Monday, December 3, 2018

Hey, HR: Ready to Design the Future of Work?


Over the last decade, HR has done an impressive job re-inventing itself as the strategic owner of the 'people agenda.'  However, in order to navigate the next wave of technology advancement, they’ll need to again rethink why they exist and how they serve the business.

(As will everyone else.)

With so much speculation about the future of work and employee experience, what is the most critical skill needed by HR to stay relevant as new technologies replace some of the more traditional - and transactional - HR tasks?

I see two areas that stand out as genuine opportunities for HR to create business value, both of which require a new breed of HR professional:
  1. Holistic people agenda – Given the increasing trend toward temporary and outsourced roles (check out my guest post at Hacking HR What Companies Need to Thrive in the Gig Economy), it's time for HR to define a people agenda that includes both employees and contractors.  In my blog post Is HR Ready to be GIGantic? I outlined some of the key areas HR will need to consider. 
  2. Work experience design – With process design skills and a fresh mandate from the business to drive employee experience, HR is ideally positioned to take a critical look at work: who does it, how it gets done, and where the process or organizational blocks are that slow progress,
The workplace of tomorrow needs people with exceptional coaching and listening skills who understand the fundamentals of design thinking and effective work design.  To do what, you ask?  To design a better work experience.

Consider the following example: A marketing organization delivers global campaigns across several teams.  The campaign strategy team comes up with the campaign story, the content team creates the supporting assets, the digital demand team sets up the email campaigns, tracking codes and marketing automation, the field teams localize, and whoever’s responsible for social media creates some social promotions.

On paper it looks fairly straightforward, but if you were to dig a bit deeper – and actually talk to people about how the process works - you might be surprised.  




You might discover, for example, that the only person who understands how the marketing automation tool works has been sick for two weeks.  Or that the person who sets up the campaign trackers is chronically late because she can’t keep up with the volume of requests.  Or that the local teams don't know about the global campaign and have already spent their budget.  Or that the creative team is tired of the field teams pretending they don't know about the global campaign.  Or that there’s zero quality control in place for the social media posts. Or that… you get the idea.

The point is, poorly defined work processes and organizations that ignore bottlenecks create a permanent sense of low-grade frustration and futility.  The thing is, you won’t hear about it in any operational meeting.  Unless you actually talk to people and listen to their feedback and ideas, you will be unable to help them to find workable solutions.  

In other words, you won't be part of the solution.

Another example: The business has implemented a project management solution as part of its overall digital transformation agenda.  Everyone assumes it’s working fine but if you dig a bit deeper you might discover that using the tool creates extra work because it doesn’t do what the project leads need, so they end up double reporting.  Or you might discover that the extra work still doesn’t deliver the information needed to identify bottlenecks and inform capacity planning.

Perhaps people despise the new tool because it has to be used outside the flow of work, i.e. it creates an interruption with non-value adding extra work. Or people may love it… but how will you know unless you take the time to find out?

Once companies have invested in new solutions, they are verrrrry reluctant to scratch below the surface because of the risk it turns out to be a mistake.  It’s understandable and very human but unless you do exactly that you will miss most of what’s really going on, putting the success of your digital transformation projects - and your business - at risk.

Where most companies fall short on design thinking is skimping on testing, iteration and improvement.  In the example above with the project management software, the implementation team may have asked employees for their feedback early in the process but then didn’t use the feedback to improve the implementation.  Or perhaps they focused on change management rather than proper testing and iteration.

In other words, instead of ensuring the new tool adds value to the people doing the work, they made the people who do the work add value to the tool.   

Too often, companies and teams roll out new tools, organizations and processes without doing proper testing and iteration.  Then they move onto the next thing without verifying success or opportunities to improve.

Design thinking helps you design valuable solutions and processes that add value for the people using them.  If HR can master design thinking they will be well suited to step up and help fix work.


Design Thinking is a discipline that creates value through continuous ideation and iteration, and there have been some excellent articles written for HR, for example by Enrique Rubio (Reinventing the Future of HR with Design Thinking and Agility) and Karen Jaw-Madson (Work Experience Design).  

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