Why is it that most transformation agendas wither down to a simple repositioning of the deck chairs or at best appear like superficial change efforts?

For those in the HR fraternity engaged in playing diverse roles ranging from practitioners to advisors and even budding entrepreneurs, the past several months leading up to the new year have undoubtedly posed some uncomfortable questions. Triggered by provocative points of view from several   thought leaders who have either written their obituaries of the HR function or in some cases offered more constructive guidance on newer models that need to be embraced, ongoing debates on the uncertain ‘Future of HR’ have heated up like never before. The purists on the other side have vehemently argued that there has never been a better time for HR to come to the party. The truth, as we know from experience is perhaps somewhere in the middle. The reality across most organizations is that adversity in the form of constrained growth,  escalating costs, emergence of newer sectors and digital business models that are luring talent away from them and in some industries the unforgiving regulators, is in fact creating the imperative to look at talent in much more strategic and innovative ways than in the past.

For organisations with a global footprint, complex operating models and a diverse workforce mix, transforming HR is almost an immediate response to the broader contextual challenges to ensure they don’t miss the bus this time around.

The findings from a recent research report that I chanced upon suggested that almost 85% of global companies that were surveyed believed that they needed to ‘transform their HR’ to meet new business challenges. While the process of embarking on a transformation journey comes with relatively low entry barriers, achieving results that truly demonstrate value are much harder to find. So why is it that most transformation agendas wither down to a simple repositioning of the deck chairs or at best appear like superficial change efforts?

As someone who has been constantly intrigued by the secret sauce behind large scale HR transformation efforts over the past several years, the essentials shared below come from my own experience of leading a few such iterations.

1) Engagement with Stakeholders to determine the ‘best fit’ HR operating model                                                                                       

Architecting the HR operating model in collaboration with key stakeholders in the business is critical to the success of the HR transformation journey as it provides clarity on the touch points of HR service delivery as also how it is expected to be delivered differently in the new construct. However, this important component of the journey is often the result of hindsight or pre approved blueprints that are shared with stakeholders much too late in the day resulting in surprises and a consequent lack of alignment. The operating model definition itself should be safeguarded against a ‘one size fits all principle’ as business complexity usually demands an approach that needs adaptation by type of markets viz emerging vs. mature or by type of workforce that could expect high touch solutions to the more industrialised ones. Irrespective, engaging stakeholders early in the game is key for success as the best answers usually come from asking the right questions!

2) Putting the right skills in the right roles                                              

While the operating model can help clarify the HR service delivery framework, in reality it is brought to life by individuals playing different roles to deliver those services.  A strategic business partner role demands a mindset and engagement capabilities that are distinct from a CoE responsible for delivering functional/business solutions and the two skills sets are not always fungible.  Talent constraints and other staffing challenges often end up undermining the significance of right staffing thereby putting the expected business benefits of transformation at risk. Investments in  capability building or acquiring the right skills to cover critical gaps should accompany the move to a new operating model

3) Building a solid foundation of data to demonstrate credible shifts 

Using insights drawn from quality data is the surest way of measuring and reporting transformational shifts irrespective of their magnitude.  In the absence of data, HR leaders are forced to rely on anecdotal evidence or their personal conjectures of what constitutes success and these may or may not be directly aligned to the expected business outcomes of HR transformation. Building an analytics capability and the technology behind it in HR is therefore essential to support transformation

4) A big bang vs phased out approach – getting the balance right 

Going live with the desired end state at one go may achieve short term objectives of cost and resource optimization but lead to other issues in the quality of service delivery, ugly customer/client escalations and eventually impact trust and collaboration that are more difficult to fix. Calibrating the pace of the HR transformation journey closer to the leadership and workforce maturity will ensure the right balance in implementation

5) Keeping the HR teams engaged

While process simplification, reduction of transactional work and talent centricity are generally seen as positives out of transformation by the HR teams themselves, addressing their concerns of learning, development and career growth opportunities in the new model is important to keep the best HR talent who may otherwise experience ‘loss of heart’. Indeed, the success of HR transformation requires more not less investment in shaping the HR talent of the future

6) Embedding employee experience in the delivery of Shared Services 

Developing a strong HR shared services capability is critical for the achievement of HR transformation goals in terms of costs, consistency and scalability through industrialized approaches.  It also creates the platform to progress beyond just basic transaction processing and provide services that are more value added. On the flip side, it can also be the biggest risk to a positive employee experience given the volume of life cycle transactions handled.

The above essentials are not comprehensive by any standards for the list is long but probably the ‘real differentiators’ in my view between just another change program that could be made visible in the form of structural and/or process changes and transformation in its real sense of bringing about material shifts in HR service delivery outcomes for the business besides enhancing the quality of HR’s own engagement over time.

The views expressed here are personal of the author and not representative of the organization in any way. 


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