HR Goes Agile [Session Summary]


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The following article is a short summary of a presentation at The CHRO Virtual Summit by Anna Tavis, Clinical Associate Professor of Human Capital Management, and Academic Director HCM Program New York University.

Anna Tavis, the Academic Director of the HCM Program at New York University provided attendees at The CHRO Virtual Summit with a succinct introduction to the principles of Agile, and why HR is now facing an oncoming period of Agile transformation. Well known within software and IT project management circles, Agile was first codified as a methodology in 2001 with the creation of the Agile Manifesto. The manifesto can be presented by its four holistic principles:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Tavis describes that one of the main reasons for the development of Agile, was the move from developing hardware to developing software. As software requires a faster development cycle, the pressures on teams were quite unique, to a point where traditional hierarchies and ‘waterfall’ management approaches became simply too cumbersome and restrictive. Seeing how Agile impacted certain teams, business leaders like Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Jeff Bezos of Amazon began to take keen interest in how Agile could be implemented in other areas of the organization. As such, Agile has already to seeped into many different business functions and disciplines, from Marketing to Finance. Tavis argues that one of the reasons it’s been so readily adaptable to other parts of the business, is that Agile fundamentally puts developing the right product and creating functional teams ahead of bureaucracy and rigidity.

Before we all get carried away, it’s quite important to understand what the mechanics and theory of Agile means for HR, and not simply just the idea of ‘agility’. Tavis describes that there are four key elements of the Agile methodology; team, process, artifacts, and philosophy. Teams are relatively small, cross-functional, and self-governing. Each team has a product owner and a Scrum master, who essentially acts as a mediator and guide. Within these teams, transparency and feedback on a daily basis is essential, as is the idea of “failing fast”. Because feedback is provided during a daily meeting (known as a ‘stand-up’), any problems or bottlenecks can be resolved much quicker. During these meetings, the Scrum master will ask the team a series of three questions: what have you done, what am I doing, are there any obstacles? The overarching concept is simply to clear the road ahead each day, so that the ‘sprint’ (a project cycle of 2-4 weeks) can be productive and efficient. The beauty of the system is that it is explicitly transparent, where issues and solutions are open to input from all team members. While certain expectations and team duties still exist, Tavis suggests people who have both specialist and generalist skills tend to thrive in Agile environments, as they posses the right mix of technical and adaptive characteristics.

“It’s a different mindset, a different way of looking at the world, a different way of setting expectations”

So, how is HR doing Agile? There has been a lot of work done on developing ‘agile’ processes for HR, but not necessarily ‘Agile’ as a methodology. However, there have been some areas of HR that have already seen a revolution of sorts. The first of which is Performance Management – the canary in the coalmine. Some of the dramatic changes to PM include the acceleration of review cycles from a yearly or bi-yearly pattern, towards continuous, year-round and flexible feedback. Many organizations have implemented software to facilitate touch-points across the year, furthermore, some companies have even dropped yearly rating systems entirely. This leads towards an adaptive and personalised approach to feedback, goal setting, and rewards. On the latter, individuals can now be rewarded for delivering value based on point-in-time performance appraisals, rather than simply being rewarded for “providing the illusion of control”.

Further movement has been made in recruitment, as technologies have enabled HR to shift the focus of recruitment away from ‘filling gaps’ and ‘retention’, towards evidence-based employee experience practices that negate some short-term recruitment and retention strategies. Employee experience will become a focal point for HR, as it’s fundamentally an adaptive process that would work well within Agile’s holistic approach to interactions. Finally, Tavis describes that the idea of the ‘manager as a coach’ has become more prevalent within HR too. It’s a central requirement for Agile, and has significant structural and adaptive implications for HR. Leaders are expected to not only make the decisions, set the strategies and shape the culture, but also to be guides for their team members. Although Agile (with a capital A) has a long way to go for HR and may never be fully realised in its most stripped-down form, it’s clear a blended approach will become a big part of the profession over the next few years.

If you missed Anna’s presentation (or indeed any others), you can sign up on The CHRO Virtual Summit website for free and view it until June 30th!

The 3rd HR Congress Brussels, November 27-28 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore this topic and much more! Make sure you follow The HR Congress Blog and #HRCongress18 to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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