How HR can fill the accountability vacuum

There are two potential paths that HR might take in the future, and HR will stop doing many of the things it does today in both scenarios, writes Heidi Spirgi

It’s stunning to think how dramatically the way we work has changed in the past five years.

Today, employees are collaborating in real time on projects across many time zones and geographies. People are working where they want and when they want – more than half of millennials say they want to work in a different country. Companies are moving towards organisational designs centred on project-based teams, matrixed structures and flat hierarchies.

Employees seek the same level of personalised, contextual information about colleagues, customers, and their own work that they’re used to getting on LinkedIn or Amazon, and these workers expect to get the support they need to do their jobs from their personal mobile devices. Finally, employees have taken to developing their own applications to work more efficiently when the business doesn’t respond fast enough.

“Will HR make the shift from its historic mission to a mission that is relevant for the way people work today and in the future?”

These incredible changes are only possible because of new technologies – technologies that are enabling employees to communicate, collaborate, innovate, share knowledge and quantify results.

But who in the organisation is accountable for driving the change needed to support this new work paradigm? Is it IT? HR? Corporate communications? How about every individual business function and department? Few organisations have figured this out. Most businesses are struggling with either a lack of leaders stepping up to drive changes in response to emerging work models, or too many leaders stepping up, each driving their own functional and siloed initiatives. So the question is asked: what will HR’s role be in this new world?

HR has long been the keepers of:

  • policies that determine where, when and how people work and how much time they can take off
  • organisational design that determines how people come together to get work done
  • processes that set and measure organisational and individual goals and performance
  • programs to train the workforce, passing knowledge from the experienced to the less experienced in a formal way
  • processes and systems that track information about our workforce, including prior experience, performance ratings, competencies and career goals.

In this changing world, are these functions still relevant? Are they what HR should be focusing on? Will HR make the shift from its historic mission to a mission that is relevant for the way people work today and in the future?

The answer to this will define the future of HR. There are two potential paths that HR might take.

Possible future #1: expanded HR accountability
This potential future for HR includes increased accountability for workforce productivity, performance, collaboration, innovation and culture. In this future, new core HR competencies would emerge requiring strong technical, analytical and creative skills.

  • HR would replace its one-size-fits-all policy focus with a focus on building flexible work environments which support myriad work styles, individual preferences, geographies and time zones.
  • HR would replace its focus on ensuring people work the requisite hours with a focus on building technologies that actually facilitate productivity, such as collaborative workspaces and virtual team rooms.
  • HR would replace its focus on facilitating an annual performance review with a focus on deploying systems that actually increase performance and engagement, rather than just measuring it.
  • HR would replace its focus on developing training curriculum with a focus on enabling real-time, “24/7” learning.
  • HR would replace its focus on annual goal-setting with a focus on providing managers with a real-time way to monitor and quantify work.

Possible future #2: decreased HR accountability
The second potential future for HR includes diminished accountability and a narrowing of mission. In this future, there are a couple of different possible paths:

  • HR will fail to step into the current accountability vacuum for productivity, performance, collaboration and innovation and would cede enterprise leadership to other areas of the business. In this scenario, the business would drive the changes needed to support emerging work models, and HR would focus primarily on the administrative aspects of HR.
  • HR will significantly increase its technical and analytical acumen and provide the business with the tools and data to be more self-sufficient and do for itself many of the things that HR once did for the business (recruiting of talent, measurement of performance, training of staff).

In both of the above scenarios, HR will stop doing many of the things it does today. In light of these new technologies, these functions are no longer relevant for emerging work models.

4 key takeaways for HR

  1. The mission of HR as we have known it for 30+ years, is rapidly becoming obsolete as new work models emerge and become the standard.
  2. New technologies have created an entirely new work paradigm, and businesses are struggling to determine who in the organisation is accountable for driving change to address the new standards of work.
  3. HR has a prime opportunity to step into this accountability gap and redefine its mission.
  4. HR’s future might, on the other hand, be one of diminished accountability focusing primarily on workforce administration and/or enabling the business to do for itself what HR does for it today.

Heidi Spirgi is senior vice-president of the advisory practice for global technology-enabled services provider Appirio.