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Disrupting HR: start thinking of HR Customer Service

After many years of discussion and implementation of the HR Transformation framework developed by Dave Ulrich, very few organizations have been really “able” to undertake one of the key challenges posed by that concept: evolving into a true service organization.

Many organizations declare to have successfully implemented the model. The key is of course how is success measured. Very often the issue is that HR transformation has been solely pursued with a cost-saving goal, and thus success has been eventually measured by the dollars the HR organization has saved. But at what cost? Way too often the result is a service organization that is distant (not only physically) from the needs of the employees. Managers have effectively to undertake too many HR tasks designed by HR for HR, not really having in mind the different approach a line manager would have. HR Business Partners that maintain the HR generalist mindset, not having evolved in terms of competencies through the transformation, and that continue to pursue HR tasks instead of being actor of the business support.

Failing to recognize customer needs


But why does this happen? I believe the real issue is that HR has failed to bring the idea of “HR Customers” to the logical conclusion, and really structure itself as a Customer Centric organization. It is very easy to spot this inconsistency, with few examples (unfortunately way to common around the world).

Laura is an employee at Acme Corporation. Her life is going to change a lot in 9 months, as she just discovered to be pregnant for the first time. She has never really bothered to get informed about what this means in terms of work, so she starts looking for some information.

  • First thing she does is looking at her Employee Handbook. There is a section around Leave, with a chapter dedicated to Maternity and Parental leave. But the section is 6 years old, and refers to some roles that are not existing anymore.
  • She decides then to have a look at the HR Intranet. She clicks on the Leave system she normally uses to record her absences, but there is no option to ask for a Maternity Leave.
  • She then looks in the Knowledge Base section. it’s not easy to spot on something specific in that multitude of documents, so she runs a search. The word “Maternity Leave” returns 60 documents, basically there is one policy per country…
  • Luckily she finds a page titled “What to do when you’re pregnant“. But her hopes to get a fast answer disappears in the first lines of the page: Depending on the contract terms you have been hired on or your company of origin, select the most appropriate Policy. Which Contract Terms? True… she was hired originally in a company that was later acquired by Acme… but the titles of the various documents do not help out…
  • She then resorts to call in the HR Help Desk. But the call menu at the beginning is not at all clear. Is this a Payroll question, or a Other Hr Services one? She tries the Payroll one, but although the HR agent on the other side of the phone was very helpful, he did not have full access to her profile to establish which policy would apply, so a case was opened, and she would get an answer in 48 hours.
  • During the day, at the coffee machine, she tells the great news to two of her best friends and colleagues. One of them, already with children, tells her to go immediately and talk with her boss, as apparently the policy states that that is the first step to do.
  • Laura then goes to meet her manager, and tells him the great news. After a couple of minutes of felicitation… he however says that he cannot process that information, as HR would need to be informed first. There’s for sure a form online to fill-in in this case. As Laure explains she had not found it, the manager quickly drops a note to the HR Business Partner requesting help.
  • In the afternoon Laura receives an email from the HR department. Quickly looking through it she notices that the original email from her manager had circulated to at least 5 different person in the course of the day. And an attachment: The official Maternity Policy! She quickly opens the document and… she discovers it’s 43 pages long. Probably too long also for her afternoon commute…

Many will recognize if not all, some of the elements that are common to many companies in the way that HR Services are delivered. Often similar stories appear when we engage with employees or managers trying to describe their experience, together with a sense of frustration and solitude ind ealing with these elements. HR is very often aware of the issue, but not always to this extent. And when facing the truth, their reaction is to fix the process, trying to figure out how to maybe have a better intranet, or update the Employee Handbook more often.

This failure impacts on the business bottom line

However there are two key learnings that often HR misses from similar stories:

  1. Employees and Managers think in terms of real problems they are facing when they need to contact HR. Whereas HR has the tendency to think in terms of functions and processes when delivering services. This unfortunately means that HR is normally not capable to match the needs and wants of their customers, which is to deliver one consistent solution to the problem.
  2. The above issue means that Employees and Managers dedicate time in trying to find answers, read useless documents, try to find shortcuts in the HR organization, resulting in losses of productivity and eventually real money. And creating external inefficiencies while pursuing your own internal business case, is probably not the best way to contribute to the Business.

Some organizations have tried to elaborate on this problem, and have tried to answer by articulating their services around the so-called Employee life-cycle. Despite being an innovation, it is however not enough. Also the Employee Life Cycle is de facto an HR concept, often not linked to HR.

