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Perry Timms



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Transformational HR: why we need a people-centred approach


We hear about transformation all the time, and mainly it’s about digital transformation. The next wave of automation, technology that’s more virtual, slick and seamless – that kind of thing.

A big programme is built, maybe a division setup for it and then we unleash our plans on our people and the world.

It seems like the thing to do. Or else we’ll get left behind in this VUCA world (sorry, I had to mention it). And so it continues.

Sadly, I’ve seen far too many digital transformations in HR that centre around a “drop-in” solution.

I’ve experienced clients of mine left confused with past consulting partners attempts at a programme of change that was simply vague, poorly scoped and even poorly executed. But at least they finished the installation of O365!

Sadly, I’ve seen far too many digital transformations in HR that centre around a “drop-in” solution of a new HR Information System of the baseline (or vanilla) type. Basic functionality. No attempt to include bespoke applications and features that are applicable to your specific organisational foibles. Just a big old generic slab of basic technology.

It almost feels like a panic buy car: “I know it doesn’t have flexible seating at the back but it’ll do”, and then “oops, how do we get the baby buggy in?”. It appears to some HR teams that the HR system is for them when, in reality, it’s their product to other people – their colleagues. Yet do we consider them in the design and feature set of such a system? It appears to be a rare occurrence in my experience.

Systems designed for people

We don’t install and use a system for HR just because we need it in HR; it’s a system that is useful to us, but ultimately, is for our people to use. To record hours, log overtime, book leave, obtain benefits, record their performance feedback and of course recruit and put people on payroll. 

Much of the reasoning behind why we need a new HR digital system should be about our people across the organisation who need to access, search, retrieve and consume our products.

We probably make that point in the business case but the actual attention to design for those people appears to be dropped in favour of a cheaper plug-in. Then we wonder why we have to expend so much energy persuading people to use the thing and pour hours into roadshows, campaigns, incentives and even punitive measures for non-compliance.

A new HR digital system should be about our people across the organisation.

We often make procurement decisions based on out-of-the-box generic process versions and we amend our processes to fit that system and not what our people need. That feels less like transformation and more like untransformation – backwards steps.

We’re looking in the wrong place – at the budget not the needs of the users, customers – our people. Which isn’t code for spend, spend, spend. It’s a call for investment to be more effectively designed and well thought through.

I’m yet to be convinced (based on recent dialogue) that HR teams are applying Design Thinking principles before they commit to a new HRIS. I’m not sure we’ve done our due diligence in creating a prototype system to replace performance management before we either pull the plug or tighten the routines.

What do we do instead?

One way is to use stacks. By this I mean we don’t segment our organisation based on hierarchical functions (certainly not our own HR function needs in isolation) instead we look at the value creating blocks of our business and form them into stacks.

The stacks will be of different sizes depending on the cost to deploy the work of that stack and the value each stack actually generates (financial, social, reputational and human capital).

We can start to design it from a human, process, compliance, workflow and financial modelling viewpoint.

When we’re then looking to transform, we can start by looking at the impact needed, for example more automation in the supply chain. We can then apply the investigation, disruption, implementation and benefits realisation to each stack: how does it affect marketing, finance, purchasing, people, leadership, legal etc.

Once we’ve done this evaluation we’ll have more data to inform our decision making on how to deliver that transformation programme. We can start to design it from a human, process, compliance, workflow and financial modelling viewpoint. We can then look at the digital systems to support the various components and their place in our stacks.

Such an approach is likely to be more thoughtful, connected, aligned and quite the opposite of a “dropped in from on high” inadequate generic system.

Real transformation 

My plea for more acute and people-centred design is that ultimately our transformation (in a digital sense) has to be better or it’s not transformational – it’s just changes. Something that’s worse than before, and likely to be repealed, overwritten or replaced quickly is a false form of transformation.

My plea is for more acute and people-centred design.

Until we look in the right place, what is transformative for our people is using more digital solutions and approaches (kit and gadgets).

It’s all in the design process. Design Thinking will help us look in the right places at the right times. Use data, evidence, personification and deeper understanding of the people we’re here to support – our colleagues.

Think digital transformation is about is about technology alone? Think again.

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