Human Capital Practices: Co-Evolving Through the Prism of Agility
“I have a dream of organisations that are capable of spontaneous renewal, where the drama of change is unaccompanied by the wrenching trauma of a turnaround. I dream of businesses where an electric current of innovation pulses through every activity, where the renegades always trump the reactionaries. I dream of companies that actually deserve the passion and creativity of the folks who work there, and actually elicit the very best that people have to give.”[i]
The basic premise for organisations is to be efficient with resources and for most organisations, staffing is the highest operational cost. Hence, the expectations people have of HR have always been about the efficiency of human resources. "Get me the best talent at the best price, help me to develop them with clear ROI, engage them intrinsically...but also quickly deal with my non-performers" are the subjects of everyday life for HR.
As all these demands are to do with operational efficiency, it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that HR has built up a great reputation for operational excellence. Also, as operational excellence requires high certainty, HR activities are biased towards ones where HR has high control, such as structured learning and development programmes, year-end performance reviews, and standardised work benefits, to name but a few.
Biases towards certainty or ‘business as usual’, however, come at a high cost for organisations because the nature of work, the workforce and the workplace – are all changing rapidly. These biases flip the very thing that organisations intend to achieve, namely being cost-efficient. The question is then – which capabilities does HR need to develop and succeed in terms of both operational excellence and cost efficiency - despite not having full visibility and control of variables at play in this ‘business not usual’ environment? The answer to this is agility, that is the ability to move in sync and to co-evolve with the ‘business not usual’ environment.
How to be agile?
Our synthesis highlights four approaches, and the concept of ‘agility’ resonates well with all four approaches. These approaches draw from well-established practices in the Japanese manufacturing industry (e.g. Kaizen and Just-In-Time), the global IT industry (e.g. Agile Manifesto) and Asian unicorn start-ups (e.g. Fast Adaptations). They are:
- Continuous improvement (i.e. keep improving current practices)
- Just in time delivery (i.e. on-demand delivery)
- Rapid Experimentation (i.e. trying small new things with a tight and fast feedback loop)
- Fast Localisation (i.e. “glocal”, blending local and global considerations)
Agility not only bolsters HR capability but allows agile practices to thrive in a rapidly changing environment. For example, in an environment where job mobility is high, it might make sense for HR to reframe ‘exit’ interviews as ‘transit’ interviews. This may not only raise possibilities for good employees to return but may also work well for alumni engagement (especially for organisations that do not normally re-hire former employees).
“With agility, one can face the future undaunted. Buzzwords like “digital”, “disruption”, and “transformation” may leave one unnerved, but agility enables one to adapt, come what may. We don’t have to say it is a digital change. It is a habit change. Innovations arrive, we adjust to them, and life goes on.”
-Jane Tham, Regional Director of Human Resources, Bosch ASEAN[ii]
[i] Hamel, G. & Breen, B.(2007). The future of management. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.