Newsflash: The future of work isn’t something we can worry about tomorrow. The companies that are going to thrive are the ones with an HR function prepared to embrace the chaos now and use it to their advantage.
That’s the message from KPMG’s Head of Global People and Change, Robert Bolton.
His company’s groundbreaking research into what they are calling ‘HR Pathfinders’ took a previously routine annual survey and dug deep into its more surprising results.
Looking at the resulting data from the last two cycles, participating companies began to form clusters that exhibited certain behaviors, with the high performers being christened the Pathfinders.
“What we observed is that they were focusing on certain principles”, says Bolton. “A very holistic, total workforce strategy. And, crucially, they were seen as value driving by the rest of the C suite.
“So that’s the top 10%, then the following 80% didn’t have a sense of a clear path forward, but they were doing things that others are doing, and they thought ‘we need to do that’.
“The final 10% were organizations where the HR function was seen as administrative, the HR function was kind of happy being administrative, that’s how they saw things and that was it.
“Our attention was drawn to the Pathfinders. This year, what we wanted to do is rather than do another dataset-based report, we wanted to go and interview organizations from around the world that we felt exhibited some of the aspects of being a Pathfinder. We felt they had characteristics that we thought set them apart, that, if you will, they were on the path.”
One of the key things that Bolton and his team learned from Pathfinders was the realization of a need to change the shape of the workforce; the skills, size, structure, the way it’s organized, where it works.
But how much of this needed change was to be the responsibility of one charismatic person and how much would be the responsibility of a larger culture shift? It could be either, it seems.
“If you look at somewhere like Salesforce, they exhibited what one of the qualities of Pathfinders is; it’s not doing five things or four things really well in silos. They do one thing,” continues Bolton.
“They create a great place to work, which integrates sophisticated evidence, workforce analytics, great feedback mechanisms and horizon scanning what the workforce are thinking and feeling.
“It comes from Marc Benioff, the CEO, who has this very strong belief in the word “Ohana” which is the Hawaiian word for family and community.
“That’s how they seek to treat both their employees and their customers, it extends across the value chain of Salesforce; having a workforce-first mentality.
One of the forgotten skills in HR is systems thinking. We see too much fragmentation in HR; training separate from talent, separate from talent acquisition, separate from performance, and reward separate from inclusion and diversity.”
These elements all operate in separate silos for many organizations, but the only way that we see the future of HR being successful is configuring this as one holistic system.
“In plain English it’s saying, let’s not be in silos, let’s join up. But whatever language you use, that’s a fundamental thing that we’ve seen with the Pathfinders that, quite frankly, doesn’t exist within the other groups.”
What does Bolton see as the hallmarks of a good organizational culture, you might wonder, based on the research. Culture is tough to pin down, especially given the changes of the last 18 months.
“I think culture comes from something. It comes from systemic structures, organization design, the role of leaders, how line managers are expected to behave, [and] how you create interactions up and down the organization and across the organization.
“So I find culture both compelling but really difficult to work out what the actual leverage points are. And I think one of the things that’s interesting about, say, the [UK’s] Department of Business, Innovation and Skills floating the flexible working idea is this recognition that the world of work has to be different.
“And we’re going to have to reassess what we mean by culture as well. A move to allowing more flexible work is also systemically going to be a move to say that presenteeism is less relevant than the outputs you deliver. Not when you’re working, but what you’re working on.
“You look at the idea of a results-only work environment and that’s a very different culture. The Pathfinders, I think, recognize that. I think many organizations are going to seek to cling to something that is probably inappropriate to cling to going forwards.”
In the conclusion of the research there is a line that stands out: “The traditional playbook is gone”. It speaks to the importance of curiosity.
Bolton has advice for HR professionals who are looking to explore their curiosity:
“We’ve picked up from the Pathfinders a strong belief in experimentation. You need to use your analytics value stream and experiment. Some agile implementations of projects may not have legs, you may need to change course again, but whether you’re Singapore Bank, Direct Line Group, Microsoft, they all talk about the importance of experimenting.
“In the case of Direct Line, they’ve set up agile project delivery teams that are explicitly there just to experiment.
“HR has been a victim of fads and fashions. Too frequently, even to this day, there are organizations that ask what other leading edge organizations are doing to structure their HR function. You’re just looking for off the shelf answers, and that mentality has existed for decades.
“If people are supposed to be your most important asset, then do something unique with them. Because you don’t compete by copying everyone else.
“The Pathfinders show that being sophisticated about insight and analytics is fundamental, because without horizon scanning, without understanding how your workforce is performing, without understanding what the drivers of performance are in your organization, without understanding what employees are thinking and feeling, it’s all just a waste of time.”
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