Embedding the Customer Experience concept in HR.

To help out, we need to embed into HR a concept that is rather common in the rest of the business world, that of Customer Experience. I recently came around a very comprehensive definition of Customer Experience as being everything your brand does for your customers, everything your business processes do to them and how it makes them feel. 

And this applies thoroughly also to HR. Therefore we can come to a conclusion that:

Your HR Customer Experience is:

Everything your HR Organization does for your HR Customers
– Everything your HR processes do to them
= How this makes them feel.

This definition has therefore 3 parts:

  1. What you deliver to your customers.
  2. What you oblige your customers to do (in terms of filling in forms, completing transactions, calling in contact center etc.)
  3. What your customer feels of the total of these interactions.

The relationship between point 1 and 2 is effectively linked to the way they relate to each other in producing an experience. And this is all linked to the perceived value of what you are doing. Taking an example from the airline industry, today many people are embracing online check-in because they appreciate the fact that it is faster. However, not all airlines have been equally successful in implementing this, and recent developments at Ryanair show that there is only so much you can do in pushing your customers down a bad experience route. Which is why it is always a bad idea to design and develop self-service applications without having clearly in mind what the customer want or need.

Thinking in terms of Customer Experience is not easy. First of all because this is created by a sum of different interactions. A positive experience can be immediately balanced off by a moderately negative one. Which is why consistency  is key in the development of customer centric approach. What is really key in this is clearly identifying all the moments when employees or managers enter in contact with HR. These Customer Touch-points may be of different kind, covering system as well as personal interactions.

Is the experience you deliver across all these touch points is consistently positive for your customers?

This is the question you should be posing yourself. Carefully designing your interactions around the key customer needs is vital. So for example, if Laura had access to a portal where content was organized at what was relevant for her (in this case her Maternity), perception of quality would have been higher. Same as if the “Maternity Policy” would have been shorter. Or you seriously think that 43 pages is something that everybody would be happily willing to read?

What is the Cost of Good Customer Service?

But here’s come the catch. Many people feel that Good Customer Service is in opposition to cost control. I.e. investing in the quality of service immediately increases costs, something that HR under pressure for cost optimization cannot sustain.

Well, I see it differently. In many cases the cost of not delivering good quality much higher than the cost linked to improving your HR services.

When you don’t deliver positive services for the sake of efficiency, you are in reality moving inefficiencies somewhere else in the business. Which was the case in the example above, where Laura spent how many hours figuring out where to look for the information? And what about her boss? Or the 5-6 people involved in the email chain that eventually led to a policy delivered to her? As you see, poorly designed services have immediate effect in the organization. This may not be in the P&L of HR, but it ultimately is in the Business one!

Customer Service Components

High quality service is a must for all HR organizations that want to stay relevant for their business. There is no choice for this.

Clearly linking Quality, Efficiency, Service and Reliability are the only way to make a Customer happy. Something that is really key for the new HR organization.

A New Paradigm for People Management

Human Resources, really a Vital function?

Human Resources, really a Vital function?

HR is fighting a battle for its relevance in tomorrow’s organisation. If it wants to become something more than just an entity dealing with compliance and payroll administration, a serious paradigm shift is needed. Large HR Transformation efforts, based on the so-called Ulrich Model, have tried to bring efficiency into HR organisation, trying also to integrate technology and process automation. But their results have to a large extent failed to reach their goals. Even with the introduction of the so-called HR Business Partner role, in many organisation the satisfaction of business management towards the HR organisation has swiftly declined. The effort of regaining a business relevance by trying to impose a Business agenda through Talent Management, is also failing because it is proving to be the “wrong” answer to the problem. Facing a structural problem one would argue that a structural change would be necessary, not just a simple make-up effort.

Is there a solution then?

In my opinion yes, and the success that many professionals in this domain endeavor every day shows that a lot can be achieved. What is key is accepting the inevitable rethinking of HR as a whole, starting from its role, its key competencies and the related responsibilities within the organisation.

From HR to People Management

Moving away from the word HR

Moving away from the word HR

The first thing I suggest is abandoning the word “HR”. The concept of Human Resources was meant to stress the changing role of this function when “Corporations began viewing employees as assets rather than as cogs in a machine“. Good principle… but it just failed to miss the point, and the word HR (similarly to word “Talent”) has simply become a symbol of “political correctness”, expressing nothing more than a blunt aspiration in most cases.

