Leader.co.za - Management, Training and Career Advice for Business Leaders

29 JUNE 2019
The changing business of people

by Rita Gunther Mcgrath: Associate professor at Columbia Business School.

HR has always wanted a seat at the table. That day may finally be here. Be careful what you wish for!

HR used to be pretty straightforward. People “ended up” in HR after starting in other careers, which I’ve always thought was a bit of an oddity — I never heard anyone say they “fell” into engineering or the law, for instance. As to what people in HR did, there was also a fairly well understood set of topics. There was lobbying for investment in employee development, design of educational programmes, and concerns with employee engagement and retention.

HR also had the less pleasant tasks of compliance, handling complaints, dealing with firings, and sorting out bad behaviour in the workplace. Today, though, the issues HR leaders are being tasked with are core to an organisation’s ability to compete. Wittingly or not, public attention is focused in a big way on topics that fall squarely into HR’s wheelhouse. Discrimination, toxic work cultures, and harassment in the post #MeToo era have executives turning to HR for guidance. The diversity agenda, calls for equal pay and better pay, greater protections for workers, and increasing employee activism are likewise making headlines at many companies. All of this is making the task of attracting - and retaining - talent more complex than it once was.

In the last few decades, corporations have taught people that they are not loyal - and employees are returning the favour! Instead of moving ”up” in classic career progress, people now sign up for tours of duty. With talent increasingly a driver of competitive advantage, executives are looking to HR to create a context in which the best people want to come, and want to stay, with an organisation. And it can’t just be window-dressing. Social media and specialised sites like Glassdoor make it easy for unhappy or disgruntled employees to share their feelings near and far.

A major implication is that just as marketers and designers need to be thinking of the customer experience, someone - hopefully HR - is responsible for designing an equally compelling employee experience from onboarding (and that all important first day) through acculturation, job rotation, development, and decision making. And an employee’s environment no longer consists of standard office stuff - it also matters if they have access to good technology that works and to a working environment they’d be proud to bring their friends and family to see.

And, to add to the complexity, the “workforce” no longer consists just of employees - critical roles can be held by contractors and consultants as well. As IBM Ginni Rometty said of her CHRO, her job was to change HR from being a service organisation to being an engine of growth. Keeping all this moving is, indeed, strategic.

Diversity, this time we mean it (maybe)

Organisations that can leverage diversity outperform those that don’t. But organisations as we know them were built for the people that lived in them, still predominantly white men. Changing that means changing a whole lot of assumptions about who gets ahead. And organisations are doing a better job of getting diverse candidates in the door. The problem is that diversity without inclusion means that those hard-to-get new hires just walk out the door as fast as they are brought in. And this isn’t just about people’s racial or gender properties. It’s about real economic and technological inclusion in a context in which many find new technologies deeply threatening and are resisting change. Or people are simply cut off from opportunities to participate because they come from the wrong place and never had the chance.

Ginni Rometty, at a conference I also spoke at, laid out an agenda for making people feel included that I thought was brilliant. First, she emphasised, we need to make big investments in development to keep the people we have challenged and current (she says IBM spends half a billion annually on this).

Next, she’s spearheading a break from requiring four-year degrees, saying that we should “embrace people with less than a four-year degree.” Her CHRO analysed their own job specifications and concluded that for many jobs at IBM the requirements called for two to three times more qualifications than were necessary, shutting many otherwise capable people out of opportunity and costing IBM more for people to do those same jobs. IBM has founded and spearheaded a programme called Pathways in Technology, which blends a six-year high school education in public schools with college courses that are sufficient to earn an industry-recognized Associates degree. The program is supported by IBM and partner companies. At a time when student debt is a national crisis (comprising $1.5 Trillion) P-Tech students earn their degrees debt-free.

Finally, different ways of bringing people along, such as apprenticeships, are also high on the agenda at IBM.

Digital touches everything

HR is starting to see the use of big data and predictive analytics to open up unheard of opportunities. This is a tad uncomfortable for more traditional HR people who’ve never thought of themselves as technologists. But that’s where things are heading.

At IBM, HR is using AI to help identify employees who are at risk or disengaged and make course corrections before the inevitable occurs. In fact, according to Rometty, IBM’s AI system helps in individualized, proactive retention of people because it allows them to anticipate warning signs before people are at the point that they want to leave.

Digital technologies can also be used to instrument your organisation to pick up on early warning signs that might not become obvious for a while. An example of this is how my technology partners, Robots & Pencils, used a “weather report” in a Slack Missions integration to get real-time feedback from their people. Here’s how it works: Each week, one question is direct-messaged to a randomized group of team members with a choice of three responses. The responses could be weather metaphors (sunny, cloudy, pouring), verbal response, or whatever, depending on the question. The responses are then aggregated and shared widely with the team to form the basis for a conversation. Technology makes it easy and inexpensive to create these kinds of information flows—there really isn’t any excuse not to use them.

The bottom line? Strategic HR is here at last and here to stay.
Useful resources:

Rita Gunther McGrath
Rita McGrath works extensively with leadership teams in Global 1000 companies who wish to develop their capability to drive growth. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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