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HR transformation and the importance of the little "i"

There is little doubt that HR transformation is big business with many of the leading advisory firms reporting strong demand and healthy pipelines of future work. However, while we support the importance for the HR function to evolve in ensuring it delivers optimum value to the business, we see scope for improvement in the execution of such programmes.

HR change can be viewed in a classic 4 box grid with transformational / transactional across the Y axis and tactical / strategic on the X axis. Most HR change programmes are by design, transactional and tactical. Strategic and transformational is far harder, but it is your approach that will make all the difference.

Corporate Research Forum (CRF) is a network of businesses looking to develop their people strategy and organisational effectiveness. Through our work with many global businesses across a range of sectors, below are a couple of suggestions on how the HR function could improve its effectiveness in this regard.

Manage expectations
The dictionary definition of "transformation" is "a marked change in form, nature, or appearance" which implies a pre and post-transformation state. This in turn implies an end point, which simply should never be the case. Far better to mirror the work of Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership & Management from Harvard Business School who led a CRF session last year on the notion of active "teaming" [verb] rather than "team-work" [noun]. Shouldn't we refer to it as "HR transforming" rather than "HR transformation"?

A systematic approach is also required whereby clear objectives are set, analysis takes place before any action and equally clear pre-set outcomes are defined. The risk for the HR function is that it too quickly moves into "action" before "analysis".

  • Have you set clear objectives of the programme and what is the process for evaluation?
  • Is there a clear academic theory underpinning the work?
  • As HR leaders, have you communicated clearly with your audience on "transforming from what, to what and why"?
  • What are your customers' expectations of what they can do in the future that they can't do now and are these realistic?

Expert leadership
To deliver a programme over a considerable amount of time, with considerable investment takes skill, experience and training. Why is it then, too often we observe major programmes being led by the hardworking, dedicated amateur?

Stephen Carver, a senior Lecturer on project management from Cranfield University, spoke passionately at our recent International conference in Berlin about the need to place the "expert" in charge of such projects. In no other profession would we place such blind faith in amateurs, so why here? The results would be catastrophic if we enabled "volunteers" to fly commercial aircraft so why leave to chance the leadership of what is likely to be one of the most important HR programmes during your tenure?

  • Have you placed a professionally trained expert in charge of the project?
  • Have you enabled him or her to assemble the team they want to deliver the programme?
  • Are you clear on the timeframes of the programme?
  • Are you clear on the key stakeholders for the programme?

Incremental innovation
The antidote to large scale "transformation" is incremental improvement and whilst we acknowledge this many may not be as "sexy", we observe that many gains can be made here too. George Day, at the Mack Institute For Innovation Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, addressed our membership at our International conference in Athens, where he spoke about the difference between "Big I" and "little i" in innovation. "Big I" being explorative, disruptive with high risks and high rewards. "Little i" being exploitative, incremental with low risk and smaller rewards.

This notion of incremental improvement is not a new one though, with the British cycling team famously coining the phrase "marginal gains" during the London Olympics. With transformation hard to come by due to regulation, they sought out multiple areas where small gains will build together to deliver success. These included health & wellbeing, sleep, nutrition, recovery, measurement, training, equipment, psychology etc with small "marginal gains" in each resulting in 7 golds, 2 silver and 1 bronze from a possible 11 track events.

  • Have you analysed your processes to see where efficiency improvements can be made (recruitment is often a good starting point)?
  • How often do you review what you are doing, reflect and seek out improvements?
  • Is your HR team structured in the optimum manner to deliver the services you need?
  • How do you interact with the rest of the business and where can improvements be made?

While I appreciate the above will not give you an answer, I trust it has given you food for thought as you work through your existing programme or look to embark on a future one.