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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Josh Bersin: “HR must stop being order takers.”


Josh Bersin is one of the most recognisable faces in the HR industry and is currently Principal & Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, who provide consultancy on people strategies based on research. We conducted this interview with Josh at HR Tech World Congress, which took place in Paris in October 2015.

You’ve got nine specific focuses for talent management maturity now which are business priorities for companies nowadays looking to make the most of people. How did you come to these nine?

About a year ago I was looking at the history of talent management and a lot of the original thinking of talent management was integration: how do we integrate recruiting, learning, OD, comms, performance into these integrated processes, and how do we build a talent management team?

We looked at all our data on that and we found that integration has nothing to do with it, integration is not really paying off. Companies have invested in talent management suites – and it’s nice to do business with just one vendor – but they don’t really deliver on the promise, so went back out and looked at what companies were really doing and we came up with these nine problem areas.

All the traditional practices of HR were designed around a traditional, old fashioned company so little by little they’re all getting reinvented.

These are what they talk about when we ask what their problems are. It’s not hiring the right people, it’s not knowing how to run training, it’s not having enough leaders, it’s a terrible culture which is difficult to measure or improve.

What’s tying all these together, is there a big overall driving force?

I would say the big trend is that what people do at work, their expectations for their career, the way they find a new job, is completely different now. Particularly with young people, they don’t work at the same company for more than a year or two, they don’t mind jumping around because they can find another job on the internet relatively easily or the job can find them.

So the concept of this career in one company where you stay for a long time has changed. People are basically travel animals: we like to be part of a group and we like to be part of a family. While it would be nice if we could work in the same company for a long time, we don’t have to anymore.

Because of this, a lot of the way we recruit and the way we attract people and the brand we put out there, what happens when you join the company, what managers do, how you drive performance management – all this is getting redesigned to deal with this new world of work.

Another driver is transparency. If you want to get a new job, you can go to Glassdoor or some other website and you can find out a heck of a lot about a company before you even interview with anyone. Plus you can probably find people that work there online.

All the traditional practices of HR were designed around a traditional, old fashioned company so little by little they’re all getting reinvented.

As a company if you scale enough you’ll have problems in all these areas. How do you prioritise?

If you went to the CEO and asked him or her what the top three issues are for the business, you’re going to hear it. The problem with HR is that HR professionals are trying to do everything: they’re trying to do programmes in every possible area, whereas the business might really have two or three critical issues that want their attention.

I think one of the ways to think of it is: if you’re an HR professional, spend your time where the business makes money.

So if the company knows what people and business challenges they have then what’s been the disconnect between HR and the company?

I think the disconnect is that HR for years has defined itself as a service organisation i.e. you come to me and tell me what you want and I’ll do it for you.

So you end up doing a little bit of everything instead of taking a strategic view of the big issues in the organisation over the next couple of years. HR needs to be the trusted, valued consultants rather than the order takers.

Order takers get all sorts of administrative requests from people about compliance training, onboarding etc but HR must take on a strategic role.

Josh Bersin: “HR must stop being order takers.”

How big a transition is this for most companies?

It’s a culture transition going on in the HR profession where the chief HR officer is driven by what we call ‘bold HR.’ Our whole conference last Spring was about HR not being a business partner but running like a business itself and doing innovation and creativity in the people side of the business. This is just like what sales and marketing have done.

Onto disruptive trends, what’s happening in HR at the moment and going into 2016?

In the area of technology it’s the amplification and consumerisation of tools so that instead of buying HR software for HR professionals, now you’re buying tools for employees. Most companies are now selling tools for employees to collaborate, to provide feedback, to learn and to communicate better.

It’s a culture transition going on in the HR profession where the chief HR officer is driven by what we call ‘bold HR.’

HR’s job is to become productivity experts: that’s a huge change in what HR is being asked to do and that means that not only is technology changing but HR professionals have to start re-defining their roles as are the things we’re doing to improve engagement. Not in the traditional once-a-year survey but asking questions such as “did this programme get widely adopted?” or “did I design it in a way that’s easy to use?”

So HR professionals have to think about themselves as design thinkers and designers, not just “oh well let’s just sit around a white board and build a big programme and roll it out” because people won’t use it, they’re too busy.

We’ve done a piece of research twice now at Deloitte called the Overwhelmed Employee. Most employees have too many tools, too many emails, too many meetings, too many tasks and so when HR comes along and rolls out something else they’re like, “wow you know I don’t have time to do this.”

Either HR has to build things that are really easy and fun and engaging or they have to re-define themselves.

Whose job is it then to optimise work?

That’s a good question. I don’t think most companies know. It’s not IT’s job. I think theoretically it should be the line manager’s job but I think one of HR’s new roles is to help the line manager figure out how the work should be arranged and focus on organisation design.

Either HR has to build things that are really easy and fun and engaging or they have to re-define themselves.

They should ask questions like “should I have twenty people on this team or ten?” Or “should I have specialist analysts or not?” and other questions that directly impact people productivity.

This is an opportunity for HR to be valued consultants. Every year HR gets asked to do new things but I think right now with companies being more concerned about retention, engagement and productivity HR has to step up its game. The whole theme of our conference next year is how you can redesign your organisation to accommodate the new way people work.

Theoretically there are organisation design people in HR but they’re not commonly using those skills enough.

Most employees have too many tools, too many emails, too many meetings, too many tasks.

Or alternatively they don’t have the mandate to be able to do that. I think work organisation is a huge part of job design. We have to challenge push back from the organisation on this type of thinking.

