What is agile human resources? (Guest Commentary)

4 values of agile software development can easily be applied to HR

Lately, we’ve been hearing quite a bit about the concept of “agile HR.” While it seems to be increasingly popular, I don’t think many HR practitioners completely understand it.

Incorporating an element of agility into the HR function allows it to be nimbler and helps create an organizational culture that’s more responsive to the needs of customers. An agile organization is one that’s able to change direction quickly and easily, and HR needs to be responsive to the ever-changing needs of such an organization.

Agile software development

The whole idea of agile HR likely originated as a result of the increasing popularity of agile software development, a methodology used to develop and enhance computer applications through a continuing, iterative and collaborative process that seeks to make incremental changes on an ongoing basis.

Agile development attempts to cut some of the red tape traditionally associated with software development projects by having regular (even daily) meetings among different stakeholders and making changes as the need arises, rather than being overly concerned about process, documentation or planning.

The four values of agile development are adaptability, transparency, simplicity and unity.

Proponents of agile development understand business requirements cannot be fully documented at the start of a project and sometimes won’t be understood until later, especially once user acceptance testing has begun. In this respect, agile development actually harkens back to the early days of software development, when programmers took a more incremental approach to creating software.

Agile development can be contrasted with the traditional “waterfall method” in which development follows five discrete, cascading steps that flow downwards from one step to the next. The steps are:

• requirements gathering

• design

• implementation or coding

• verification or testing

• ongoing maintenance.

Critics point out the development process rarely follows such discrete, linear steps.

Agile approaches to HR management

So, what does all of this have to do with HR?

For one, the four values of agile development can be easily applied to the practice of HR. Incorporating adaptability, transparency, simplicity and unity can help improve HR service delivery.

Adaptability is important in the face of ever-changing business needs, while simplicity is important when designing HR programs and practices that don’t cause confusion, alienate managers and employees or try to accomplish too much.

Unity applies with respect to HR working together and ensuring it isn’t working in silos or at cross-purposes with the business. Transparency is important in gaining the trust of managers and employees and explaining why things have to be done in a certain manner.

An agile model incorporates feedback into any new project or program so changes can be made incrementally and at the beginning of the process. For HR, it’s important to work closely with other stakeholders and obtain their input early on.

Agile versus strategic HR

At first glance, the concept of agile HR would seem to contradict the whole notion of strategic HR. After all, isn’t strategy about looking at the bigger picture and longer term, as opposed to being reactive and working on incremental changes?

From that perspective, agile HR sounds like it might not fit in with the desire to make HR more strategic. However, an important aspect of strategic HR is understanding and being responsive to the needs of the business. An agile approach takes human resources to a whole new level of responsiveness.

In an agile environment, it’s also important for HR to help manage change within the organization. HR needs to be responsive in its approaches to staffing and planning, developing and rolling out HR policies, procedures, systems and programs.

Agility requires a culture of empowerment where employees have the authority and independence to respond to the needs of customers. Human resources can help to create such a culture.

An agile organizational culture requires employees who are flexible, adaptable and embrace change. Agility also requires appropriate training, performance management and compensation structures.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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