What are the top 3 ways HR professionals can drive business agility?

business agility

By embracing the business agility agenda, HR will create and sustain the organisation capabilities that create turbulence for its competitors instead of responding to turbulence that is created by its competitors, writes Wayne Brockbank

HR departments are occasionally accused of sponsoring flavor-of-the-month agendas. Some of these accusations may be justified. However, there is one current flavor-of-the-month agenda that HR should champion with great focus and zeal. That agenda is business agility. In the midst of today’s complex, turbulent, and uncertain business environment, organisational agility is a key to short term and sustainable success. Periods of stability may be needed but they will be increasingly short-lived,

However, it may occur that in some cases HR departments have a greater focus on stability and steady

consistency. This tendency is reflected in the occasional magazine article that characterises HR as the corporate police, the writer and enforcer of rules, the internal champion and the protector of employees from the consequences of competitive reality. Let me suggest three reasons why such reputational attributions might occur. I will conclude with what might be done to reverse some of these trends that will enable HR to be a central play in building and sustaining business agility.

Why reputational attributions might occur
First, several years ago a leading HR association ran a survey of its members asking “What are the highest values that HR should have?” Number one was harmony, that is, peaceful consistency. In the midst of competitive turbulence, peaceful harmony may be part of the problem and not part of the solution. In the midst of dynamic change, if some people are not feeling anxious or threatened, they are hiding from the necessity of personal and business agility.

“HR departments are occasionally accused of sponsoring flavor-of-the-month agendas”

Second, many HR practice areas are implemented over large populations of the organisation. It takes considerable time and effort to design and implement systemic HR practice areas such as performance measurement, rewards, basic training, and employee work rules. Once that work is done the sunk costs of quickly redoing them are financially and psychologically formidable. Thus the tendency is toward status quo stability.

Third, many HR departments are internally focused. They conceptualise employees as their target customers; their line of sight in language and logic is to the inside rather than to the outside. As we have discussed in earlier articles in Inside HR, the research from the University of Michigan is reasonably clear. HR professionals tend to know more about internal issues (e.g. HR practices, supply chain management, accounting, etc.) than external issues (customers, competitors, global financial trends, etc). And, yet, HR professionals with a primary line of sight to the outside significantly outperform HR professionals with a line of sight to the inside. It is tough to create an agile organisation without being intimately familiar with the drivers that mandate business agility.

Proactively sponsor agility
First, HR departments need to readjust their own culture. The mindset within HR will need to shift from stability, harmony and internal line of site to dynamic, tolerance for dissonance and external line of sight. This shift will need to be reflected in HR’s staffing criteria and development expectations.

Second, HR professionals will need knowledge not only about internal employee requirements but also about external competitive trends and customer requirements. However, if HR is to truly play a proactive role in creating business agility, it must fully understand the underlying social, political and economic trends that drive competitive dynamics and customer demands. By so doing, HR may then focus on creating organisation capabilities that create turbulence for its competitors instead of responding to turbulence that is created by its competitors.

“It is a great time for HR to embed in itself, the agility that it seeks to embed in the rest of its organisations”

Third, historically, HR has focused on communicating internal information through the workforce. In the future HR will help create agile organisations by infusing employees at all levels with external information. HR will become the expert purveyors of market reality throughout the company. It will be a major task for HR to embed competitive reality in the hearts and minds of all employees. It will ensure that employees continuously update their knowledge and skills to reflect the reality of market turbulence. This important HR agenda will be the foundation of business agility.

This is a great time to be an HR professional. It is a great time for HR to embed in itself, the agility that it seeks to embed in the rest of its organisations.

Action steps

  • Recognise the culture change that HR might need to undertake from stable harmony to edgy agility.
  • Deeply understand the political, social, and economic lead indicators in the competitive environment that drive the mandate for business agility.
  • Avoid being trapped by the sunk costs of the status quo; rather, be prepared to continuously undo what has already done and be prepared to create new practices that drive emerging sources of competitive advantage.
  • Rebalance the distribution of institutional information from internally based information to external information about customers, competitors and the economic reality.

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