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Is it time to disrupt HR?

We live in an age of uncertainty and disruption.  The problem with uncertainty is that we don’t know what will happen next.  Conventional wisdom is challenged. Business models are overturned and new business models are emerging.  The reality of disruption is that it is planned. If disruption is better planned than current business, disruption will win. A group of talented people sit around a table with tablets, target an industry and decide how it can be disrupted.  They make it their business to exploit the weaknesses of current businesses and then establish a new business exposing these weaknesses with clear solutions and supporting applications at the speed of light.  Some of these business models are disrupting the way we do business.  Thus, life and business becomes unpredictable as current business models become uncompetitive and unsustainable when these start-ups threaten the existence of outdated business models.

Uber is the most popular example of disruption in business.  Uber challenged the taxi industry.  The response from the market was excitement on the one hand, and resistance on the other hand.  Traditional taxi companies are simply unable to respond to the new radical form of competition that makes their business model obsolete overnight.  Yet, traditionalists are fighting disruption, they run to the legislators to “protect” the status quo.  Speed and rapid responsiveness is not a strength of legislators, and the start-ups reign supreme despite the chaos they created.   While protectionism may create short-term stability and protect individuals from losing their jobs, such forms of traditional approaches to maintaining the status quo is simply not sustainable.  Traditionalists fall into the trap of fighting the future and failure is the inevitable result.  We need to realise that a paradigm shift is needed to move from the present to the future, especially if we purposefully challenge the current way of doing things.  The obstacle to our thinking and current practice is that the “status quo” is seen as “good” while someone once said that the “status quo” in reality means “the mess we are in.”  Now, if we want to be honest with ourselves, we need to realise that we are indeed in a mess.  But what exactly is the mess we are in? Here are some examples:

  • Education institutions are not preparing students for the new world of business and work;
  • Unethical behaviour and practices, fraud and corruption are no longer the problem of a few “greedy individuals”, it has become the norm at most organisations;
  • The time wasted by bureaucracy and red tape do not fit the needs of people who live in a world of instant gratification, speed and time pressures;
  • Labour and other forms of legislation emanate from the way people were managed in factories the previous century;
  • There is a gap between the needs of employers and employees. The traditional psychological contract is outdated, employees want total different things to what employers are currently providing;
  • Employee benefit schemes also originate from the previous century and simply do not meet the needs of employees. In fact, they only meet the financial needs of the business owners of employee benefit scheme companies;
  • Pension schemes have been planned to let retired people live in comfort for ten to twenty years after retirement, while the current and future reality of longevity is to double this period;
  • People have lost respect for business leaders, politicians, local councillors and other authority figures, thus creating a serious leadership vacuum in business and society;
  • Some people sit in traffic from two to four hours a day, thus spending a large part of their day being very unproductive, despite a national productivity crisis;
  • Although there are some notable exceptions, most countries throughout the world experience zero or very small economic growth rates;
  • The cost of living is rising and people struggle to make ends meet in difficult economic, business and personal financial situations;
  • While policies and procedures were intended as “guidelines for sound governance and good practice”, in practice they have become obstacles to getting things done;
  • The pace of change is simply too fast for most managers and employees to adapt;
  • The only group of people more dissatisfied than workers, is the large pool of unemployed people who do not have any hope of finding any meaning in life;
  • Inequality is perpetuated by ineffective strategies and plans of creating equality, and excessive executive remuneration exacerbating the problem;
  • The current workplace is inflexible and not ready for the future world of work;
  • The biggest gap in business and government remains – the strategy-execution gap.

The month of February 2017 was a historic moment for HR in South Africa. This was a special moment for South Africa’s top employer, Unilever.  The Unilever HR leaders from across the African continent came together to review their strategy and to plan the way ahead. Building on their focus on excellence and talent, significant changes were discussed and planned going forward. A new commitment to leadership development and impact in society was agreed on. This commitment goes beyond an internal focus on HR practices at Unilever. It extended to making a difference to broader society by developing a million leaders for South Africa.  What makes this effort real national leadership in action is that the company’s HR team exposed themselves to high level HR engagement with the top HR Leaders from Vodacom, Microsoft and Tiger Brands. SABPP also participated in this panel discussion facilitated by the Top Employers Institute.  Reflecting on this HR transformation engagement, I want to pose the following questions to challenge our thinking and future planning:

  • Is it time to disrupt HR by creating new models of people empowerment and productivity?
  • Is HR an enabler or obstacle to real talent management in which talent is set up for success?
  • Why do we continue with outdated and irrelevant HR practices from the previous millennium?
  • Do our HR professionals have the right talent to drive proactive and progressive talent management forward?
  • What difference does HR make to broader society?
  • Why are we competing rather than collaborating in the talent space?
  • Are we using qualifications and other job requirements as obstacles to keep youth talent out?
  • Have we created an environment for talent to succeed or to be suppressed?
  • Why don’t we leverage technology as a key driver of HR and business success?
  • Are we able to move beyond current fads in creating real value and impact?
  • Why do we waste the productive time of staff by letting them sit in traffic for hours every day?
  • Why do we continue to work from 8 to 5 if the world does not function like that anymore?
  • Why do we have a once a year wellness day, if employee wellness should be driven every day?
  • Why are we still doing once a year performance appraisals, if performance targets should be achieved every day?
  • Why do we continue with job descriptions?
  • Why do we perpetuate the status quo with regulations, rules, policies and aspects of labour laws that may not be relevant to the new world of work?
  • Could a new “HR-Uber” model lead to the total demise and eventual destruction of HR?
  • Is it time for real, significant and disruptive innovation in HR?

Today we have a choice: To deny the mess we are in, or to turn it around.  We have an opportunity to face reality and decide to create better organisations and societies.  If we are honest with ourselves, as HR professionals, we will admit that we are part of the problem.  We can stay with the problem , maintain the status quo or embark on a transformation journey with clear actions to elevate our thinking and practice to become relevant with impact. Perhaps we need a serious session of design thinking to generate a new approach to people-centred future-focused HR.  It will require  us to disrupt HR by moving away from traditional and outdated ways of doing things.  Let us start a journey and process of creating future-fit HR practice by disrupting our current way of doing HR work and moving towards a new people-centred HR business philosophy. We need a new way of doing HR in which top talent and all employees will thrive in harnessing their talents for the best, not only in creating high performance organisations, but also a better society, country, region, continent and world.

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One Comment

  1. great article and call to action – thanks Marius

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