The concept of Human Resources was born an idea that employees should not be treated as mere “costs” anymore, but as key resources within the organisation. That’s why over the years also the world Human Capital has been actively used. I do not argue on the relevance of both concepts, but I believe that in the midst of one of the biggest crisis of Capitalism ever, where the “financial capital” system is showing day after day how it has been failing to support real growth, we have the change to underline the real element we should be taking care of: People.

It already came to the attention of many that a relevant player like Google has named its functionPeople Operations“. I prefer the wording People Management for a very simple reason, in many non english contexts the word “operations” simply feels too “operative”, not carrying the real meaning it has in the English dictionary. Plus there is also another key issue. Following Ulrich’s teachings, most organisations have been pushing a lot of people management activities towards line managers. Results have been not always the expected ones. Although I truly believe that “people management” has such is a key duty of every Manager, most of today’s managers are simply “un-equipped” to perform this task successfully. Why? Well often because HR has never supported them enough to take this role, closed in between shortages in management capabilities and over complicated processes. Which leads to the first underlying assumption of my thought of a “new paradigm for HR”: simplicity.

Setting the new foundations: engage with Simplicity.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Leonardo da Vinci

Let’s face it: in many organisations HR is perceived as a source of complication. In Italian we use an expression Ufficio Complicazione Affari Semplici, probably translatable with office for complication of otherwise simple affairs. Basically, HR is simply seen as a necessary evil. How often did you read a personnel policy, and started thinking why it needed to be 14 pages long? Or how often have you heard managers complaining about the complexity of their performance appraisal form? Or about the lengthy recruiting process? Or about the training budget? Well… too many extant HR has become in many organisation the real “bureaucracy” described by Max Weber. His definition is the following:

Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge
Max Weber

Isn’t that what any average HR director has tried to do? And this has especially become true after the HR Transformation process. With the implementation of HR Business Partner role and the push of a lot of People Management activities towards the manager, there has been a strong misconception that the only way to keep HR to make it relevant was to make it more “complex”. After all if you can demonstrate it is complex, you can satisfy the justification for its need. So, the so called “Center of Expertise” of the HR organisation (another element of Urlich’s Model) have soon become sources of complication.

I believe that the real added value that the new People Management can offer is instead support to management through simple and understandable tools. And if you believe that simplicity cannot be achieved you are already giving up on the possibility to engage in this necessary Paradigm Shift.

The key driver to ensure our relevance is not to demonstrate how complex managing people is, but to show off how simple it can become with the appropriate tools and support.

Building a new Framework for HR

Preparing for the Paradigm Shift

Preparing for the Paradigm Shift

The new paradigm I am suggesting is not going to alter the basic processes for which we should be accountable. People Management is still going to be about Attracting, Developing and Retaining people within the organisation. What I would like to suggest is an underlying framework, which, of course, needs to be simple and understandable by everybody.

First of all we need a Vision for People Management. Which needs to be easy to understand. This is my initial suggestion:

Delivering a winning culture.

Short. Straight to the point. Underlying the key element of the new People Management paradigm: development of a Culture that is “winning” for the company, i.e. aligned with its business strategy.

Second element that we need is a Mission for People Management. Again, it needs to be easy.

Develop innovation and creativity, by mean of simple tools and processes supporting people actions within the organisation.

See? Easy. We have already talked about the impact we should be having on Innovation and Creativity. What we need to add is the focus on simplicity of tools and processes. I somehow would be tempted also to drop the word “processes”, but that would probably be too much still. And the key element to be achieved is the continuous support of actions performed by all the people within the organisation. One would argue, why not characterizing the word “actions” with some adjective. Nope, I prefer to keep it short. Because the relevance of those actions is a business duty in my opinion, because what People Management needs to offer is a framework for people to express their potential. And this framework is constituted by the culture mentioned in the Vision.

A New Model for People Management

The new People Management paradigm: a new model.

The new model I am suggesting is pretty easy also to represent. The concepts of Simplicity, Creativity and Innovation are the real “weapon” for the new People Management organisation to be able to reach the Winning Culture the business needs. And all this, supported by tools and processes in the four traditional areas of Attraction, Development, Retention and Review.

This is the only area we haven not fully explored yet, and that I wish to briefly touch before concluding this article.

Reviewing People Management: the role of Analytics into the new Paradigm

Helping to measure the IcebergWe have briefly touched the key role that HR analytics should be playing in the new organisation. One of the key trends for the future is how HR will be able to cope with “Big Data“. Which means that People Managers will have to cope with something they are not really keen to: crunching numbers. The issue is that most people forget about the fact that HR is (or should be) a source of data and intelligence. And no, I’m not talking about payroll or labor costs. I’m talking of Real Time Performance Management for example. For sure analytics is going to change the way HR works, and it needs to be a key support element of the new People Management Paradigm I am suggesting.

