Learning to Shift Gears

I bought my first car when I was 22 years old. I remember going to the dealership and being taken aback when I realized that a manual transmission vehicle was $3,000 cheaper than the one with automatic transmission. For a 22-year-old fresh out of university with a government job who was paying rent for an apartment and taking on a car note, that $3K was a material difference. So, while I couldn’t drive a stick shift, I bought it anyway and called my brother to drive my new car home for me.

That afternoon, I asked the guy I was dating at the time to take me for a driving lesson. Let’s just say it was a ‘jerky’ experience. When we got back to my apartment, He opined that with a few more lessons, I’d be ready to take to the road on my own. So that was the plan…

However, when I woke up the next morning, it was raining heavily. There was no way that I was going to walk to work in the rain when I had a brand-new car. So I decided to brave it and drive myself to work. I stalled at almost every intersection, but the bottom-line is that I eventually made it to work safely.

Why am I sharing this story with you? Well, because – just like I did back then – HR practitioners need to learn to shift gears, and we need to learn quickly and to do so while on the job… we don’t have the luxury of having loads of time to practice before we go live.

What’s Driving the Need for a Shift?

Traditionally, HR was viewed as a support function within organisations. Then in the 1990s, David Ulrich identified the following four roles of the HR professional:

  • Strategic partner
  • Change agent
  • Employee champion
  • Administrative expert

Although many HR departments had not yet mastered all four of Ulrich’s roles, the pandemic and related developments have supercharged the need for another shift in the role and structure of HR.

Earlier this year, McKinsey published the findings emanating from interviews with interviews with more than 80 chief human resources officers (CHROs) at some of the largest organizations in the United States and Europe.[1] Based on that research and my own findings dealing with clients in both the private and public sectors here in the Caribbean, I have concluded that there are four primary shifts on which we need to focus at this time.

Shift #1 – Digitalization

In 2002, the volume of digital information storage surpassed non-digital storage for the first time. However, HR in the Caribbean has been slow to transition. The pandemic lockdown forced us to re-examine how we did business. In the context of remote work and the associated lack of access to physical files, it became imperative for both employers and employees to be able to access information. Digital records were the obvious solution to that challenge.

Digitalization is the adaptation of a system, process, etc. to be operated with the use of computers and the internet. The benefits include improved business process efficiency, consistency, and quality. Migrating conventional records into a digitised system helps to eliminate redundancies and shorten the communications chain. Further, it enhances accessibility and facilitates better information exchange for staff and external customers/clients.

All types of enterprises, from small businesses to large corporations to non-profits to government agencies, are going through a “digital transformation,” turning digitization into new processes, activities, and transactions. [Forbes] [2]

Even as pandemic-related protocols are lifted, the benefits of digitalization remain apparent. Therefore, organisations that have not yet begun the transition must shift gears if they are to remain relevant and/or competitive.

Shift #2 – From Standardized to Agile

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) help companies stay organized, operate smoothly, and ensure that employees understand how to accomplish their assigned tasks. However, in the face of a VUCA environment (i.e., one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), agility trumps standardization.

Learning and behavioural agility are core competencies for a reimagined HR function. The key to success lies in our shifting to:

  • Flexibility – willingness to try new things
  • Speed – rapidly grasping new ideas
  • Experimenting – testing out current ideas
  • Performance risk taking– taking on challenges
  • Interpersonal risk taking – asking others for help
  • Collaborating – leveraging the skills of others from different functions
  • Information gathering – increasing our knowledge
  • Feedback seeking – asking for feedback
  • Reflecting – taking time to reflect on our effectiveness[3]

Shift #3 – From Doing to Advising

Customarily, line managers defer traditional HR tasks to the folks in the HR department. The reimagined HR puts line managers in the driver’s seat by shifting responsibility for the traditional HR tasks[4] to them and adopting a more advisory role.

When HR shifts from doing to advising, we empower line managers to make decisions for processes such as recruiting and performance appraisals. This makes sense operationally and provides a framework for holding said line managers accountable for the performance of their teams. There is also the added bonus of giving HR the space and time to take more of a leadership role within the organization by being more strategic and undertaking work that adds greater value.

This particular shift could be reminiscent of my ‘jerky’ ride to work in my new car on that rainy day. However, we can mitigate the risks by drawing on Malcolm Knowles’ work on adult learning, which found that adults learn best when:

  • They understand why something is important to know or do.
  • They have the freedom to learn in their own way.
  • Learning is experiential
  • The process is positive and encouraging.[5]

Shift #4 – From Function-focused to Employee-focused

In the context of the great resignation (and the badly misnamed quiet quitting), psychological safety and employee engagement, it is imperative that HR shifts its traditional functional focus to one that is very mindful of the employee experience throughout their lifecycle with the organisation.

In a study conducted by the Hay Group, researchers analysed data from over 5 million employees across the world to make comparisons across the five different generations currently in the workforce.[6]

According to the report, “All generations cite the same attribute as the primary reason for staying at their company: having exciting and challenging work. “Following that, the second and third most important reasons they stay with their companies are “opportunities to advance” and “autonomy/freedom.”

When it comes to what people are looking for from their actual leaders (future wants and desires), there are very few differences across generations. Rather than focusing on developing “generation specific” skills, and defining people’s needs at work by gender, age, or cultural background, today’s leaders should “be able to flex and adapt leadership styles to the needs of each individual.” And that is why this fourth shift from function-focused to employee-focused is so essential.

Closing Thought

Whether you are an HR practitioner, line staff, functional manager or business executive, I put it to you that understanding the shifts required as part of the reimagination of HR will redound to your benefit. So go ahead and engage the clutch and start gearing up for the required changes.

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/reimagining-hr-insights-from-people-leaders?cid=other-eml-cls-mip-mck&hlkid=fc80cc610e6b4a59b66d0065c0129822&hctky=11266948&hdpid=98359f34-3b66-4081-bed5-49d56b6f1efd

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/gilpress/2015/12/27/a-very-short-history-of-digitization/?sh=26af0c2749ac

[3] https://www.sfh-tr.nhs.uk/media/10127/factsheet-leading-through-challenging-times.pdf

[4] For those administrative tasks that are not readily divested to line managers, consideration can be given to outsourcing them by leveraging the gig economy.

[5] https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-adult-learning-31425

[6] https://info.haygroupupdate.com/GLOBAL-PDS-Leadership-NUR-2015-12-Multi-gen-paper-GLOBAL-MKT-LANG-EN-X3Y2_.html

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.