Right and you keep getting this push back and nobody has the time or wants to do the things that HR ask because it’s not a problem with the initiative or the programme, it’s a problem with the organisation structure.

The same thing is happening with learning. Learning is now all about empowering the employee to work and giving them the tools to go and find and access and take advantage of the new resources around them. It’s all about empowerment and the design of learning experiences.

When do you think the debate around generation differences is going to reach a maturity where we aren’t debating it anymore?

We have a line we’re putting into our report – “we are all millennials.”

If you look at the stuff that millennials want it’s stuff we all want, they just happened to have a voice to talk about it in a way that maybe a lot of us didn’t.

But a lot of bigger companies still are struggling with a culture or work climate that doesn’t attract young people and so the reason it’s such a big issue is if you’re a traditional company run by people in their fifties and sixties and you’re not attractive to young people you’re not able to hire.

We have a line we’re putting into our report – “we are all millennials.”

So companies are basically jumping over hoops to try to figure out, “do I need to have free food?” or “do I need to have open offices?” And then when they introduce these things they realise that everyone likes them.

I think there’s another problem the other end which is we also have people in their fifties, sixties and seventies who are going to work longer and they’re going to top out in their careers.

They’re going to now work for younger people and they may not be ready for that. The younger people may also not be ready for them. As a society we haven’t talked enough about what a company is going to do about the boomers that aren’t going to leave.

I had a meeting with a large pharmaceutical company a couple of weeks ago and it’s one of those companies where nobody ever quits. People work their whole lives there. They told me about situations where they have senior leaders running business divisions, someone in their fifties or sixties, and that person will not get promoted.

So they need to bring someone in above that person who might be in their thirties but the older worker doesn’t want to work for somebody in their thirties. But the company doesn’t want to lose the older worker, so how does the company condition and train them that it’s okay to be part of a company run by younger people?

That’s the other end of the problem and I think that’s going to become a pretty big issue too. It’s generational on both sides.

Last year we talked about the contingent workforce and the reduction in permanent workers in relation to freelancers, where do you see that going?

There’s a lot being written on it. The research that I’m seeing, at least in the US, seems to show that the percentage of the workforce that’s contingent is about the same as it’s always been and their standard of living is not necessarily as high as people who have full time jobs.

There’s a lot of debate about quality so there are people that can go out and work part time and make a lot of money – experts, software engineers, these kinds of people and they have many opportunities to do this.

If you go and ask a typical Uber driver why they do what they do instead of having a full time job, most of them say it’s a choice, they have other things to do at home, etc. So contingent people are part of the workforce but I don’t think it’s everything, I don’t think it’s going to become the entire world.

What about the reconfiguration of where people work then? Many companies are realising having a central office is an overhead they could do without.

I was talking with a company last week where they get together as a team and decide when they will work at home. So the marketing department spends Thursdays at home and they’re all fine with it. That doesn’t replace the need for people to meet and to get to know each other and physically collaborate occasionally, if not frequently, so most companies still end up building something, but they don’t need to as much.

What about engagement? Some people like working alone, some people like to collaborate. Not everyone is emotionally connected to work and the ones that are, aren’t connected all the time. So the movement towards collaboration being the superior method of working is quite dangerous. What do you think?

In the area of engagement I wrote a piece called the Irresistible Organisation and I basically pointed out that there are twenty different things that impact engagement.

So the issue of engagement is more complex than people realise and so you have to look at the whole environment of work, purpose, benefits, flexibility, management, rewards, all sorts of things.

In terms of collaboration a lot of research shows that everybody is different. Some people like to work independently and some people don’t but small teams outperform big teams so when you force people to collaborate even when you build open offices people cluster in small groups. There’s a natural human tendency to be part of a smaller group of two, three or five people, not a hundred people.

This comes back to my point about how organisations are designed. Companies are moving from a traditional hierarchy to new world organisation. Here’s an example:

  • Old world: “I’m in the IT department and I sit in a room with a hundred other IT people and I sit on the phone.”
  • New world: “I’m in the IT department but I’m in the security group that deals with this part of the company. I work with these five people and these are our customers, and we all know each other, and to us it’s like a little company.”

Is there an argument for organisations making work ‘easier’ rather than ‘engaging?’

Absolutely. There are twenty things in my concept of the Irresistible Organisation and the number one thing is for work to be meaningful and doable.

One of the jobs of management and HR is to design jobs that are relatively easy to do. Now there are superstars that will over perform and do all sorts of incredible things but most people don’t want a job that’s impossible. They don’t get off on that so you’ve got to constantly be simplifying, stripping stuff away, and reducing clutter.

One of the jobs of management and HR is to design jobs that are relatively easy to do.

If you’re not doing that it doesn’t matter how much free food and stuff you have: nobody’s going to like their job. We’ve got this going on in Deloitte. It’s interesting: we’re part of a company with 275,000 people. The number of potential distractions is massive. People have got to learn how to shut them out or you won’t get anything done at all.

GE has started a new strategy on simplification where they’re teaching managers how to coach employees and what not to do. They give them the freedom to say “no I’m not going to that meeting, I’m with a customer and that’s okay.”

So part of improving engagement is making sure that the job is doable and it’s also giving people training. So let’s say you’re a telecoms company who hires a young guy to sell phones. He comes into the phone centre, gets two days of training and all of a sudden he’s got to learn how to sell 25 different calling plans, 50 phones, needs to know how much everything costs, what discounts he can give. If they don’t get the right training they just quit.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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