The issue is that we should not move too fast. Most of today’s HR departments are still struggling with their Excel spreadsheets. For sure Big Data can be the answer, but what is the question?

That is why analytics need to be placed as part of the People Management process map. They need to be important and relevant as attraction or development. And they need to be linked to an essential function of each business process, review. HR has never been good at reviewing itself. Hiding behind the “soft touch” of its contribution to the organisation, it refused to “measure” itself in many ways. And were measures have been done, they have been limited to some activities and only in terms of ROI.

For sure we can start thinking of predictive algorithms. But I don’t think this is the real priority. We need to help business understand not just the tip of the iceberg, but its real size.

I believe the critical area of attention is Performance Management in an organisation, and everything that relates to it. This is what People Management can and has to support the most. But way too often we wrongly see this as a simplistic  equation:

Performance Management = Performance Appraisal.

How wrong! The Performance Appraisal form is for sure a tool that can help to Performance Management. But… how effective is a yearly evaluation (as this is the average time today) in a business were the speed of change is measured in days?

Performance Management should move from a periodic process into a real-time activity. Managers should have a tool set at hand helping them with constant feedbacks to their employees. And the People Manager should be able to support any given choice by a strong analytics set capable of supporting considerations over business results in terms of performance, competencies and motivation.

If this gets in place (and does not need to be complicate, an easy and simple live dashboard can make the trick), the Business will really love you. Because that is what they have been regularly asking for ages now!

The inner logic of People Management: reconciling the organisation

I have mentioned how important it is for People Management to become the active developer of the company’s culture. This task hides a really complex effort in the back, and should not be underestimated. I’m especially keen in recognizing that many HR professionals today are not equipped to cope with culture development. Something that can be easily checked by monitoring the “importance” of (culture) change programs into many organisation.

An interesting model on this has been proposed by Fons Trompenaars, and I’d like to pick up on it to just include some final remarks. Based on his strong studies of culture in organisations, he argues that

All organisations need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. The consequence is that the systems and processes of HR are changing to the world of dilemmas created by the customised workplace and even more by globalisation. Increasingly, in this new paradigm contrasting values have to be integrated.

A challenging role this of integration of dilemmas. However, this is what Kuhn referred when talking about “scientific paradigms”, as a new Paradigm gets created when it is capable of encompassing the dilemmas related to the previous one. However, leaving the theory of scientific revolutions aside for a second, three key elements are necessary for People Management to make this integration paradigm true: Recognition, Respect, Reconciliation.

  1. Recognition:  whilst it is easy to recognise overt and explicit cultural differences, way too often we do not consider the hidden implicit differences. Years of application of US born HR approaches with mixed results in the rest of the world have shown the importance of being able to run a real “cultural due-diligence” within your organisation. The first step is in fact to be able to recognise that there are differences in values and thus the meaning given to the same thing by different people.
  2. Respect: different orientation on meanings given to different things cannot be “right” or “wrong”. They are just different. It is all too easy to be judgmental about people and societies that give different meaning to their world from ours. Thus the next step is to respect these differences and accept the right of employees (as well as customers) to interpret the world (and our products and services, but also the management tools and processes we put in place) in the way they choose.
  3. Reconciliation: because of these different views of the world, we have tensions deriving from these different value systems and/or current practice versus idealised behaviours. The task of the HR professional is to facilitate the reconciliation between these opposing differences in the area of their own function and to help build the wider reconciling organisation.

I truly believe this concept is so powerful, that its effects can only be imagined. Well, some organisations really active on Diversity Management, for example, have shown how important this understanding and this reconciliation effort is for an organisation. But what we are saying here is one step more advanced. 

The People Manager needs to become and advocate of the organizational reconciliation, between competing objectives, different value systems, opposing interests and moving targets. How? Composing a culture that can become truly “winning” by enlarging the area of overlap between the personal values of the people within the organisation and the values of the business as a whole.

This is the real challenge for the new People Management paradigm. A good challenge for the years to come.

This is the last post in a series of six articles:

  1. Getting Rid of the Word Talent
  2. Need number 1: Hire Good Candidates (and get them onboard fast)
  3. Need number 2: Develop people internally
  4. Need number 3: Retain your people
  5. Need number 4: Enhance creativity and innovation
  6. A new paradigm for People Management

Getting rid of the word “Talent” – A Six Post Series on People Management

(This post was modified on March 11th to accomodate links to other post in the series).

