Can Agile and HR cohabit?

Today, agility is presented as a remedy to all the ills of our organizations. But this approach based on dialogue between stakeholders, the pre-eminence of the goal over processes and ultimately the ability to adapt permanently to a changing environment, can it work for activities subject to many constraints, including regulatory and whose goal is to preserve a form of stability. Like HR for example.

This is the subject of a very interesting white paper published in 2019 by the firm Julhiet-Sterwen, called “Agility: the new weapon of the CHRO” and which has not aged a bit. Better yet, it is even more relevant in the current context.

Agile? What are we talking about?

For many people agility is “a thing for people who do IT“. Not wrong, at least at the beginning. Because if it is through developers that agility entered organizations, it is now spreading on a large scale in all functions, sometimes leading to a profound rethinking of their operating methods.

To put it the way I see it, agility is a set of principles that give the possibility to reorient and reinvent oneself permanently, as opposed to a model that favors stability over time.

So yes, I know that the notion of stability over time is reassuring, but it is no longer realistic in today’s world, where 6 months is already a long time, and if you wait 2 years to deliver a major project, there is every chance that you will end up with the right solution… to a problem that has already mutated, evolved, which makes the solution de facto outdated.

Or to put it another way, it’s like aiming at a target with a bow and arrow. If the target doesn’t move everything is fine, if the target moves quickly and frequently it is better to adapt an agile approach.

In short, we are in a “VUCA” world and the methods that allowed us to succeed in a stable and predictable world show their limits.

HR and Agile: incompatible by nature

If more and more people say “a totally agile company, why not?” a certain skepticism exists about the relevance of agile for the HR function.

Indeed, the HR function is by nature constrained by a certain number of “historical” and legal responsibilities, and its mission is to provide a framework and stability over time by reducing the risk of error and exposure to risk in general. This is a far cry from the notion of a self-organized team or the primacy of the individual and the need over the process.

One could even say that the purpose of the HR function, in part, is to protect the company from external factors and even from its own employees, whereas agility aims to adapt to internal variations by trusting employees.

But do we really have a choice? If the instability and speed of change of the external environment is a given, we can no longer continue to implement models designed for a stable and predictable world in a world that is no longer and will no longer be stable. Unless we lie to ourselves.

The challenge for HR is no longer to try to protect the past and act as if the world were as they would like it to be, but to exist in the present in a world that is what it is. To be seen as a brake on change, to be the function that prevents the company from adapting to the demands of its time or to provide solutions and be seen as a driver of change.

Behind the debate between “agile HR or not” is simply the question of the weight of the HR function in the company.

Agile HR = useful HR

Taking a step back, what I have learned from this white paper can be summarized in one sentence: HR has the choice between being useful to the company or being a burden. If it opts for the first solution, then agility is the way to go.

“Thus, it may be necessary to reverse priorities: these processes should serve value creation, not weigh on it.”

You can’t have heavy HR in a company where all functions want to become more adaptable and fast. To serve an organization that is becoming increasingly agile, HR must therefore start by becoming agile itself.

What is an agile HRD?

Before changing the way it serves the company, the HR function must already make its own revolution and start by changing the vision it has of its role, its mission and its context.

And to begin with, she will have to manage a paradox: to make an increasingly regulated world cohabit with an imperative for speed and simplification within the company. It is up to her to “digest” the one to make it simpler for the others.

This reminds me, about ten years ago, of a meeting I attended with the CEO of a large group who was addressing some members of his Executive Committee because he felt that a project that was close to his heart (we were talking about collaboration and digital work environment) was not going fast enough.

I’ll always remember his words, which were something like “I don’t pay brilliant people to tell me that things are complicated or impossible, but to make them possible. To know that it’s complicated, I only have to hire interns, and I’m sure they would be more daring“.

Well, that’s where some functions, including HR, are at: having to keep pace with changes in society, customers, and markets by making possible or even simple what is at first sight impossible or complicated.

The white paper is not, as is sometimes the case, just a collection of good ideas and inapplicable theories. It goes into detail about the missions of the HR function, provides concrete examples and supports them with company case studies.

