Apr 06,2018

HR for the Future in a Disruptive World

Constant change has long been a given in business, but today, companies face an evolving landscape that is increasingly complicated and unpredictable. There’s been a shift to renewed growth. But the path to growth is not always straightforward. Markets are often volatile, and competitors from around the globe move quickly to exploit opportunities. Innovations appear at an accelerating pace.
And customer expectations are constantly rising and shifting. Companies today are operating in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, also known as a “VUCA” environment.

Today’s world presents opportunities for HR to drive innovation, creativity, collaboration and productivity. In a manner different from what we have done or are used to in the past. A new way of working where each individual is treated as an adult; where we remember that each person is a human being. I want to in this short article touch on two significant aspects, namely Engagement, and Leadership. I believe we need disruptive HR in the two important areas across the Organisation for business success in a volatile and uncertain world. An HR, whose mindset and capability is different and distinct from the current, for a business world that is far more dynamic than ever before.

Let me start with a provocative question on Employee Engagement – do we do enough as a function to understand the experience our employees are having at the work place? – This is akin to the consumer metaphor. Is the experience leading to high levels of engagement and therefore productivity and innovation? This according to me is the number one priority for an HR Practitioner in today’s turbulent world that fills an employee with uncertainty, fear and apprehension. How do we build this experience – starting with the functional attributes of contracts, benefits rules and policies to building an emotional connection? Through constant communication, making work meaningful, establishing the connect to a larger purpose, focusing on every individual’s ( both blue and white collar with equal emphasis ) development and reviewing it periodically as one would do of business performance and listening, not for purpose or to judge but to truly understand! The approach has to be individual focused and not across bands of employees and grades. This is where the ability to treat employees as unique individuals becomes important and relevant. This can’t be left to engagement surveys biannually or otherwise – they are great starting points but “engagement” needs a more focused human touch both from the Line Manger and the HR function. Are we doing enough?

In the context of employee engagement it would serve us well to remember that in “happiness” research, new evidence suggests the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in a meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as "eudaimonic well-being." As distinct from seeking of pleasure through rewards and recognition that are fleeting —a feeling called "hedonic well-being"—tends to be short-term and short lived.

Leaders in a VUCA world must have foresight to see where they are going but must also remain flexible and adaptable about how they get there. They need to be self aware, both of their strengths and their vulnerabilities and knowledgeable about their organisation beyond their function. The VUCA prime developed by Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World proposes that the best VUCA leaders are characterised by vision, understanding, clarity and agility- the “flips” to the VUCA world.

This presents a very different challenge from the more function and role specific skills that Leaders needed in the past to succeed. The whole concept of the traditional “competency framework” needs a serious review, in terms of the shape and form as it exists now- should there be one for a fast changing world will be a good debate to have internally! HR and Management Development (L&D) specialists must reframe leadership development to resonate to the faster paced VUCA world and will need to focus on complex thinking abilities and mindsets and less on the traditional behavioural competencies. The competencies to focus on could well be self awareness, learning agility, boundary spanning, network thinking and empathetic listening. And it may well be a good idea to begin with the 
selection process.

Having covered the “what” of leadership development we need to move to the “how”. This calls for a fundamental shift in approach. Leadership has for long rested on Individuals more so at senior levels of the business – this will now need to be on a “collective” basis of the whole organisation irrespective of levels. What do I mean by this-I advocate that leadership must become a collective capability of the organisation .The challenge therefore becomes – how can we embed leadership across the whole organisation and not just in the select few? These calls for alignment of thinking and a belief in the power of the “collectivity” to take on succeed in the VUCA world. Perhaps, there needs to be a sit down to understand, what this means in a practical and doing sense.

The next big change will be in the ownership of development. Traditionally HR or L&D, have been the owners of development – this needs to shift to the employee; he or she needs to move from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat! In disruptive HR the focus of development will move from competencies to developmental stages in work. This is also referred to as moving from “horizontal” to “vertical” development. In the latter the individual holds the key and development must be earned!

Marshall Goldsmith, the world renowned Coach, has commented, “Many of our leadership programmes are based on the faulty notion that if we show people what to do, they can automatically do it “There is of course a difference between knowing what “good” leadership is and being able to do it. The focus on development today is building on competencies, more and more. However the challenge in a VUCA world is in shaping the individual, the collectivity in an Organisation, to grow to meet the emerging challenges. In other words, the focus of development needs to shift to growth stages, meaning, mental development to an increased (higher) level of responsibility and the skills needed at that level. As someone put it metaphorically, traditional leadership development is like pouring water in an empty glass, while the new thinking is focussed at expanding the glass itself. Not only does it now have more capacity, but importantly the structure of the vessel, the mind, has undergone a change.

These are two areas which perhaps rank the highest, in terms of compelling action, when it comes to the emerging HR agenda in a new world. And HR needs a new thinking and an approach.
In close , I would submit that HR needs to recognise that doing what we have been doing in the past two decades or so is not an option for the future – we need disruptive thinking , a new mindset to offer solutions that have to be created to meet the specific needs of the business in an uncertain environment. In the end, it’s a new way of working and adopting a new set of beliefs and behaviours.

Mr.Sridhar Ganesh | MD & CEO at Adrenalin eSystems Limited