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Getting off the HR hamster wheel - advice for turbulent times from Bersin's David Mallon

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne January 24, 2020
Bersin’s David Mallon discusses HR’s role in riding the turbulence of what could be a bumpy year in 2020.


It's only three weeks old, but already David Mallon, Chief Analyst at HR consultancy Bersin, part of Deloitte Consulting, can state of this year: 

2020 looks like it’s going to be a fairly turbulent one. Business leaders are not particularly confident right now; workforces are not particularly confident right now.

That’s the reality organizations are facing this year. CEO confidence is at its lowest levels for a decade, while millennials are worried about their ability to achieve their ambitions at work, observes Mallon. That’s set against a backdrop of concerns about climate change, a possible economic slowdown, the US election in November and the UK formally leaving the European Union next week:

Simultaneously, in most regions of the world businesses are finding it hard to find people, employment is relatively low in most places, yet struggling to keep the talent they need and reward them in the right way. It just strikes us that this is a year in which the HR function is asked to do more with less.

Again? HR is no stranger to the idea of doing more with less, but Mallon believes the problems facing those in the role are getting harder. The best HR departments will need to do more than just ride the turbulence, but steer their organizations through it, says Mallon. In other words, make a problem into an opportunity: 

You could look at the tea leaves, as it were, and have reason to be depressed by them, but we see a lot of evidence that the HR function can be a force for good at a moment like this.

To be this “force for good” it’s essential HR personnel identify the things that really matter to the business and focus on getting those right rather than try and spread themselves too thin, says Mallon:

As we connected the dots across all the different research, it struck us this is a year where HR should step back and be much, much clearer about what it should be doing and exactly where it should be putting its time and energies.

The first and best thing you can do is get a sense of clarity. What is your organization’s purpose and how do you as an HR function play in that how do you help your organization reinvent work itself with a human focus?

Letting go is good 

This means having the courage to let go of some of the processes, traditions and work practices that are ingrained in the HR psyche and instead adopt new ways of working. Not an easy ask, admits Mallon:

Focus is hard and it asks us to let go of some things we consider sacred or tried and true.

While these areas of focus will of course differ between organizations, Mallon is confident that data and analytics are likely to play a major role in most firms. For example, data and analytics are challenging traditional notions of learning and development. Companies are using new tools to decide how to nudge managers to behave in different ways or tackle bias in the organization, notes Mallon, rather than have them attend a workshop:

Maybe we don’t need two-day workshops any more. What we really need is better use of data and to nudge our managers, on a day-to-day basis, to see their role differently and make different decisions.

Another possible area of focus for HR is psychometrics. While psychometrics is not a new concept - it’s long been a tool for retailers to assess possible recruits - Mallon contends that there are opportunities for HR to expand its usage to match talent to potential needs and to predict the success of employees. But what this boils down to, yet again, is how comfortable HR is with data and how to use it.

Skills should be a key area that requires a fresh approach. HR traditionally focuses on the skills and competencies needed for their organizations and how to reskill or upskill people to meet market changes. While that’s useful, there’s a problem with focusing too much on skills, maintains Mallon:

[Skills] are fundamentally context-dependent and timebound. That’s why they are constantly expiring as technology changes, products change, the world changes. I could train you in one skill and we know that in short order, possibly in the next six months, but certainly in the next six years, that will expire.

Our worry is that if that’s all we’re focused on, it’s like a hamster wheel that you can never get off of and just gets faster and faster and faster.

Instead of skills, companies need to look at human capabilities, such as empathy, creativity, analytical reasoning, storytelling and resilience - things that artificial intelligence has been unable to duplicate yet. They have a benefit because they are timeless and they are not context-dependent, according to Mallon:

Some organizations are beginning to realize that separate from any skilling efforts they can cultivate these and they are a way to future-proof.

One global retailer, notes Mallon, uses virtual reality to put its employees in difficult or anxiety-provoking situations as if they were customers. The purpose is not to teach customer service skills, its one and only aim is to help them develop a sense of empathy. Whether it’s empathy, resilience, growth mindset, Mallon asserts that:

There are muscles there that can be strengthened over time by giving people chances to practice them and to grow them that are independent of particular scenarios or skills.

Peering at the tea leaves further to the next 10 years, Mallon points to two possible trends that will become more prevalent.

One is how AI, machine learning, data and analytics will augment humans, not by doing things for us, but by helping to build faster or see things faster. Sat nav is an example of how this has already become embedded in our daily routines, but there will be many more areas of our lives where this will happen, he suggests.

The other shift is that the HR function itself may change greatly.  Organizations are always going to need people expertise: experts at changing human behavior, identifying skills needed and then sourcing and supplying them, plus the rules and regulations of compensation and labor. But, Mallon contends:

Ten years from now, is that going to sit in a traditional HR function or is that increasingly becoming so much about how much the organization operates that the lines are blurred between what’s human resources and what’s operations?

So a team leader would figure out what types of people they need for their team, whether they will come from internal or external sources and how to make them successful or reward them. All these things HR has traditionally done as a parallel or on the side just become so intertwined that individual team leaders may not consciously recognize that specialists are helping with all of this because it’s so interwoven.

So, HR is still there, but the lines between where it starts and stops will be blurred. And it goes further than the idea of the last decade of HR getting closer to the business, says Mallon:

It’s not so much HR coming to the business, as the business absorbing it.

My take

Sometimes it's important to stand back and take stock. Now would be a good time to do that. It’s not a case of investing heavily in new technology, but of looking at the way things have been done and questioning whether that is actually the best way to do it. If 2020 is to be a turbulent year, then, as the cliche advises, let's not waste a good crisis. 

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