moments and moments of failure. You will be applauded and criticized. But if you persevere, you can pride yourself in making a real difference for yourself, your colleagues and leadership, and for your organization.

I wish you lots of courage, perseverance, and success.

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