There has been a fair bit of commentary about the new CIPD report HR: Getting Smart About Agile Working – and rightly so. Thankfully, the CIPD have decided to continue their recent and welcome trend of hitting nails on heads when it comes to timely, useful and insightful reports. Most of the commentary though has been about the first section of the report that focuses on flexible working and the uphill struggle of measuring contribution by outputs and added value rather than the amount of time people spend sat at desks in offices. That’s all useful, but for me the second part of the report is much more interesting.
Agile HR is ultimately about speed and flexibility of response to business demands. To that end, the concept of agile HR is as much about shedding old clothes as it is about putting on new ones. We need to talk about what is preventing us from being agile. The report suggests that risk-aversion, centrist tendencies and an unwillingness to accept failure in some cases are at the heart of this. Having dropped these deep rooted views we are required instead to embrace a “fluid” approach that values innovation and the local autonomy to innovate. The external focus asked of us by the Agile HR challenge is to begin by first looking at the competitive environment, then looking at the demands of our customers, before finally looking at how we should go about the people management side of things. The fascinating aspect for me about fluidity of this kind is that the river keeps flowing, the whirlpool keeps whirling, and the solution that is right today might not be right tomorrow. For me, and the report has really helped to shape my thinking, Agile HR is fundamentally about a hand rolled, boutique solution in every case. We leave behind the manufactories of Charles Dickens for the Croquet game of Lewis Carroll. Once you move from starting your thinking with the restrictions of defined operating parameters, to starting instead with the constantly moving requirements of a business situation, you become a genuine HR explorer.
It is also important though to recognise that – as with most sexy HR concepts – it isn’t like that all of the time. Just as for every Mac book jockey working in Starbucks there are a hundred low paid shelf stackers working shifts, for every Agile HR pioneer there are a team of hard working HR professionals churning out the bulk. Why is this the case? Because the principle of Agile HR is of taking a fluid and adaptable approach to value. The reason that we can justify forcing ourselves through the pain of putting aside our risk aversion, centrist tendencies and unwillingness to accept failure is that the reward will be a greater prize. I’m thinking in these cases about opportunism from unexpected developments, about the big but exceptional deal or contract that will have a major impact or the curve ball that was never in the five year plan. In most cases the return simply wouldn’t be big enough. Although the Twitterati are never keen to accept it, much of HR’s role is still about bulk transactional processing in which repetition, risk aversion and centrist control contribute to enormous value for the customer. I was told recently that ‘Agile’ is the new ‘Lean’ – but it isn’t. The benefits of lean processing and continuous cyclical improvement are still real and still required. What Agile HR offers is an exceptional approach – when required – and when our standard processes don’t fit.
I was waiting for the point in the CIPD report where we would find that the public sector is not as good at Agile HR as SMEs and the private sector in general are. I had to wait until page 17. This, though, is to misunderstand the value of Agile HR. It doesn’t matter that the public sector is a “formalised and structured place to work, where procedures govern what people do and hold people together” on the days where that is what is required. This only becomes an issue on the days where something else is required, something faster, unprecedented, and fundamentally creative. That’s where we can change the world and, by separating that approach out from the day to day ‘default’ approach we can keep the public sector on the same level as any other.
Your organisation might not look like the most agile place in the World but, then again, the Orange Gibbon doesn’t look much like the most agile tree swinger (and you thought they were just funky…) If you work in an organisation with a formalised employee policy framework, committee structures and a traditional approach to transactional processing you shouldn’t read the CIPD report with a heavy heart. If you can get the senior buy in, there is nothing to stop you from developing and bringing your own “A Game” when exceptional challenges require an exceptional response.
All the quotes in this blog post are lifted straight from the Getting Smart About Agile Working report (November 2014) which can be found here: http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/research/hr-smart-agile-working.aspx