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It's HR team rules ahead as organizational structures tumble

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne March 22, 2016
The structure of organizations is under attack from the forces of disruption, predicts Josh Bersin. Time for some team playing.

Josh Bersin

I think this is the most disruptive time I’ve ever seen in this space.

It's not a statement that Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, makes lightly. As an observer and trend-spotter of the HR space for 15 years, Bersin has seen his fair share of change in the industry, but not on this scale.

From talent management to learning, no area of HR is immune from this, he argues.

This disruption is caused by four forces, Bersin says. First of those reasons is the influx of millennials into the workplace. While it’s become a bit of a cliché to talk about the disruptive influence of millennials, the fact is that their desire for constant feedback and transparency are changing expectations for all in the workplace.

Linked to the rise of millennial influence is the changing relationship between employers and employees, with workers wanting more a more flexible workplace, a sense of purpose and a compelling reason to work for that particular employer. That means employers have to up their game to keep staff.
Wrapped up in this too is the digital effect – the profound influence digital technologies have not only on the way we work, but the way we live. Finally, the pace of change is increasing and companies have to work harder to keep up – it’s hardly a new trend, but it is a relentless one.

The effects of these forces are already tugging hard at the foundations of traditional company structures. Bersin found it “a shocking surprise” when the analyst firm’s latest Human Capital Trends survey found the usual priorities of leadership, engagement and culture had been usurped by concern about organizational structure, with 92% of respondents rating organizational design as a top priority. This leads to one conclusion, says Bersin:

The fundamental structure of organizations is under attack.

Bersin points out that one of these structural changes is the recognition that people naturally work in teams rather than traditional hierarchical structures:

The organization chart you all have, the jobs titles… do not represent the way companies work. They don’t work that way. …we’ve completely shifted to a network of teams.

We naturally work in teams (formally set up or otherwise). Human beings naturally bond in small groups, but most organizations are not set up to foster this team-based approach.  But those clinging to the old hierarchical style organizational charts are behind the times. Bersin adds:

Your relationship with people at work drops by an order of magnitude with people that are more than 50ft away from you. After 150ft you talk to people a tenth as much, even on the internet. So what it tells you is that we as organizations and people like to work together in small teams.

Pizza the action

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos famously had a “two pizza rule” – if a team needed more than two pizzas to feed everyone, then it was too big.

The paradox is that while in some ways technology is not keeping pace with these changing ways of working, people are also not keeping pace with the technology. We’ve become addicted to technology, checking our emails and our phones constantly, says Bersin:

I don’t think we’ve worked out how to adapt to the technology yet. The technology has got ahead of us.

Bersin points out that the US workforce checks its phone eight billion times a day. Not surprising then that Bersin by Deloitte’s research shows that employees felt too busy and overwhelmed at work, affecting both their productivity and engagement. Bersin adds:

There’s no evidence I can see that technology is helping them. As a matter of fact, if you look at economic productivity before the iPhone and after the iPhone, it seems to be slowing.

But there is an influx of disruptive technology vendors looking at new ways to approach engagement and productivity. The whole talent management is being disrupted, as the requirement pulse surveys, feedback, wellness applications and video learning and sharing spring up. What’s interesting, notes Bersin, is that for the first time it is customers who are actually asking vendors for functionality that they don’t have:

My experience with the tech industry for the first 12 years I’ve been doing it, is that the vendors innovated something and you bought and you did it, but that’s actually happening the other way round now.

My take

The difference about the disruption Bersin is talking about, and just touched upon in this article, is that it is not a revolution within HR, but a revolution in the nature of work, precipitated in no small measure by digital technologies that make things like team working and feedback more accessible.

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