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3 Ways to Make HR More Agile

A question on the minds of many heads of human resources these days, including members of i4cp’s Chief HR Officer Board, is how HR can move more quickly to respond to the ever-changing needs of the organization.

It’s obvious that we are experiencing unprecedented waves of change and will continue to into the future. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes in his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late,” that we are living in an “age of acceleration,” where the pace of change in technology, markets, and nature is doubling every year.  As a result, all of our accepted truths about how society, politics, and business work are no longer relevant or useful—they have become obsolete. 

This acceleration is forcing organizations to rethink the ways they operate—from strategy, to values, to operating models, to working with customers, to how work is performed.  To keep pace with shifting business needs, HR needs to rethink the way it operates and how HR work is performed. 

Here are three suggestions for HR to consider if it is going to be more agile in the future:

Decentralize decision making. 

Today, the most common operating model for HR is a centralized “three-legged stool” consisting of:  

  • Centers of Excellence
  • Shared Services
  • HR Business Partners

This operating model is probably the most efficient way for HR to deliver its services and shouldn’t change (even though restructuring seems to be an obsessive preoccupation with many HR functions today). Unfortunately, in this “age of acceleration,” it’s probably not the most effective way to operate.

As HR has centralized it various responsibilities, it has also centralized decision making. To become more agile, HR needs to move the decisions down to where the action is—specifically, line managers and their HR business partners (HRBPs) need to be empowered to make quick decisions to ensure that they have the right people with the right skills in the right positions as business situations evolve.

Make line managers developers of talent.   

It is the line manager’s responsibility to manage the relationship with each of his or her employees. Managers are the day-to-day people each employee has interactions with; as such, the line manager is the true HR professional and should be responsible for developing their talent. i4cp’s research into high-performance organizations has found that there is positive effect on market performance when line managers are engaged in the development of their people .

The data also revealed a set of specific development activities that have the biggest payoff:

    • Conducting review of current talent utilization
    • Identifying short and long term needs based on an understanding of the business strategy
    • Working with HR to manage and identify resource needs
    • Identifying future leaders within their part of the organization 
    • Arranging for one-on-one coaching or mentoring
    • Maintaining data that can be used to inform staffing decisions for key roles
    • Identifying critical succession issues or needs
    • Accepting or releasing employees for development assignments

Once line managers are made accountable for developing their talent, it tends to change their mindset and they begin to plan for talent the same way they plan for the business responsibilities. However, excellence in being a developer of talent does not happen automatically. It needs three things to make it happen:

  • HR needs to build the capabilities of line managers  to ensure they are equipped with the skills sets they need to be effective people managers and run through the HR stuff seamlessly.
  • There has to be a way to measure how well managers are developing their talent—set objectives and to ensure that people are taking advantage of external and internal development opportunities, and, most importantly, the impact on productivity.
  • There needs to be a transparent method to reward those line managers who are excelling in the development of their direct reports (rewards do not necessarily mean money).

Strengthen the core capabilities of HRBPs. 

The objective of HR is to support the business, putting the organization and skills in place to do that, and then taking the other work away that enables HR business partners to maximize strategic impact. The role of the HRBP is to work at the strategic level: diagnosing and determining what the people needs are for the respective businesses. There are six core capabilities that today’s HRBP needs to effectively support the business:

  • Understand the business strategy by asking powerful questions. 
    i4cp's research has identified 17 powerful questions related to the impact that talent has on the business, as exemplified in our People-Profit Chain model. These questions focus on 1) the ability to execute the strategy; 2) how focused are people on the customer; 3) how agile is the culture; 4) are the right leaders and managers in place; and 5) is everyone aligned to the strategy, customer, and culture?
  • Assess talent risks across the entire talent supply chain. 
    HRBPs need to identify, assess, mitigate, monitor, and measure the impact such risks have on the business.
  • Use data and analytics.
    HRBPs need to turn data into information and hopefully tell a story.  They have to be able to provide data and coach people on how to use it to make educated decisions. Business leaders want information – they don’t want data dumps.
  • Manage projects. 
    HRBPs need to frame the central issue/problem/opportunity and how to go about engaging managers. This starts with defining the business goals and metrics that will be used to measure success. Then, determine what data will need to be collected and how to use it, present the findings to engage managers, identify the action steps needed to get started, and track, communicate, and recognize outcomes.
  • Be a coach. 
    Being a good HRBP means that they must engage managers differently. If managers are developers of talent, then the HRBPs must be able to coach them to be the best manager of people that they can be.
  • Build credibility.
    HRBPs need to design clear and well thought out HR strategies and systems that directly support managers to align and engage talent.

Jay Jamrog is a futurist, and co-founder of the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).

Jay Jamrog
Jay is a futurist and has devoted the past 25 years to identifying and analyzing the major issues and trends affecting the management of people in organizations.