As far as the foundations of an agile HR function are concerned, it identifies: the cohabitation of agility and regulation, openness to the business functions, the rethinking of key processes (appraisals, weighing of positions), transparency of remuneration, flexibility of the HRIS and local communication.

Can elephants dance?

The white paper also discusses the impact of agility on certain pillars of the HR/Management function, the kind of topics that are so complex or sensitive that they are carefully sheltered from change so that even when everything changes, they don’t change.

Lou Gerstner wrote “Who said elephants can’t dance ?” to tell the story of how he had transformed a sleeping IBM, almost nureaucratized and in the hands of local baronies, into a company that was once again innovative, efficient and close to its customers. The shift from a technology company to a service company. Here we are not talking about changing everything in the company (although) but the observation and the challenge to be taken up present a certain number of similarities.

To begin with, the white paper deals with the inevitable Predictive management of jobs and skills, whose cumbersomeness and formalism mean that months can go by between the moment when the business decides on a strategy and the moment when it is implemented on the field in terms of skills. The shift to Strategic Workforce Planning must contribute to making it a tool focused on skills and not on jobs, and at the service of employees and managers instead of serving only a legal obligation.

Next comes the issue of individualizing employee management. From the candidate experience, linked to HR marketing, to appraisals and career management, everything must be reviewed from the point of view of the employee’s needs and no longer from that of the process. Here again, 3 trends are emerging: individualization, pace and proximity. Like the customer, the employee is a “one-person market” and we will have to get used to it.

Next topic: training. Here again, it’s all about starting from the employee’s needs and making training more granular, easy to “consume” and making the employee more of an owner of his or her career path.

Then the organization of work with reflections on what is common today to call flexible work, particularly in terms of location and time.

One cannot talk about the organization of work without talking about management, which is the next topic. The white paper tries to summarize some of the topics that are all the more in vogue since the health crisis (which had not taken place at the time the book was written) has clearly pointed out the weaknesses of current management models in a remote work context. Knowing how to give autonomy, how to trust, how to rely on individuals and not on processes, how to distinguish the team leader from the expertise leader…nothing new but a way to put known subjects in perspective with an approach that we can hope will make change (finally) possible.

And finally, we couldn’t avoid a section on dialogue with unions, which would benefit from being more transparent and collaborative…a point on which I don’t feel the authors are very optimistic.


I’ve only skimmed the white paper here to provide a quick overview and of course I encourage you to download it to get into a level of detail that I couldn’t cover here.

There is basically nothing new in the diagnosis of the situation, the subjects addressed and the proposed paths. Some may make discoveries, but whether we believe in them or not, whether we find certain proposals unrealistic or not, these are things that we have read and reread many times over the years if not more.

What is interesting, however, is that all these topics are put into perspective with regard to a single guideline. What is sometimes seen as a bunch of heterogeneous ideas about the future of HR and work gains a lot of coherence because they appear as the declension of a single principle in different HR domains.

This is a real value that I find in it. I’ve been thinking a lot myself about how to draw inspiration from agility at all levels of an organization, and I’ve seen things that I wouldn’t have spontaneously linked to the subject, but which finally find their place in it.

The second quality is that it does not fall into the category of fundamentalist or theoretical agility. Yes, the white paper begins with a reminder of what agility is and what its principles are. This was necessary. But then it turns out to be very pragmatic by taking agility for what it is: a philosophy and principles and in no way a straightjacket of rules. This allows you to take ownership of it and build your vision, to determine an approach that is reasonably applicable in a given context and, overall, to be creative in the solutions while having a course to follow. The fundamentalists may grind their teeth but I see this as a positive point.

Everything is accompanied by numerous cases and company interviews.

So this brings the subject down to a single point: can a function as central as HR, with all its responsibilities, the impact it can and must have on the company, but also all the weight that weighs on it, live in a bubble disconnected from the major trends of the market and society?

If the answer is no, then you can consider agility as a solution and this white paper will inspire you to apply it to HR but also to areas where HR impacts business and operations.

Enjoy your reading!

Image : Agile by Pixel-Shot via Shutterstock

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

Recent posts