Human Capital Practices: Towards a "Symbiotic Co-Evolution" with the Business

Human Capital Practices: Towards a “Symbiotic Co-Evolution" with the Business

Vijayan Munusamy & Michael Jenkins

Senior Researcher & Chief Executive Officer

In the previous article, we questioned why our human capital practices should be proceeding “as usual”. One of the reasons why human capital practices maintain the status quo is because they are often treated as a supporting function separate from the business and they are not seen as part of business evolution. 

Human capital practices, processes and procedures are manifestations of the business environment. They become common or mainstream when they work well addressing the needs of the situation. HR Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are an excellent example of how practices are coded and become institutionalised. But herein lies the problem.

According to Blackmore (2004), one of the major weaknesses of a contemporary Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is that it is static. In other words, SOPs are like a photograph – a ‘snap-shot’ at any given time of a dynamic and continually evolving process. By contrast, a process is dynamic, due to two main factors:

1. The know-how contribution of the employees in the process is continually changing.

2. The organisation is continually forced to adapt its business goals as a result of technological, socio-economic and ecological changes in the internal and external environment.[ii]

Theoretically, when the business environment itself changes, human capital practices should follow, and SOPs should be updated. But in reality, this does not always happen -  even though the business case for continuing with the practice has long disappeared. “We have always done it that way” is a usual and casual, maybe even lazy, excuse. As with any field, a new paradigm takes time to become a mainstream paradigm, and HR paradigms are no different. They need to co-evolve with the business and have a symbiotic relationship.

“A classic example of symbiotic co-evolution is the acacia tree and the pseudomyrmex ant species. Ants need acacias for nectar and shelter. Acacias depend on the ants stinging to protect them from herbivores. Over time, the acacia has evolved to make it easy for the ants to hollow out thorns for shelter and to have access to its flowers. Similarly, the ants have evolved into a shape that makes it easier to enter the acacia flower. Together, the species are better off than they would be if they didn’t collaborate.”[i]

We have identified three drivers that may accelerate or push the adoption of the “symbiotic co-evolution” paradigm.

Driver 1: The current business environment is not about modest, pedestrian change. It's about rapid and sometimes drastic change.

To some extent, current human capital practices are buttressed to handle changes in the business environment through continuous incremental changes. They have evolved and have come a long way. The problem is that many human capital practices were neither designed for a rapidly changing environment, nor do they have the inherent ability to change themselves quickly. The business case for introducing practices that can address both of these needs (rapid change plus ability to change) will only increase in the future.

Let’s take as an example; the “exit” interview. Can this “exit” be reframed as a “transit” - especially for potential returnees? In the current era of “boomerang employees,” adopting the concept of a “transit” interview rather than an “exit” interview offers up an answer that both employees and employers could find appealing. In the current era of "boomerang employees", adopting the concept of a "transit" interview rather than an "exit" interview offers an answer that both employees and employers could find appealing.

Driver 2: Rapid experimentation is the key to survival in a rapidly changing environment.

Start-up companies are already embracing the practice of experimentation (e.g prototyping), and they seem to be getting results. Given their success, such businesses have a potentially pivotal role to play in redefining human capital practices. One could argue that they can afford to be different because they are just starting up. But the fact is, many HR practices are not tied to economies of scale, type of industry or size of the organisation. Just take the example of how organisations roll-out new human capital initiatives - rather than treating them as a “final”, “take-it-or-leave-it” products, they could be launched as good enough “beta” versions.

Driver 3: HR Technology is an enabler for dynamically evolving practices.

Survey and feedback technologies represent a good example of how to deal with “paralysis by analysis,” as they allow HR to get feedback almost instantaneously, enabling HR to fine-tune its practices. Hence, it is not about having more resources in order to be dynamic but rather more about leveraging new technologies. There are many examples, but perhaps the annual ritual of the employee opinion survey is worth revisiting for its usefulness. Too many questions, low responses, too long a period required for the analysis and too late putting the results into action may sound familiar to many readers (Schwantes, 2016).[iii] Fortunately, with current technology, an employee opinion survey can be administered via mobile apps and done on the spot, with an overview of results flowing in quickly as well.


How to Move from a Business as Usual Environment to a Rapidly Changing One

[i] Eisenhardt K.M. and Galunic C. (2000) "Coevolving: at last, a way to make synergies work", Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb.

[ii] Blackmore, A. (2004). "The Myth of the SOP," The Quality Assurance Journal, Volume 8 (1) p.3–12

Back to top