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In 2017 vanity improvements may not be enough

Whilst I firmly believe the human race is in the midst of an era of tumultuous change due to a variety of macro factors (primarily technology-based), this year I’m hoping to lower my hyperbole and be less of a ‘Hashtag’ Future of Work bore and focus more on the fact that 2017 will feel a lot like 2016 for the world of work and for most of us in it. However, before people start getting too comfortable with that from a change fatigue(a word that should be banned) perspective, there is the small task of a new generation of HR people (or those who’ve caught the memo about people-centric organisations) as a whole putting to bed once and for all the baseless, overly-complicated, alienating, unproductive guff a previous generation of mainstream HR / business people have left in their wake.

Organisational guff in the shape of annual performance reviews, biannual employee opinion surveys and stacked ranking are well publicised but just for those vendors trying to understand the dysfunctional outcomes of the annual HR ‘planning’ process, I’ll give you an insight into too many groundhog days which went as follows :

  • HRD sends off direct reports to compile a wishlist from within their own organisational silo.

  • HRD typically always had a pet subject area – it was usually loosely framed Organisation Development, which meant convincing the CEO to send some of their peers on a coaching intervention.

  • The wishlists were underpinned by little or no science or data whatsoever.

  • The CEO and the wider business received this output with a mixture of abject boredom or incredulity, dumbing it down to soundbites and always insisted on creating ‘big bets’ to help shoehorn a level of predictability.

  • Like annual planning garnish, D&I was usually brought in as an afterthought, late in the process.

In short, through a lack of care and interest, recruitment remained distressed, training irrelevant and untargeted and the ER function picked up the redundancy tab at the end of the year to balance the books. Like a 1970s sitcom, we have to consign this nonsense to the history books with a mixture of shame and bemusement.

However, in fixing this way of working, one concern I have on the horizon is that we are currently focusing a lot of our energy on too many outdated point solutions to problems that are merely symptoms of big, systemic hangovers from an old narrative of organisational command and control. Whilst I appreciate this is seductive from a sheer scale perspective, the underlying problem is caused by three factors:

1. HR Technology solutions have proliferated on the back of decreasing SaaS costs, improved tech investor appetite and the enormously embarrassing 1st generation HR enterprise software stack that repels all available millennial talent.

2. HR has never been an innovative function, hardwired as the department historically employed to repel the potential evil of (mostly) men for as long as its existence. That means the innovation emerging around our profession is largely on the back of HR tech vendor vision. And this means the debate gets focused on a point solution that is often narrow and sometimes purely features-based – e.g how to get more employee feedback or automating the on-boarding process. Too often, the HR investment decisions each year are focused on what part of the employee lifecycle should they upgrade using the ever-increasing HR Tech catalogue.

3. Finally the HR leadership, as well as the board, has to change its established mindset on driving change into the business in a way that helps it stay relevant. From being at the top table to comfortably driving the centre of the organisational network to truly seeing people as a differentiator to underpinning a level of data science into the last gut-based business function on the planet are all big asks.

So in 2017 somewhere in the toolbox has to be a more root and branch review of the organisation, looking at it through lenses that have never been used before in some instances – strategic workforce planning, design thinking, employee experience, impact of automation, talent economics, etc. Only then should joining the dots with the point solutions make sense, and then enjoy the plethora of HR Technology enablers to create a more productive and worthwhile agenda for 'all' parts of the HR family to get stuck into.

Until next time HR. Be curious, committed and courageous. If not, someone else will.

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