Putting the H back at the center of HR

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At the end of october I attended the HRTech Europe conference in Amsterdam to see what was the state of the art and understand how HR were positioning themselves regarding to matters like digital transformation. If I had to sum up my takes in one sentence I’d say that it seems that the H is back in HR. As a matter of fact, and even if – like its name tells – HRTech is supposed to be a technology conference, there was a visible groundswell, evidence of a necessary and unavoidable evolution of HR – as painful as it may be. The topic was more about unleashing people than managing them as resources.

Towards the humanization of HR solutions

Before going further, let’s have a quick look at the exhibited solutions. A short walk in the exhibition hall is enough to see that a tipping point has been reached. Even if the “Social HR” or “HR 2.0” is everything but new new, most of the offer used to be about an industrial approach to HR. The purpose was to make people fit into the HR process machine and manage them in an industrial way, at scale. Besides that there was more people-centric approaches but they were not mainstream.

Today we can see two things. First, the solutions aiming at “making the machine run” are becoming more and more people centric. They try to take people’s singularity into account and don’t consider them as a job description and a list a skills. They focus more and more on engagement and, on the end user side (I mean HR users), they are more and more consumerized, using the codes, philosophy and experience of customer market services. Some are even trying to put HR processes in the hand of non-HR people, like the very original Hello Talent that allows any manager to manage, crowdsource and qualify his “candidates pool” with his network and directly engage with them. A good way to manage one’s own needs and, most of all, manage the candidate life-cycle in a relational way.

An industry expert I talked with had the same feeling : this year there was a real gap between the old and the new discourse. The point is the new one is becoming mainstream and is not locked into niche activities anymore but start to address core processes issues. There are not two worlds anymore, one dedicated to serious and old matters and the other, more engaging, dedicated to less critical ones. One can and must have social, engaging and people-centric approaches to critical HR activities.

Transformation first, digital second

Transformation was at the heart of the conference. Some called it digital, some not but it doesn’t matter : they were discussing the same thing and, before being digital, it’s a major transformation before all. Surely the best way to deliver the message to a risk averse and sometimes techno averse population.

This is coherent with my point of view : the internet is not changing the society but accelerate, strengthen and bring to a critical mass things that used to exist before. So-called “web behaviors” are not new but we used to have them at a smaller scale, in very small groups, without any mass effect or the power to trigger things at scale. That’s what internet changed : the ability to have a mass effect and trigger things at scale, forcing businesses to adapt to trends that were too weak and inaudible to impact them and be taken into account before. We used to collaborate, employees used to share their opinion on their employer, we have always prefered real time rather than later. But today it’s happening at such a scale that no one can go against.

The point is not to connect, to go digital for the sake of digital, to use technologies. It’s to face a complex world that’s continuously reinventing himself. The response lies in the human capital, technology being nothing but the lever that will help to put the response at scale.

That’s what the introductory keynote by BCG’s Yves Morieux was all about.

His point was nothing digital but the way to organize to survive and be successful in a complex world. Technology alone won’t help you. As a matter of fact – but that’s only my opinion – using the best technology to run a dysfunctional organization will only help you to do one thing : doing things wrong, faster, at scale.

As Morieux states, the answer lies in the way organizations, processes, zones of power and accountability are designed. No technology will change things but it will help you to run the right system provided it’s deployed in the right environment. The current practice that makes any external change cause a new management layer, a new process, a new dimension in the matrix and new controls is not working anymore. We must do things lighter, more simple and distribute power in a new fashion.

It’s people, not processes, that make businesses run. However, the right person in the wrong processes won’t be able to improve things. Or not enough.

In my view, the culmination of his presentation was about a matter I found essential : how performance is measured and people are evaluated.

Doing better should not be a sacrifice anymore

To be successful, businesses need new practices, most of all in terms of collaboration. And Morieux confirms what I see as the biggest barrier to any collaborative or social business approach : we won’t change behaviors without changing the way performance is measured and rewarded. Most of times things are done in a window-dressing way : that’s what I call making adoption prevail over sense. Like it or not, measurement help to make sense of the management message, it turns it into facts. Saying “collaborate” while penalizing collaborative behaviors kills the message and the vision.

As Morieux states : “today, cooperation is a sacrifice“. I suggest you read the interview he gave to Rawn Shah after his speech.

I would even go further : in the current organization, considering the way performance is measured and people are rewarded, any behavior going in the direction of the so-called transformational message carried by executives is a sacrifice. A sacrifice. Not a risk that requires courage from those who want to change things. Not a gift without anything in return. A sacrifice : you give and lose a lot in return.

Performance : when (good) judgement is better than (wrong) measurement

Back to humans, so. As we’re not capable of tracking the individual contribution to collective success, Morieux calls for common sense. If indicators are wrong, then use our judgement. If “it” can be seen so take it into account. A good manager is a person with a good judgement, not someone focused on enforcing rules and reads the meter at the end.

Organizations to rebuild, authority to redistribute, skills to make evolve. No business will change without the help of HR. That’s what I learned from Morieux.

HR is key to marketing performance

In the end organizations must transform as a response to markets. Who says market says marketing. But what the hell is marketing doing in an HR conference (except for HR Marketing of course). The answer came from Ray Wang.

This transformation has a purpose : transform business models towards new ones based on new experiences. That’s why digital matters because it allows to run these models – provided organizations are capable of. When we say experience most people think about “customer experience” but Ray Wang adds a point I’ve already advocated on this blog : there’s no customer experience without employee experience. Employee experience is a prerequisite to customer experience.

I won’t elaborate more on this matter since I have a couple of posts coming about experience but there’s a key message everyone should get “HR have a big role to play in customer experience, so in marketing”. What was true before the digital era is even more important today because there is both a promise to keep and a change to achieve.

We must “hack” organizations

What leads us to the third “big” speech of this conference : how to fix organizations and create not human-centric ones (I don’t like this word that I found misleading) but one able to make the most of people’s ability to innovate ? As a matter of fact, it’s all about innovation : continuously find new answers to new problems as well as the way to make them work.

Gary Hamel,speaker for the closing keynote, shared his point of view. To build an evolutionary advantage we must abolish bureaucracy. Behind his well known discourse  – no need to do deeper into it here – I’d like to highlight the key role of the HR function in developing new skills, hiring the right profiles, making the right job descriptions and, in fine, move to managing human resources to setting human capital free.

That’s what it’s all about. We often talk of managing and developing the human capital but -even if the developement side is key – the problem businesses face today is not to acquire a potential they don’t have. It’s to make the most of the one they do have and is hampered by the current organization. Today, the most successful businesses don’t always have the most talented people – even if they attract them over time – but are capable of making the one they have give the best of themselves.

I’ll write more about some sessions I attended, most of all on the future of workplace learning or the social enterprise but one thing is sure : the discourse is changing, the matter is moving and the large majority is curious. So let’s wait to see if things will change…or not.

On the other hand it’s important to act quickly. Transformation (digital or not) is a chance for HR. It’s all about their core fields (read here and here). But if they wait too long, the risk of being downgraded is real.

Image Credit : person emerging from the water via shutterstock

  • netjmc

    Nice post, Bertrand. Thanks for the good summary. I’m sorry I missed the confernce.