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Murray Furlong



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How much of your people agenda can you really control?


The HR function is under greater scrutiny than ever. There is huge pressure for HR professionals to prove their value as strategic partners to business leaders. The biggest people transforming challenges – embedding leadership behaviours; attracting and strengthening the talent pipeline; fostering innovation; redesigning the structure; shifting the organisational culture –often sit on HR’s shoulders.

But is this really fair? And how much influence can HR, or indeed any other business function really have?

Could it be that successful organisational change happens as much by accident as by design? And what can we in HR learn from the seemingly boundless field of OD that might help us do things a little differently?

The body of knowledge and indeed received wisdom around people strategy and change is vast and deeply embedded in our experiences of organisational life. As a result, we have all become fluent in a common language – we speak often of values; leadership capability; vision; strategy; change programmes; missions and transformation agendas.

We might expend huge energy and passion in creating “one culture” – distilling the essence of what we stand for and how we stand out from the crowd. When we approach the problem of changing some aspect of our workforce, we look towards acclaimed and well-practised methods of diagnosis and analysis.

We naturally seek to quantify and define aspects of human nature that are intrinsically hard to pin down: trust, integrity and even our unconscious bias are all under the microscope.

But what if there was another way? Could we, as HR professionals, add even greater value if we worked on the belief that there are probably many aspects of our colleagues’ behaviour we just can’t influence? And, even if we could get others to adopt this point of view, how would we go about solving the eternal challenge of achieving results by getting the best from our people?

The dilemmas of the HR function

Organisational size

It seems HR professionals are facing many dilemmas. Consider the problem of organisational size. How can our businesses be both global and local? Our brand in the marketplace is likely to be much more than the sum of its parts, and yet we also recognise that diverse ethnic groups and local communities around the world provide a basis for customer experience and loyalty.

So when it comes to implementing change, should we focus on strengthening the parts or the whole? (Naisbitt, Global Paradox, 1994). Can we really be a “glocal” organisation?

Organisational design

There’s also the perennial problem of organisational redesign. This problem isn’t new. Consider the words attributed to Roman Governor Petronius Arbitor c. AD60: “We tend to meet any new situation by reorganising – and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”

While we have reason to be more optimistic, most of us would agree that our attempts to create structures that minimise silos, span functions and promote empowered self-managed teams are not without pain or confusion.

Over recent years, it seems an increasing number of thought leaders, academics and HR professionals have been adding their collective weight to what business leaders have perhaps known all along – that change is messy! And most of us, when faced with a mess, act quickly to restore those popular hallmarks of successful business: efficiency, predictability and control.

Very few of us would disagreethat the most successful companies are those which adapt to change: we wax enthusiastic about being “agile”, “adaptive”, “innovative” and “game changing” – we even talk about being deliberately “disruptive” to bring about new products and services. 

So why is it, when it comes to our biggest transformation initiatives, we so often fall back on traditional top-down, step by step methods, with change champions working to pre-defined milestones and “go live” dates that often owe more to the Gantt chart than to any real human spirit?

There is something of a paradox here between chaos and control – but aren’t they both part of the solution when it comes to implementing change?

How we do it v what we do

The reality is that the way we go about change – the ‘how we do it’ rather than ‘what we do – will have a big impact on whether or not we are successful. Most of us agree that people don’t necessarily resist change itself but rather having change imposed on them.

Yet we find that most people change initiatives appear to be prescriptive, heading in a pre-set direction towards a specific set of outcomes.

This is usually the case whether we are implementing new technology, managing talent, making efficiency savings or breaking into new markets. After the usual periods of data gathering surveys, analysis, consultations and focus groups, we end up with a set of non-negotiable ruleswith consequences for non-compliance attached (even if we use much softer language when we come to launching them)! Over time, we see an attitude shift in those whofollow these rules to the extent that eventually, their own personal values become aligned with the outcome we were looking for. (Van de Ven & Poole, Academy of Management Review 1995).

This approach is not without value. Take the example of safety. Many years ago, the wearing of seatbelts was not enforced. As new laws were introduced and fines and prosecutions followed, people began to comply, perhaps reluctantly at first. Nowadays, most of us place huge personal value on wearing seat belts, particularly when it comes to protecting our families.

This example is something of a simplification, but would it have happened anyway, even without enforcement and control?

Gervase Bushe and Robert J Marshak’s work on Dialogic Organization Development (NTL Handbook of Organizational Development and Change) gives us food for thought here. They offer us a different mind-set, one that strives for emergent rather than directed change processes.

Rather than planning for a specific outcome, they talk instead about creating the conditions that lead to new ways of thinking and different possibilities for employees to work in new ways.

As people engage in generating new images of how to spend their time and add value, new patterns and norms emerge that form a break from the past. This is a much less concrete and prescriptive way of helping change to happen.

At first glance to an HR professional in the throes of a complex business transformation, this might seem at best woolly and at worst impractical. But could it be that HR can play a critical role here, in a new way,by creating the platform for people to self-organise, engage in conversation and experience an on-going stream of small alterations in their working practices that coalesce to transform the business? Here’s what this could look like in practice:

Encourage free sense-making and storytelling

We often talk about managers cascading values and corporate messages through the business. As well as distributing the ‘party line’, how can you equip managers with the skills to ask the questions that promote free thinking and discussion in their teams.

As new strategies, values or core principles are ‘rolled out’ managers should encourage their teams to make sense of these in their own way, by telling their own stories around what these things mean to them and generating their own images (perhaps displayed openly in the workspace) that tell the story of what is new, different and exciting. HR could model the way here by facilitating ‘drop-in’ team events to get the ball rolling and encouraging honest dialogue.

Take much smaller steps and keep making small adjustments

It is tempting to divide business transformation into chunky macro steps, particularly when large numbers of people in multiple locations are concerned. The risk here is that the opportunity for feedback and continuous improvement is restricted to more formalised communication channels.

How can you work with managers to bring about change one step at a time through simple, generative questions and trying things out? This might start with small forums run by managers who, instead of cascading a vision from on high, ask the question “What would make life better for our customers?” Imagine the power of an organisation whose employees, in all functions, were asking themselves this question every day and acting on their responses locally?

Say you “don’t know” or you “got it wrong”

Business leaders fear that saying “we aren’t sure where we are going” or “we got that wrong” will create chaos. But instead it might do a lot to create trust and encourage people to think for themselves about how to adapt and succeed. This is not to let senior people off the hook for setting strategy and providing a clear focus, but not every transformation is clear cut.

Help people to generate their own sense of success and figure out how to move towards it and they will usually learn to let go of less helpful habits and behaviours for themselves.

Remember it’s not just on HR’s shoulders

Traditionally, HR have taken the lead in embedding values and behaviours; managing the talent pipeline, developing leadership capability and workforce planning. Perhaps this is as it should be, but does this need for HR to be the architects of transformation lead to feeling of ‘top down’ or ‘HQ-led’ particularly for those working ‘in the field’.

Can HR professionals take advantage of their business partner relationships to devolve the responsibility for change to functional business leaders and other talented employees with a desire to make things better? This would mean playing a different role – perhaps responding to and supporting a series of experiments, gathering the learning and celebrating small successes, rather than pushing a single corporate wide change agenda?

The bottom line here is that HR has the opportunity to think differently about the role it plays in transformation. It may be able to bring greater benefits by relinquishing control and devolving responsibility for change throughout the organisation.

HR could be the next innovators for business change, finding new ways for people to make sense of and fulfil their own destinies, generating greater levels of trust, commitment and engagement along the way that soon lead quickly to commercial success.

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Murray Furlong


Read more from Murray Furlong

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