Should HR and HCM become WR and WM?

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett November 25, 2019
Work is changing but do we understand that managing work is fundamentally different from the processes that surround work and which are normally bundled into HR/HCM?

best selves

Last week Thomas Otter and I met with executives from Workfront in update briefings that covered how the company sees the world of work, what it is offering in the market and how it sees the evolution of work management, which can be broadly termed 'worktech.' In the evening, Workfront hosted a dinner with many more people, including journalists, advisors, and customers, Sage and Google. 

The day was enjoyable (and rewarding) across several dimensions. Workfront is not an enterprise software 'household name,' yet it is tracking revenue north of $220 million with ambitious growth plans (confidential) for the future. That revenue number is not shabby by any stretch in the broad HR-related market where there are hundreds of much smaller firms and startups. And Workfront is profitable, an essential decision metric in a world of unicorn valuations that sit alongside nose bleed losses. 

Regular readers will know that alongside being a partner, Workfront is helping (and hoping) to define a new category of tech-infused management, the strapline for which is 'mastering modern work.' If that sounds pretentious, then it's worth considering how the world of work is changing. For example, we see a steady stream of firms moving towards business models that reflect Phil Wainewright's XaaS view of the world. Combine that with the trend for increased automation in the physical world, interest in using robotic process automation as a first step towards automating rote tasks, the emergence of creativity as an imperative for success and you can see how firms need to take a hard look at what work means and how people fit into that matrix. 

In Workfront's world, the central idea is to provide ways for people to do their best work based on the theory that pride in one's work is a strong motivator. Workfront backs this idea up through discussion of its annual Stae of Work survey, the latest of which is here (registration required.) The report formed the framework around the dinner conversation during which Alex Shootman, CEO Workfront posed the following question:

If you are in manufacturing and only achieving 43% productivity, how long beyond tomorrow do you think your career would last?

This comment arose out of report findings that:

Even in the middle of a technology and connectivity revolution, today’s workforce still devotes a tremendous amount of time to low-value activity. And they know it. Over the six years we have published the State of Work report, we’ve consistently found knowledge workers on average spend just 40% of their work week on the job they were hired to do. Despite trillions of dollars1 and countless initiatives, companies have gained almost no ground in helping workers focus on their most important work.

And the number one issue? Meetings. 

Also, on the list of productivity blockers cited by our respondents: excessive emails, excessive oversight, poor work prioritization, and a lack of standard processes for workflow.

work blockers
State of Work - 2020 - Workfront

None of the blockers surprised any of the attendees. What to do? While a variety of solutions were offered, the one that surprised me came from Google, who said that it is perfectly acceptable to walk out of a meeting if you don't think it is producing value for the things that matter in your job. Try doing that in other firms. 

Google's answer quickly turned the conversation towards the work environment, and here, Google acknowledged that it looks 'weird' when observed from the outside. It is fair to say that Google has the luxury of outsize market penetration and the margins that go with operating in a network effects based business model. It can readily experiment with different work practices. But then I am of the view that much of what we understand about productivity measurement needs a fundamental rethink.

The work environment in practice

However, the work environment is much more than the above and having the right technologies to support work. 

I made the case that in the UK, the fact that zero-hours contracts are becoming more prevalent is, in my mind, the equivalent of modern slavery, especially when those contracts are tied to minimum wage levels. Those contract types continue to support the outdated Tayloresque view of the world, which, in turn, reduces people to 'resources' that have to be managed. Adding to that argument, one person noted that secrecy around wage levels makes it virtually impossible to tackle the gender pay gap purposefully. Another example came up in the context of learning where a person noted that organizations rarely create reward mechanisms for additional learning.

It is in that context that I believe that HR and HCM, a broad category of enterprise software that spans everything to do with people related processes, is outdated too. Sure, I get that software helps to make job-related processes more efficient, but how does any of what we generally understand by HR/HCM technology help people truly see the work they do as valuable or strategic? 

Workfront has answers to these questions, but I am not convinced they address the fundamentals of what modern work represents. I am, for example, in favor of planning work project style, but then I am not a fan of making those plans a stick with which to beat people up when it comes to time to completion. This is supported by results from the survey that showed nearly 70% of UK/US employees wished they are rewarded on outcomes and not deliverables. 

My take

I have long held the view that HCM should be the mirror to CRM, but as these kinds of discussion unfold, it is clear that this view is wrong. The understood processes by which the employment lifecycle works makes sense when viewed from a process perspective. But it makes no sense when you consider what work people do as strategically important without an accompanying set of principles that determine how work management practices. Hence in my view, the time to unwind HR/HCM from work is now. It needs a sparate category, principles, and supporting software. In this case, Work Resources to cover what goes into work by way of people, technology and physical needs and Work Management as the expresson of what what work means and the expected work outcomes. 

Image credit - Featured image via @gapingvoid, chart from State of Work 2020, Workfront

Disclosure - Workfrront is a premier partner at the time of writing and covered most of my travel to the event.