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Agile – the future for HR success and credibility?

Professor Chris Roebuck
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Over 30 years I have seen report after report, article after article, conference speech after conference speech call upon HR to be more business-focused, more effective and more responsive. This has been held up as the route to credibility in the boardroom and the wider organisation for HR. By Professor Chris Roebuck.

Surely with the Ulrich HR Business Partner model launched 20 years ago next year this should have been achieved years ago? Things have moved forward but as this issue is still at the forefront of many HR discussions clearly it has not gone as well as many had hoped. That then poses the subsequent questions, why? And what can be done about it?

From my perspective there are a number of core issues that are not being addressed. The most fundamental is what is HR there to do? Most would say that it is there to deliver HR, but my experience is that often this view leads to HR “product” being imposed on the business that may meet the needs of “HR best practice” but isn’t appropriate or optimal for the organisation at the current stage in its evolution. I would rather say HR is there to enable success, that doesn’t require best practice, just something that is optimal for now.

Once that principle is accepted, the other core issues I frequently see are the lack of true understanding of the business by HR, lack of strategic alignment and the less than perfect effectiveness of response and delivery. Whilst working in a number of organisations to make HR, or parts of HR, more effective these were the areas that I focused on to maximise my ROI and that of HR.

Certainly during my time at UBS as Global Head of Leadership these were critical to the “people agenda” and thus to the success which was achieved out in the wider organisation. This subsequently became a Harvard Business Case Study on the corporate transformation and the financial success it delivered.

These three key areas are often those where HR shows weakness even if it is expert at the technical elements of the HR content. The problem is that the ability to implement the HR content effectively is dependent on the capability in these other areas.

Essentially the best HR theory in the world is useless if you can’t implement it effectively. Here the word ‘effectively’ is important. Yes, you can implement HR initiatives but unless done properly they can be totally ineffective.

An example is the implementation of a leadership development programme that doesn’t fully align to business needs, to the achievement of critical strategic objectives and takes longer to deliver than planned. It might be a good programme in terms of leadership but it’s not optimal in terms of organisational ROI.

You could say that the Ulrich model, if implemented as intended by Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, would deal with the understanding of the business. But that still leaves strategic alignment and effective response and delivery.

The fact that the majority of organisations implementing the Business Partner model don’t do so in the way they are supposed to according to the Ulrich plan, especially those where it fails, explains the perceived issues people say it has. Interestingly, in 2004 I attended the full two-week course on business partnering at the University of Michigan with Dave and Wayne so I know precisely how it should be implemented and can thus make an objective judgment on both its effectiveness and quality of implementation by others.

But let’s leave that for another article and assume most HR teams probably understand the key things about what their line colleagues do. Strategic alignment is the next issue. This element doesn’t focus on what the line managers the HR team member supports do, but what the organisation needs to achieve at strategic level for success. The problem is that too often line managers are not made fully aware of this either. That’s bad enough but it then means that the cry of “serve the business” to HR encourages HR to be complicit in delivering activity that is not aligned to and contributing to strategic success, more providing operational sticking plasters.

Thus HR teams must be aware of what critical strategic objectives are so that when asked for support by line managers they can focus on work that supports these more than activities which don’t. They can also help the line manager align other activities more effectively as well. I have used this in a number of situations and the impact on line manager performance as well as HR understanding has been significant. The most critical things for strategic success get done first.

The third issue of effectiveness of response and delivery is about the lack of ability of many in the HR community to execute tasks optimally. I don’t criticise those who have this issue as the core skills required to achieve this – essentially the most basic project management skills – are rarely taught to HR professionals.

This is one weakness in professional development, as is lack of basic financial management. That said these core skills of prioritisation, time management, planning, communication, stakeholder management and, where appropriate, delegation and supervision can be taught in no more than a day. This means that individual HR teams can make up the shortfall quickly and simply.

However rather than now having to focus individually on these three areas to get your HR team and indeed the wider organisation maximising its performance there is a solution that covers all of them in one approach – Agile.

For many years the world of IT has required, and so developed, a set of tools to enable the planning and effective delivery of IT projects for organisations. Some of these can be highly complex and technical requiring significant training to be able to use them. Agile was one of the most effective.

What is interesting is that those who used this tool in the IT world identified that it could have benefits for others engaged in the implementation of projects elsewhere. Not only that but the model was regularly updated to better align to business needs and optimise the chances of successful implementation.

Its key objective is to deliver incremental and sustainable change and the Agile Business Consortium has been busy developing the Framework for Business Agility. This builds on a structured Agile approach to include aspects such as culture and leadership. By so doing it creates an approach that deals with the three key issues for HR outlined earlier.

Not only that but the application of the Agile Framework also has the ability to improve the effectiveness, alignment and understanding of other parts of the organisation in any area. So it is applicable to both line management and finance as well as IT and HR. The power in this is that this flexibility provides an overarching approach that can be applied organisation wide. From the HR perspective this creates an opportunity to implement Agile in the function to improve the critical areas and present Agile to the wider organisation as a way to improve overall performance in a way that will add credibility to HR.

Agile leadership focuses on Communication, Commitment and Collaboration. These areas consistently show up as areas of weakness in organisations that restrict the potential for success. Interestingly, from a different perspective the “I CARE” leadership approach I developed based on what really delivers individual, team and organisational success includes all the same elements that Agile does. This congruence confirms the real world relevance of both and that common simple day-to-day actions delivers strategic success, not just strategic thinking on its own. I will be expanding on this thinking in a keynote speech at the Agile Business Consortium’s Agile Business Conference in London on October 4 and 5.

Such is the potential of Agile that I predict it could well become part of HR professional development in due course. But even before that happens HR teams have the opportunity to use the Agile framework to pull together all the key factors in achieving success and take action to implement them both in HR and the wider organisation.  HR has always said it aspires to be Agile. Now it can make it happen.

www.agileconference.org

www.chrisroebuck.net