Most of today’s business processes hail from an earlier, more stable environment. The goal was to drive efficiency, consistency, and risk reduction through tight procedures and controls. That stability has all but vanished. Global competition, changing customer demands, economic troughs, supplier upheavals, and political turmoil have replaced stability with permanent volatility.
To thrive—even survive—companies are racing to become more agile. In everything from leadership approaches to financial processes, businesses are transforming the way they work. The objective now is to become nimble and surmount new, unexpected hurdles without skipping a beat.
To do so, companies are transforming how employees work each day. Agile organizations won’t depend on a few decision-makers at the top. They will bank on their entire talent pool—inside and outside the company—and deploy them fluidly as circumstances demand. Instead of pushing resources and people based on a forecasted demand, agile organizations will bring a broad range of resources to bear in real time—anywhere in the world.
The opportunity for HR is profound. Talent—and HR’s ability to manage it—is the bedrock of agility. As competitive advantage shifts inexorably from the resources a company owns to its ability to mobilize talent, HR is poised to become the critical driver of company success in the new competitive reality. To step into the new role, however, HR will have to transform its talent management approach and how it delivers service.
To enable agility, HR will need to make changes on the following fronts:
A New Mission and Imperatives
Currently, the goal of many HR systems is to provide standardized processes to reduce variability; ensure fairness; mitigate risk; and provide low-cost, easy-to-manage services. The new mission will center on improving enterprise performance through on-demand availability of resources. To meet that mandate, these new imperatives are coming to the fore:
- Brokering and discovering unknown talent: To assure talent flows where it’s needed, HR will become experts at identifying and locating talent and synching it to business needs. HR professionals will look beyond employee skills and experience and profile their competencies, passions, and geographical preferences.
- Building an adaptive and ethical culture: When narrowly defined job descriptions are no longer the primary means of control and individuals have more decision-making power, HR must work to instill values in the culture to ensure people make effective decisions.
- Developing a learning organization: As learning becomes more important in enabling change, HR will put more emphasis on helping workers constantly learn new skills through a variety of formal and informal learning opportunities.
- Fostering worker mobility: Worker mobility is critical—within and between organizations, across jobs, careers, functions, geographies, and business units. HR professionals will become experts in fostering worker exchange programs, designing incentives that encourage internal mobility, participating in crowdsourcing events, and redesigning career paths.
- Applying science and fact-based analytics: Science is changing the face of how we understand and motivate people. For example, new research on the brain has found that focusing on positive messages when initiating change can be more motivating than focusing on fear or problems, e.g., a burning platform (Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” Crown Business, 2010). HR professionals will also use empirical, scientific tools to perform analytics on their own workforce to gain insights on how to increase agility.
Redesigning Work and Career Paths
Traditional job descriptions are becoming obsolete in a world of complex, team-based knowledge work. Some organizations are doing away with them and relying on employees to define their roles and tasks within broadly defined parameters. At Google, engineers can spend 80 percent of their time working on their core jobs and 20 percent on strategic new projects that eventually may evolve the company’s business model (“Thinking Space,” by Virginia Matthews, Personnel Today, January 16, 2007, p. 22; and “Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine,” by Bala Iyer and Thomas H. Davenport, Harvard Business Review, April 2008, p. 58). Alternatively, organizations may define work in terms of small, discrete projects. Microsoft allows its core engineers to “moonlight” on special projects within the company that lie outside their core jobs (“Moonlighting Within Microsoft, in Pursuit of New Apps,” by Anne Eisenberg, The New York Times, February 26, 2011).
Just as jobs are being redefined, so, too, are career paths. Linear, lockstep journeys are yielding to broader routes that meet changing business needs. For example, some companies are analyzing transfer and promotion histories to build company databases available to all staff and turning to social media to help employees connect with others whose career paths they can model.
Revamping Talent Management Processes
The vast majority of HR processes—including compensation, career development, rewards, and training—are tied to job descriptions. As static titles and organization charts continue to hamper agility, talent management must focus on the individual, not the job. For example, people may be paid based on skills instead of titles. Or employees may have to complete learning programs to define their career paths and meet changing business priorities. Feedback systems will have to be revamped and include ongoing—even daily—input. Talent management also must embrace the extended workforce to ensure that this important part of the equation is functioning at peak levels.
Rebuilding HR Organizational Structures
To apply the practices discussed here, the HR organization will have to become nimble itself. To enable business agility, it no longer may be appropriate for HR to dictate actions that people must take such as a rigidly prescribed career path or specific tasks within a job. In such a world, employees no longer will be treated as passive consumers of narrowly defined talent processes and solutions, but instead as co-creators of talent processes and solutions.
To adopt such a model, HR professionals themselves may need to have more fluid jobs and organizational structures. In some companies, HR has eliminated traditional roles such as professionals in centers of excellence and HR business partners. In some new models, HR professionals lead teams with representatives from other functions, as well as the business to design talent and implement talent management practices. Other companies have adopted a “professional services” HR organization where professionals are assigned to specific projects based on needs, skills, and interests.
Agility is becoming the new mantra of business. Organizations will have to reshape themselves to fluidly deploy resources to address changing conditions. HR organizations of the future have a powerful opportunity to reinvent themselves—and the HR and talent management practices they support—to drive agility in their organizations. That agility ensures a company’s future ability to compete.
David Gartside is the managing director responsible for HR offerings and capabilities within the Accenture Talent & Organization practice.
Yaarit Silverstone is the managing director responsible for talent offerings and capabilities within the Accenture Talent & Organization practice.
Susan M. Cantrell is a research fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance.