Oct 30, 2018

Don’t wait for the next disruption, HR – start somewhere

Lessons from GM, Patagonia, Johnson & Johnson, SAP
HR strategy
Has human resources become the dam at organizations, in creating things that don't work anymore? [photo]REUTERS/Sivaram V[/photo]

By Suanne Nielsen

In October, I had the opportunity to attend the “Strategic HR Forum: Leading Through Disruption” conference in Chicago. Organized by SCNetwork’s sister affiliate, the HR People + Strategy (HRPS) network, this was an intimate event where peers not only acknowledged disruption as the new normal but went beyond it by presenting examples of how top global HR leaders are embracing disruption and finding value within various levels of disruption in their business environment.

The underlying message was that we in HR have two choices — be disrupted or be the disruptor. Each presentation was a call to action for HR to be in the space as a disruptor for the business.

Everyone knows that today’s organizational hierarchies are following the norms of the industrial age — “command and control.” But for the last five to 10 years, we’ve been hearing about tracking people’s relationships through network maps across organizations to help identify the bigger influencers within an organization, and to harness their connections. This is not new.

What’s new is what Michael Arena, chief talent officer at General Motors, said during his keynote “Positively disrupt or be disrupted.” Through his book Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations, he raises a vital question: “How do you tap into those people who are the influencers and use their connections to lead creative disruption within the organization?”

The way to achieve this would be to, firstly, find the positive disruptors, the people who are challenging current thinking within the organization. Secondly, once identified, partition the positive disruptor, and open the space for disruption. Give them permission, outside the hierarchy, to bring about change. Have them confront conventional thinking and encourage them to constructively dissent.

Thirdly, feed the network for disruption. In other words, fuel the disruption by innovating. For example, GM was an organization embedded in running vehicles on gas, but when it foresaw disruption via electric cars, it became a pioneer in using technology to create the first electric cars.

And, finally, there’s no need to abolish hierarchies. What’s needed is for hierarchies to coexist with the positive disruptors and tap into that “adaptive space” to question business operations and generate new ideas.

But perhaps the most insightful takeaway for me was when Dean Carter, vice-president of HR at Patagonia, said,Question everything.” It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

One of the activities Patagonia is heavily invested in is to try to remove dams that are killing rivers. There was a time when dams were essential to harness electricity and control waters to prevent flooding. But they also have a negative effect — which wasn’t recognized in the past. When you build a dam, you block the natural flow of the water, thereby leading to the death of the river. Patagonia has recognized this and helps remove dams to help the environment.

You might wonder what HR can learn from Patagonia’s environmental efforts. Speaking to a room full of HR executives, Carter asked us to consider whether we in HR are the dams in our organizations. This was a very insightful question.

As HR leaders, are we creating things that don’t work anymore? When we question everything, we are investigating where the value is being added more now, versus in the past. We need to keep going back to the numbers to see what the data is indicating and demanding. What should we be measuring that we don’t see today?

For example, we invest a lot of effort and time in employee engagement measurements — an exercise we’ve been practising for ages. But at Patagonia, they are doing things differently by asking just one question of employees — what’s your mood today? This simple question brings them more data on employee engagement than any other survey has.

Ask yourself: Is what you’re implementing working in today’s world where change is feverish, and people are working in such different ways? Question every program that you put into place. Is it adding more value or creating yet another dam in the organization?

To underscore the examples — Carter was in favour of increasing transparency around pay. Traditionally, HR is decreed to hide information about pay. Let’s face it, its not hard for employees to find out what others get paid. Instead of being cagey about pay, Carter supports the free flow of pay-related information. He talked about replacing the retirement cliff with offboarding, and ease employees out of the organization over time to help with knowledge replacement.

Carter candidly admitted that when he joined Patagonia, he came in as an HR traditionalist — not understanding what work-life balance meant. The biggest lesson he learned was that there will be nothing more important to gender equality in Patagonia than allowing kids at work.

Many organizations have in-house day cares, but at Patagonia, parents eat breakfasts or lunches with their kids. They take time off during their work day to visit their children. This was an important step in their organization, and it brought gender equality at work. Employee motivation is highest when everyday they have a visible symbol of why they are at work.

We work for our families. We work to live, not the other way around.  For employee engagement, nothing sends a bigger message than saying, ‘We value your time with your family as much as you do.”

While HR leaders are aware of the digital transformation, many struggle to start their digital journeys. Matthew Burns, head of HR at JYSK, and Brigette Mcinnis-Day, chief of HR strategy and digital transformation executive at SAP SuccessFactors, broke down how both big and small companies can drive HR innovation.

Their advice was to look at your biggest pain point. Recruitment is a good example. The time has come to invest in chatbot technology to help you recruit. Instead of stopping there, HR needs to improve the concept iteratively, and make it scalable. After identifying the pain points, it’s time once again to look at what the numbers are telling you. Look at where your focus of time is. Can you bring in AI or do you need to outsource the service? Another example they cited was a software to do case management for investigations, instead of what we do today which is to do it manually.

Simon King, an HRPS board member, and global head of talent and workforce innovation at Bristol-Myers Squibb, talked about aligning employees by focusing them on why they are in their specific industries. Bristol-Myers knows that its business revolves around patients, so it put pictures of them on their marketing and engagement materials.

It was clarified by Sumeet Salwan, former global head of Johnson & Johnson’s HR, and Sandy Ogg, founder of, that we are in the era of CHRO 3.0 where their roles have critically evolved from being a business partner 2.0 to that of a value coach.

Instead of coaching people into roles, their prescription to CHROs was to coach value into existence. Putting the right people in the right roles — those who generate the greatest value to the business — to drive the most value within the organization. Instead of concentrating on the entire organization, focusing on the engagement scores for the high-value roles takes precedence, as those are the ones that are going to drive the exponential growth.

Resoundingly, the message of the conference was clear. Start small and scale over time. Stop waiting for the next disruption. Be the disruption. Be the change you wish to see. For HR particularly, we should be working to disrupt not just HR but our respective business models. There are many opportunities for HR to disrupt. The point is to start somewhere.

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters.



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