Technology, analytics, data, life – start from the beginning

I’ve just got back from the HRTechFest in Washington. Last time I went to one of these, I wrote this about Technology being HR’s biggest asset. I still think it is – so take a look.

This time, I was struck this time about the commonality of a lot of the themes that people were talking about inside and outside of the sessions. I heard a lot about:

Transparency – the increasing expectation from employees that they can see the workings of an organisation beyond their own personal experience. Whether that is of compensation, decision-making structures, or promotion opportunities – to name but a few.
Customisation – no single person is the same and we therefore need to create employee experiences that recognise the different choices that individual employees will want to take at different stages of their lives and careers.
Experimentation – we need to be more comfortable with being less perfect and in trying things out to see how and if they work. Whether it is data, technology or traditional interventions, we need to love and embrace the pilot.
Analysis – data, data everywhere….and we need to start using it sensibly. Almost every presentation or conversation I had talked about the data underpinning decisions, but used it in a practical and sensible way – not for show, but for real, purposeful thinking.

But the biggest thing that I realised was that the companies talking about this were drawn from right across the board. The likes of Twitter and Hulu and Google and Hootsuite were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barclays, Cimpress, NBC and health and education providers.

The challenges and themes were the same, but the routes to the mountains were different. And I think this is a factor that we sometimes overlook. If you want to develop transparency of compensation, then you’re going to take a different route in a company which has been in existence for less than 10 years and has a couple of hundred of employee to one that has thousands of employees and a lot with a length of tenure two or three times longer than the other company.

Our skill is in understanding our organisational starting place and identifying the path to take. That’s a significant part of what we bring to the table. Sometimes change is fast, sometimes change is slow. Sometimes things aren’t achievable right now because a whole load of other things need to be done first. And that’s ok.

We all need to aspire to be better, we all want our organisations to change and develop, to create better working environments for our employees and better workplaces for society. To do that we need to constantly take a step forward from the place that we started. Recognising the challenge is as important as recognising the goal. That way, we make long-term sustainable change. The sort that really, really makes a difference.

You can’t systemise creativity

I saw a quote last week that appealed to me. John Sumser from the excellent HR Examiner was reporting what must be the overheard line of the week,

“…if we knew what we were doing, this wouldn’t be cutting edge….”

It made me smile because within one short sentence you have a pretty good summing up of the entire creativity/innovation/experimentation experience.  It is a little bit messy and often uncertain. It can feel directionless, purposeless and baffling to others around.

It also reminded me of a personal experience years ago when I was presenting to a board on a new initiative that I believed would be both ground breaking and commercially beneficial to the company. Finishing my presentation full of youthful exuberance and positivity, I was met with a simple question, “what are our competitors doing?”

Sadly, the reason for asking wasn’t to seek competitive advantage, but as means to explain that if no-one else was doing it, it probably wasn’t worthwhile and my answer that, “shouldn’t we want them to be asking that of us?” fell on deaf ears.

An therein lies the problem with innovation and creativity in many organisations. We value certainty, data, facts and benchmarking, yet we talk about innovation, entrepreneurialism and creativity. One is solid, robust, measured and definite. The other can often feel like the crazy.

Creating organisational cultures that allow genuine experimentation and innovation is hard. We are drawn to put boundaries around it and to try to “organise” it or “systemise” it, because that is or comfort zone. Despite implicitly knowing that these are the kryptonite to the very things we want to encourage.

If we want to go to places that no-one else has been, then by definition we will never be entirely certain of the outcome. We can have hypotheses, we can test and measure those, but we need to live with a level of uncertainty and ambiguity.

My worry, is that in a world where we are increasingly looking at data to define every decision, we forget that sometimes you need to combine insight and intuition. That there needs to be a place for creative thinking, brave decision-making and seemingly impossible futures.

It is absolutely right to measure the problem, but sometimes we need to dream the solution.

It doesn’t matter: It’s just HR

When we spend time talking about ourselves, it is time lost talking about the things that matter to our employees, to our leaders and to our organisations.

  • it doesn’t matter where we report, or who reports to us
  • it doesn’t matter what we’re called, or what we’re not
  • it doesn’t matter which part of us are in, or which parts are out

Our obsession with the inconsequential is time we lose from talking about the challenges of the economy, the dilemma of organisational productivity, the challenges of wellbeing and grasping the individual business opportunities that exist.

Employees don’t care whether we are Personnel, HR, People, Talent or bananas. They really don’t. They have zero interest in whether L&D or recruitment are part of HR or not. And whether you’re a manager, advisor, business partner or officer, just doesn’t enter their heads.

There is zero value added through any of these debates or activities. And moreover, the internal focus represents a dangerous tendency to ignore or fail to understand the value drivers within the organisation.

Next time you find yourself talking about yourselves, try to define the value that will be added through the discussion and any resultant change. Try to think about the various stakeholder groups that you have and the evidence that supports there is any kind of problem.

And if you can’t find a compelling reason, a compelling argument or compelling evidence? Then stop wasting everyone’s time and remember why you’re paid and employed – to add value to others, not yourself.

It really doesn’t matter: It’s just HR.

Driving cultural change

If we’re honest, most attempts at culture change fail. We like to pretend that we’ve made small steps forward, but in reality we witness the prevailing culture continue.

The reason? Most approaches aren’t systemic, instead they focus on only some of the levers available and shy away from others. And without shifting the entire system, the almost inevitable result is that change is temporary and unsustained.

To make this point, we can look to the structure of other systems.

The first stage of learning to drive in the UK is the theory test. It teaches us all “the rules” of the system. What we should do in response to certain signals, how we should behave, what the expectations of ourselves and others should be.

Then we go and sit in a car, with a friend, family or paid instructor. In the model, we learn to apply the theoretical knowledge in to a practical environment. The reality is that in this application we start to learn how things are really done but maintain a level of congruence because of the artificial experience of “passing the test”.

And assuming that we manage to retain enough of the “right way” to get past the test and into our own wheels, we then go out in to the world and experience first hand and for real how the behaviours are applied in the system.

Do people stop at red lights?
Do they follow the speed limits?
Do people speak on phones?
How many people keep to the stopping distances?

On top of this we have the structural implementation, the speed cameras, the police, the insurance companies. What do they reward, what do they punish? What is accepted and tolerated, what is looked down upon and reprimanded.

In reality, this isn’t far from the approach of most organisations – with some form of classroom based intervention. However, when we look at the application of this back within the department and then the organisation as a whole; when we look at the structures that we put in place in terms of recruitment, promotion, reward and development – that’s where we start to see the gaps.

No system is perfect and there will always be a certain level of incongruence and imperfection – that’s because we’re human. If you drive, you’ve probably jumped a red light, broken a speed limit, looked at a text once or more. But we have an expectation that people who constantly break the rules will be dealt with and that if we generally abide by the agreed norms, then we will be ok.

The problem in most organisational change programmes is that the interventions take place outside the system – like the theory test – and expect a transference back in. But individual behaviour tends to norm to the group and group behaviours tend to be driven by the structure of the system, which we tend to neglect.

Put simply, organisations are systems. And if you want to change the culture of organisations, you need to consider the whole system. Anything short of this will almost certainly involve a lot of time, a lot of effort and resource, but ultimately end in inevitable failure.