Adopting a marketing mindset

Five SCNetwork members engage in a back-and-forth on Jeanne Meister’s presentation
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/17/2017

Jan van der Hoop: For me, today came back once again to design theory and the opportunity (some might call it an imperative) for HR to move its products and services — our value prop — up the value chain from commodity, to product and to experience.

Employees of all ages and backgrounds (no, it’s not just a millennial “thing”) are demanding a more engaging experience at work with less friction and more joy and meaning, and this applies to every aspect of the working experience.

Two items in the presentation by Jeanne Meister, partner with Future Workplace, really resonated for me, and they were almost throwaway comments in the dying minutes:

• Our real job isn’t HR. Bots will be handling much of that that soon enough, doing it cheaper and better than humans. No, our role is to help our organization win in the marketplace.

• The way we help our organizations win is by getting out of our offices, learning from employees about what’s not working and what they wish was different, then blowing it up and reinventing it. Over and over and over.

Edmond Mellina: You are right, Jan, these two points in the dying minutes were little gems of wisdom.

I also liked Jeanne’s point at the start of her speech about the importance of adopting a “marketing mindset”: We don’t have the answers, our customers do (meaning employees and the business). So, we need to engage with them, co-experiment with them and grow comfortable with “being in a constant beta stage,” as she said.

Another key point for me: As HR evolves its focus from service efficiency to employee experience, it should partner with other functions. Jeanne mentioned marketing and IT, which makes lots of sense. Indeed, if HR is to adopt a marketing mindset, then it should reach out to the pros in marketing and get some help. And in our increasingly digital world, the CIO and her team must be key partners, too.

As I often say, “I need your help” is the most powerful phrase when embarking on a transformation. Jeanne touched on that power throughout her presentation: “I need your help… employees, marketing and IT.”

Tracey White: This intersection of HR and marketing practices has been anticipated for a long time. While HR has adopted marketing techniques in some areas like recruitment, for instance, what Jeanne suggests goes much further. Examples of organizations such as Airbnb, which is re-imagining the HR function to make it the driver of the “employee experience,” represent a significantly new mindset.

When you add Jeanne’s perspective to that of people like Dallas-based business advisor Ram Charan, who openly called for the disintermediation of HR accountabilities, you can see the emergence of an exciting new vision.

There’s no doubt that bots will perform HR’s repetitive, replicable, administrative tasks in the very near future. This will free practitioners to move forward, just as pioneers like Airbnb, to help the business win in the marketplace.

As our recent speakers on behaviourial economics and design thinking have shown us, the tools are available to help HR make this leap. What is really needed is a mindset shift not only by HR practitioners, but by the business leaders they serve.

There is a lingering status quo that traps HR in an outdated personnel administration mindset. It’s not good for the profession or for business.

Paul Pittman: I agree, Tracey. Encased in our little pod bombarded with criticism about how we don’t “get it,” HR occasionally peers out to grab the latest fad with which to try and attract the attention of the corner office in an attempt to make our role relevant.

Anything with a millennial prefix or suffix attached to it currently seems to fit that bill. Smart boomer consultants leaping on this opportunity use astute marketing to grab our attention. The intersection of marketing with HR is that HR leaders are, more than ever before, consumers of it and, as explained by Jeanne, caused by the dramatic increase in self-employed HR folks trying to leave their impression upon you.

Strip away the “marketing” anecdotes and best-in-class lists and Jeanne reveals timeless messages about what HR does:

• Design thinking — another theme of the moment — is what HR has always done. It figures out what it is that employees need and creates an environment that responds to those needs to capture their best contribution.

• Cohorts come and go — our job is to always be alert to changes in the workforce, manifesting in different needs, be they minority groups, contingency hires or arbitrage recruits. It’s what we do, always.

• Helping our company win — duh. Why are we there if not for this? The sole reason for our existence will never change. What we need to constantly remember is what our parents used to tell us: “Just like everyone else, you are different.” And that is equally true for our employer. One size doesn’t fit all, not even most. The employee response you choose needs to reflect the needs of your business — if you are a service business, guess what?

The presentation was superb in reinforcing HR’s very important role (and the things we have always needed to be really good at) by contextualizing with some current trends.

Not obvious at first but some great takeaways:

• Only boomers talk about millennials and how to respond to them.

• Bots are programs — if boomers needed that translated.

• Consulting firms are followers, not leaders.

Don’t get distracted by the flavour of the month.

Van der Hoop: So, I’m curious. Evolution is a tricky thing. It’s not always graceful or easy, and almost always painful. Jeanne’s slide with Charles Darwin’s picture, and the correct version of the quote that is most often misquoted, reminded us that the species that adapt most quickly to changing conditions are those most likely to survive.

That quote, frankly, stood in stark contrast to the conversations I overheard at my table and others around us. The gig economy, the shifting expectations of the workforce, the rise of bots, the notion that HR needs to “get out of HR and into the business and talk to people about their perspectives” — none of this is particularly new. And yet, these concepts were greeted by far too much “What the…?” and wide-eyed surprise and disbelief for my comfort.

Is it possible that we as senior HR professionals are not a sufficiently adaptive species, or is it more likely that too many of us simply aren’t keeping up with what’s going on (and sailing past us) in the external environment?

Ian Hendry: By happenstance, I was meeting with a CHRO the day following the event and he mentioned a career discussion he had just had with a direct report at the director level.

He described the gap in her development and specifically her business acumen, and that she really needed to understand the business, the product lines, how profitability was derived, the competitive landscape, etcetera.

In other words, she needed to get “inside” the business and by understanding it fully, it would enable her to provide more ideas and solutions on how to “help” the business grow and improve. This future was not appealing to her. The need for business acumen was a requirement three decades ago, so it reinforces the question you just posed. Is the profession not seeing the writing on the wall: “Adapt or die?”

Mellina: I’ve seen the same dynamics at play in IT. For over two decades now, the key to succeed as an IT leader has been to “think business first, technology second.” Yet, I still see lots of tech leaders out there who think backward. Usually, they don’t get too high in the hierarchy. And if they do (how? why?), they don’t last very long in the CIO role.

But Darwin might be at play already in IT: Organizations that have created a chief digital officer position don’t necessarily appoint an IT executive in this forward-looking, strategic role.

Are we going to see the same with HR?

White: Absolutely. The constant debate in HR is about the split between tactical-administrative and strategic activities.

As I listened to Jeanne, it struck me that employee experience offers the opening that will allow HR to shift focus — but the natural alliance is with marketing, not finance, as many argue.

From an operational perspective, customer and employee experience support each other; their execution and measurement are complimentary.

As employee experience gains traction, it is conceivable that the accountabilities of the chief marketing officer and CHRO might fall under one executive function in the future, rather than two.

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