Posts Tagged ‘HR’

A business SOS

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

Everywhere I look, corporate people are stressed. It’s true at the top, the middle, and the bottom of the pyramid. Being hired by a successful business used to contribute to personal well-being. I can still remember how giddy I was when a large US multinational hired me out of school and how much it contributed to my early enthusiasm about life. This, in all evidence, is no longer the case. Everywhere I go, I collect stories of rising managerial expectations and reduced access to resources, resulting in a productivity squeeze that destroys the fun of business life and in some cases increases suicide rates. France, for example, is beginning to raise the issue of “work health.” In inimitable fashion, the French want to legislate on the topic, which creates a new class of stressed people: managers afraid of being accused of having induced suicides among their direct reports.

Has business lost its way? How did we get to the point where companies destroy the lives of their people instead of making them better? Like anybody else, I can point to the forces that drive the endless quest for productivity in business: the rise of shareholder expectations, the development of global competition, and the do-or-die nature of the modern labor market. But where in this equation are the ethical braces that prevent humans from oppressing other humans? Have we become collectively insensitive to the point where we’re lost the ability to remember why we’re engaging in business in the first place? And if corporations have become the new gulag, why hasn’t there been a management revolution?

Our conceptualization of business as a company-centric science rather than a human-centric creative network may have something to do with it. Conceptually, we have it all wrong. We should start from the viewpoint that employees and managers have an experience of business, and this experience is as important as the experience that customers have of the business. The latter is much talked about, analyzed, and continuously worked on. There is a rising caste called Chief Experience Officers whose job it is to worry about customer experience. Yet there is no equivalent for employee or manager experience. As long as their frustration stays below suicide range, we are content to take their temperature once or twice a year in the form of an employee survey. The employee survey is usually managed by HR people whose role is to delineate for business managers how far the corporation can push in the name of productivity. This is a frustration containment strategy, a far cry from the experience co-creation strategy it should be. When HR people venture to advocate for the employee experience, they rapidly become accused of being a part of the problem, an obstacle on the road to productivity. Understandably, few of them choose this path.

We should view business as the coming together of a set of individuals, from employees to customers and other stakeholders, in order to invent worthwhile personal experiences through the development of a common economic model. Employees should matter as much as customers. The role of business managers should be to help employees figure out the work experience they want to have for themselves, allow customers and other stakeholders to do the same, and give all of them the tools that will allow them to interact as efficiently as possible. The self-interested pursuit of greater well-being by employees and customers is what will produce the most efficient corporation and create the highest shareholder return. The obnoxious expert opinion of a few top managers on what processes those employees and managers should follow will at best represent a mediocre approximation of what humans with passion and an intimate knowledge of what needs to be done would have devised for themselves. At worst, it will become an oppressive machine with a mediocre economic engine.

Engaging employees in the co-creation of their work experience is job 1 for business. But it’s getting dangerously late. Business, it is time to save your soul.


The great talent database in the sky

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

Many HR departments are building talent databases., under the catchy headline “This is Not Your Father’s HR,” recently reported that these companies, encouraged by HR software suppliers, are hoping they’ll be able to tap into those databases to fill positions at the end of the economic crisis.

My prediction, quoting Richard Dreyfus in Jaws: they’re all gonna die.

The idea of an employee database wouldn’t be a bad thing if it were a starting point for a dialogue between the person looking to fill a position and the applicant. The focus of the software should be the enabling of the dialogue, not the database. The programs on the market, however are quite literally databases where employees provide data allowing the software to characterize, analyze, and search them – but the employees themselves are passive. The article points out that “Many companies are now venturing far beyond rudimentary personality assessments with newer ‘psychometric’ testing, which measures knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and personality traits as a way to determine a candidate’s compatibility with a position.” The software does the matching: you want your employee tall, blond and handsome, so the software finds you all tall, blond and handsome candidates. Welcome to the eHarmony of business, where lonely hearts find the traits they have been seeking. And so the HR department can now claim it adds value.

But psychometric databases are not the real world. Matching an internal person with a job opportunity is a lot more subtle than matching a set of attributes with a set of aspirations. No applicant ever fits the requirements perfectly. Any filling of a position involves not only compromises but also some form of co-creation, where the person hiring inevitably changes the job itself around the unique abilities of the applicant and vice-versa. The software that will focus on engaging applicants and job providers in a co-creation dialogue is the one that will win out.

Performance management is another HR area littered with ponderous, top-down, and ultimately useless programs. At least one software company is embarking on the co-creation journey, though. The Economist, in an article entitled “The Rypple effect,” features a piece of software that allows employees to solicit feedback from a self-constructed network of peers, a kind of real-time 360-degree feedback (e.g., “Did you like my presentation today?”).

With Rypple, employees are the ones framing the performance issue. HR and management can see how their employees define success and can coach in top-down fashion as needed. The basic service is free, and a more advanced version costs $2-5 per user per month. My money is on these guys.

Leadership sucks

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I never got the leadership thing. Leadership is the number one issue in most manager surveys. It is the most prominently featured section in managerial magazines. Leadership professors engage adoring HR fans in parsing out the differences between leadership and management. It is the star program in every executive education program. The parables of leadership – particularly those involving polar bears or movable cheese – take on messianic virtue. But none of this stuff ever does anything for me. I clearly suffer from leadership impairment, and it feels pretty lonely out there.

Until yesterday that is. At the end of the day, I ran across an article in the latest Harvard Business Review by Henry Mintzberg, the ever-young professor of strategy and organization at McGill University.

Suddenly, I have a Sherpa, someone who describes the world I live in. Mintzberg’s thesis: leadership sucks. O.K., I may be editorializing a little, but it’s the idea. To him, the US model of leadership, with its top-down, hero-at-the-helm iconography bears no resemblance to the way successful organizations actually work. His view: good managers foster the building of communities inside their organization and engage their employees in a collective process that starts with single innovative projects, and eventually shapes the enterprise as a whole. In the end, it is about communities doing meaningful things together, not fungible individuals who transact with their leader in the accomplishment of tasks. He suggests substituting “communityship” for “leadership.” (Henry, give me a call, I think I can help you a tad with your conceptual marketing.)

The use of the concept of community as it applies to organizational dynamics inside the organization is the new story here. We have long argued that co-creation with communities applies both outside the company – the more traditional marketing-oriented definition of community – and inside the organization – the way Mintzberg describes it. These are two sides of the same coin, an uncomfortable reality for marketing and HR people who think of themselves as having wildly different expertise (knowing “markets” vs. knowing “people,” but failing to realize that markets involve people too). Management is about communities, and there is no essential difference between building a customer community or an employee community.

There’s something annoying about Canadians like Mintzberg. On one end, they’re very much American, er, North American, that is. On the other, they have that “I’m looking at your menagerie from outside the cage” quality, with its vaguely socialistic, French-influenced hauteur. The only problem is they’re often right.