Some ideas for HR innovation

A new approach to HR is desperately needed.


If people are a company’s most valuable asset then why are they still treated as 1950’s manufacturing workers?

Most contemporary human resource (HR) processes were developed to manage large groups of people primarily responsible for manufacturing. In manufacturing, the output is a linear function of inputs such as materials and labour.

This ‘humans as units of input’ mentality continues to influence the way in which businesses manage people throughout the economy. People are reduced to units of skill and competency that can be replaced and substituted as required. Then, periodically, we review or restructure and ‘right size’ our workforce.

The issue with this approach is that many jobs are complex, with non-linear relationships between inputs and outputs. Obvious examples include health, education and social services. Success in these vocations is dependent on a large number of factors interacting in complex ways, many of which are outside our control.

Many industries are now seeing a move from transactional work to relationships and value. Transactional work focuses on applying resources to achieve the output. Value based work focuses on working with people to co-create solutions through joint application of resources. Examples include engineering services and accounting and finance.

To make these changes, many companies hire and train staff to be customer focused. They talk about a customer-centric culture. But companies are often restrained from making these fundamental changes due to its legacy HR practices.

It is time for some innovation. Let’s try some new ideas:

Job descriptions
The old school approach: An HR expert develops a job description (JD) based on the historic needs of the organisation and uses the JD as a basis for hiring, training and remuneration.

The issue: organisational needs are changing quickly. Most JDs are woefully out of date, as shown by the fact that most people can’t remember what is on their JD and almost never refer to it. If people only did what was on their JD, the company would freeze. ‘Work to rule’ is a threat not a promise.

Try this: hire self-motivated and intelligent people based on the expected future needs of an organisation. Let people develop their own role and job size. This might include allowing people to have portfolio careers. They might work three days for the company and two in a training capacity. Allow the role to change as an organisation changes. People will then play to their strengths and be motivated to continually add value. JDs are redundant in fast changing organisations.

Performance management
The old school approach: An HR expert develops a set of criteria used to rate performance (based on the JD). The employee is rated and rewarded for good performance and training is provided to bridge any shortcomings.

The issue: everyone hates performance review time. In complex business an employee is just as likely to be rewarded for luck as for good work. Most intelligent people find performance reviews simplistic, demeaning and demotivating.

Try these ideas instead.

Team performance: Get the team to think of five people they want on their next project and five people they don’t. They should then write an anecdote about each person which typifies their behavior and is the reason they are on the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ list. 

Share the anecdotes (without identifying individuals) with the team and ask them to find emerging patterns or themes. List these themes as attributes of people we want on our team and people we don’t.  As a group, ask “How can we act so that we get more stories like these and less stories like that?”

Individual performance: Get a 360-degree review. Ensure the review criteria reflects the results from the team performance exercise above. Share the result of the review to the employee in question, and no one else. Let that person self-resolve externally by gaining training or support, or internally with a mentor. Line managers will be involved in the process only if they are perceived as adding value.

These two different sets of approaches are not particularly arcane. HR management staff have access to innovative ideas and techniques such as these. So, if they still insist on HR management practices and policies that are based on 1950’s linear thinking, then maybe it’s time to upgrade.

Steve McCrone is executive director of Cornwall Strategic

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