HR and productivity : a really insoluble equation ?

As I mentioned here, expectations about HR are changing : after personnel administrative management, talent management and engagement, HR are expected to have an impact on productivity. While mentioning HR and productivity in the same sentence has always been a nonsense, things may change.

That’s what Josh Bersin predicts in his HR Technology Disruptions for 2018. And it’s hard to say he’s wrong : if people are the main productivity tool of any business, the function in charge of hiring and developing them can’t miss this point. This is also consistent with an old expectation : having HR making an impact on business. After having been specialists of “the right person for the right job” they’ll need to shift to “the right work environment for the person”. By environment I mean, at least : management, tools, processes.

HR deliver talents, processes and management waste them

As a matter effect, why hiring et developing talents if it’s to have others tying a ball and chain to them afterwards and prevent them from delivering their full potential. I often hear people complaining about HR not being able to understand the need in terms of talents but we must be honest and admit que most of times when managers say the people “delivered” by HR are not performing well they are the cause of this lack of performance.

All of this looks good and the idea that HR must finish the job and tackle everything that make people people performing at work is nice to buy. But if we want an operational and concrete approach to that we realize that it’s easier said than done.

The question is easy : how can HR boost a company’s productivity ? Answering is not easy at all.

HR and productivity : starting with oneself is a good start

By being productive on their own core activities, HR (like any support function) can help everybody save time. Businesses will always prefer to see employees spending their time doing their work done that wasting it in processes and interactions with support functions.

Some potential solutions : a better user experience on HR solutions, process simplification, offering as much “self service” (a self-service tool for the employee is better than dealing with an busy HR person that make people wait for a low added-value service and it helps HR people to refocus on high added-value tasks)

According to Bersin’s research, HR spent 41% of their time on transactional tasks, 40 on talent management, 19 on work and work environment. There’s obviously room for improvement.

It could be a good start but it’s far from being enough.

Building high performing teams

If the performance of a team was the sum of the individual performance of all its members, bringing the best people together would be enough to build teams that perform well. Experience shows that it’s wrong. The art of building project teams, often cross-functional, est much more subtle.

The contribution of HR may be significant in this field.

From hiring to helping manager building teams, the use of data has a clear potential because it will help to assemble teams where talents dont add the one to another but complete one another.

That’s always been a field where the value proposition of data has been high. But don’t get excited too fast.

I already dealt with this point in 2013 and even if significant progress has been made, I’m still a little bit sceptical.

– because businesses need to have the right data in the first place, data coming from HR systems but also business applications (project management, CRM etc) to measure the past performance of a person, or a group of people when they worked together.

– because we’ll need to find the right correlations.

– because I think we’re far from being able to relevantly use soft skills in a collective performance predictive model.

I’m a strong believer that, one day, we’ll do amazing things by mixing HR and business data but I think “Moneyball-style HR” is not for tomorrow or even the day after, most of all until we can relevantly turn soft skills into data.

What if HR get a new job ?

Reading what Bersin wrote about that I see many propositions like business processes automation (beyond HR processes), providing employees with consumer-grade work and collaboration tools.

I say yes. 100 times yes. Yes but….

As I mentioned here, it supposes that HR not only go out of their comfort zone but also of their job.

Yes work tools and user experience impact productivity. Is it the job of HR to chose them, drive their implementation ? No. It’s a matter of competences and legitimacy.

I agree 1000 times on the fact business processes should be simplified and automated. Is t HR’s job ? No.

I would like HR to take ownership of this issues and stretch their impact on the organization but I’m not in favor of living it all to them all of a sudden and, by doing so, give them a poisoned gift.

HR and productivity : it’s about HR’s leadership

So we’re back to the starting point.

If people are the key productive machine of a business, those who managed this resource until now are not equipped to accompany this resource on the road to productivity. It’s never been their job and they have neither the organization nor the vision and the skills to do it, not even to mention their legitimacy.

But can they carry this vision, this ambition ? Yes, provided those who will get things done follow them, mostly IT and BU managers. HR will have to acquire leadership on these matters to be legitimate.

So should businesses make HR a core-HR only function and build a cross-functional department with mixed skills (HR, business, IT) able to lead this transformation ? It looks like the best solution for whom wants to move fast.

HR and productivity : easier said than done

If Bersin’s idea is appealing it’s easy to see its limits. In the current configuration it works on the paper, looks nice on slides but turning it into action would would be suicidal for HR.

It raises, in fact, a deeper question : HR departments have been built for people management from an administrative point of view, the move to the talent era was and still is complicated and now they’re asked to have the approach they must have had from the start, at the crossroads of people, organization and tools. If, in this perspective, the link between HR and productivity makes sense, making it happen is everything but easy.

One can impact enterprise performance only by having control of these three dimensions so, until then, it was impossible for HR with only one in hand. Sport teams have understand for long that if the “who plays” (hiring) and the “how we play” (strategy and tactics) are managed in silos it’s not going to work. One can’t dissociate the people and the system they work in.

But doing so will require more than assigning one more mission to a HR function that’s already collapsing under the weight of its core and legacy ones. Roles must be redistributed and support functions redesigned to manage people as an asset one want to sustainably deliver on its potential.

Meanwhile, it’s funny to see, in 2018, that people have been treated like a resource but never like a productive one with the preoccupation of aligning talents, work content and organization to help them blossoming in the best context. Funny to see that talents and the context in which talents work have been managed separately. People, square boxes to put them in but no real adequacy.

A better way to see things that the simplistic idea of “HR impacting productivity”.

Photo Credit : Fotolia

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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