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Can HR be a disruptor too?

Talent Management

This is a guest post by Xander Hough, HR Manager at Wolff Olins.

Gone are the days when “disruptive” was a term used to describe my classmates in their school reports. We love companies that have been disruptive. We get off on the drama of the David and Goliath battles of Netflix vs BlockbusterHotels vs AirBnBTaxis vs Uber and Lidl vs….well, just about everyone. And then when the disruptors turn on each other? Well, that’s almost too much excitement to bear.

Disruption is so damn sexy right now, we want people who can do it… and then preferably deliver a TED talk about it. Everyone loves a TED talk.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been invited to do a TED talk yet. I know –right?! In fact, there aren’t many HR Practitioners who deliver TED talks. That’s probably because we’re not seen as disruptive enough. But we could be. Here’s how and here’s why…

Using Technology

Technology has always been an agent of change and disruption – ever since the industrial revolution, ever since the wheel, hell – ever since cavemen used flint spears to hunt. That continues today, although the technology looks rather different. To be a disruptor these days you really need to do it with technology. So HR professionals need to be more conversant in this field – being a “people person” is no longer an excuse.

Sadly, HR technology is lagging behind developments in other fields. The most impressive technology is limited to cloud-based HRIS databases. If you’re lucky, you’ll get employee self-service options where they can view their payslip on their tablet or smart phone. Or an applicant tracking system. That’s as creative as it gets.

What do you do?

Firstly, make sure that you’re using your existing HRIS to the max to provide the kind of data and insights that helps your client leaders make informed decisions. Know the market too. Is your current system providing value to the business? Are there better, faster, more efficient solutions? Invest in a new one if necessary.

Continue to actively seek out new technology that will help you in your talent agenda. Find out if there are apps which help you do your job. Look for tools that allow you to collaborate with your client group or your counterparts if you are part of a global HR team. Learn how to use them properly. Champion their use in your organisation.

Find ways of making it easier for employees to manage their information, their learning, their careers in a flexible and mobile way.

We may have to make small steps at first. You know, maybe ditch your notebook and ballpoint pen (so 1888) and perhaps use a tablet during your client meetings because then you won’t have to spend time typing up those notes, you can easily share them and then you can spend your time being more disruptive?

Push yourself out of your comfort zone. I did my first ever public webinar earlier this month. I had never delivered learning to others in this way before. Sure, it was scary as hell but I’m so glad that I agreed to do something new. And webinars aren’t even new!

Returning to Psychology

You don’t need to be particularly creative to be a disruptor. But you do need access to new thinking (even if it is not your own).

For HR practitioners, I believe this can come from the latest research in psychology. I suppose I would say this given my undergrad degree but there is much innovation to be had if HR stays close to the constant flow of fresh insights that the research field yields. Keeping up with the latest insights may influence things like the environment within your business, the fitness benefits you offer your employees, how you maximise learning or the kinds of behaviour you encourage as part of your organisational culture.

HR practitioners are well-placed to put an appreciation of psychology and the value it can have for business, at the heart of the workplace. By interpreting developments in the field, HR practitioners can implement change in their organisations which capitalises on the new thinking (hopefully some backed up by scientific rigour). You can continually audit aspects of your organisation’s practice against the inferences drawn from this research.

Why stop there?

Human Resource Management has its roots in so many different disciplines (law, management, economics, sociology, psychology, politics, technology etc) – and those are just the most closely related disciplines. What HR awesome things could be inspired by the latest developments in the arts? In culture?

But how many of us can honestly say that we go direct to innovation at any of these sources to develop our thinking? We usually wait for someone else to filter, digest and tell us what to do in some kind of HR forum. Don’t we trust ourselves?

When was the last time as an HR practitioner that you attended some kind of learning event that wasn’t billed as an HR learning event? And did you share that learning with your client group? Do you excite people in your business about the things that excite you? If we want to be disruptors, we have to get comfortable doing these kinds of things.

The Power of Challenge

One thing I learned when I became a voluntary school governor for a fantastic primary school in London was the power of challenge. As a governor you are charged with being a ‘critical friend’ to the school. You do not direct. You do not have individual decision-making power. All you can do is coach the senior leadership of the school and offer challenge. This is basically about asking the right questions and holding the leadership to account. It is about using your insight and the knowledge you have gained about the school along with your chosen profession to ask difficult questions. These questions prompt reflection. They hold people to account. They open up conversations. They encourage analytical and critical thinking when it comes to evaluating ideas. They test feasibility.

When you think about it, challenge is disruption. Challenge is not accepting the status quo.

Good HR practitioners have always asked insightful questions, so they are well placed for this role. They come to the relationship with a fair part of impartiality and are more able to leave their ego at the door. They naturally think about resources – what can be achieved with them, what can be leveraged with them and what limitations exist.

HR knows how to get things done

You cannot be a disruptor if you don’t do anything and HR practitioners can get things done.

Much as some may try, HR practitioners cannot avoid the rest of the business. In fact, great HR practitioners want to interface with the business as much as possible so that they can add value by working in partnership with senior leaders. They sit at an important intersection of departments that can often be siloed.

HR practitioners are often good networkers and they know who to go to for what and who can make things happen. They are adept in navigating the informal, implicit workings of the company and can leverage unofficial channels. They have their ear close to the ground and should be able to give you a good temperature reading of the organisation. They work across the business – you cannot disrupt in one small area. This makes HR a key partner in your disruption efforts.

Supporting Disruptors

OK, so you got me; that’s not really being a disruptor per se. My point here is that while talent within your organisation are being disruptive in their own ways, they need support.

Disruption and the change that evolves out of it can be difficult, emotive and draining. HR practitioners have a very clear role in ensuring that these people are well-looked after, that they have the forums and platforms to share their ideas and progress their agendas.

Disruptors often do it alone. They need coaches and people who can help them develop their thinking by offering a sounding board. Great HR practitioners have coaching in their toolbox. They should also be adept at dealing with creative or innovative personalities, possessing a higher level of emotional intelligence than others in the business.

You can’t be a disruptor unless you have people to do things with you or for you. HR enable this by helping you hire, develop and retain the best talent to deliver your disruptive dreams. You’ll need to be a great leader and good at managing relationships. A good HR practitioner will help you with that.

So I rest my case – HR people are and have the potential to be disruptors too. And even if you don’t believe that, believe that they can enable and enhance the disruption of others.

Now, where’s my damn TED talk?

xanderXander Hough is an HR business partner and freelance consultant on a mission to change how people think about the HR profession, banishing negative stereotypes – sometimes by being sensible and insightful and sometimes by being provocative, flippant, cheeky and down-right naughty.

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