In the world of Human Resources there are few words to which I have become really allergic. One of them is for sure talent. Why? For a very simple reason: it is usually used as a shortcut, to justify or cover facts that are not always fully understood. This way Talent has been constantly used instead of more “proper” words.

What is the real meaning of Talent Management?

What is the real meaning of Talent Management?

Sometime it identifies a set of skills that certain specific have… so why not simply call them competencies?

In other cases it is used to identify group of employees that are “gifted” with the prospective of achieving great results in their work. It is therefore a way to refer to People, and btw wasn’t this why they were once defined High Potentials?

Sometime the word is used to identify a group of people that share, instead, a common set of competencies, and that are organized into pools to enable succession within the organisation. Yet again I don’t see the point to use another name to point towards a common HR process of succession management.

These are just some examples of what I really consider an abuse of this word. But why are people using this word so much? Of course, a big part of this has to be done to the fact that the word has become “fashionable”. So many books have been written about the Talent Battle, the Talent Shortage, the Talent Dilemma and so on, that it is just human for an average HR practitioner to repeat this word at least 3, 4 times a day.

However, this is not the point.

What’s the difference between Talent Management and HR Management?

What scares me the most is when people start shaping this word into the form of Talent Management, and stating that “we need to develop a Talent Management strategy“. What this implies can be derived from a very easy fact. If the word “Talent” has just been used as an alternative label for people, competencies or HR processes, can’t we just state that we are, effectively, talking about People Management? Sure we can… but here lies the issue. An HR Director cannot stand in front of the board and state “We don’t have a People Management Strategy“, the same way a CFO cannot state “we can’t do accounting“. Yet the meaning is exactly the same. In many ways, many HR executives are realizing that the HR function for too much time has renounced to deliver its promise to sustain the results of the organisation. And are now seeing all this as a Talent Management issue.

Basic Employee Lifecycle

Basic Employee Lifecycle

From this point of view, we could well say that this wording has had the positive effect of driving the attention to a key fact: the HR organisation had given up its main role of managing people, accompanying them through their lifecycle within the organisation from hiring to retire (or leave), nurturing them, making them grow and develop. Do I sound too romantic? Well sorry, but it’s easy as doing a small analysis of all the “graphs” about Talent Management and the way an Employee Lifecycle was depicted (as of the 20’s of the last century). It just becomes a “spot the difference” exercise, with not a lot of differences in reality!

So what is the real issue? Why has it become of so much importance again?

With all the efforts of creating a “lean” organisation, improving processes, automating activities, outsourcing etc., the HR organisation has undergone a significant stress over the last decades. Some radical HR Transformation processes have pushed the level ro far in the hands of managers, that certain organisations have posed themselves the question, if an HR organisation was at all needed. The economic and financial crisis that have hit the business world already starting with the mid of the 90s, have however triggered a different scenario. Instead of less HR organisations have faced the necessity of having more HR. But what they had left was often a bunch of specialized silos in their organisation, not visible enough to attract the right people, not staffed enough to have a continuous dialogue with managers and employees, not skilled enough to really follow an employee in all its steps of working life. In many organisations newly elected HR Business Partners have been focusing on gaining more and more business insights, just to discover that today they are missing important (basic) HR skills. Trying to establish its new role in between a “compliance” actor or a true “business partner” HR has simply forgotten their main area of concern: People.

Moving towards People Management: 4 key business needs.

So it should not come unexpected that some of the most successful organisations in today’s business have, not only have not abdicated to their pivotal role, but they underline this with a much les “fashionable”, much more sound wording. Think about Google, and the fact that calls its HR “People Operations“.

Now, think simply about what are the key business requests today:

  1. Hire a good candidate for each open vacancy in the shortest possible time, and get him ready to be productive as fast as possible.
  2. Develop people internally, giving them the right skills to occupy positions of responsibility as faster as possible.
  3. Make sure people don’t leave the organisation at the first whistle of competition
  4. Make sure that people can work in a way that optimizes not only “hard” productivity, but also creativity and innovation.

Did I miss something? Feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

However they are expressed, most of the feedback you hear about HR by other managers, is about not being able to meet expectations in one of the 4 areas above.

So what to do? There is not one easy answer, and what I would like to do is analyse each piece separately, in a series of article that will follow this one. But before adding this level of analysis, I want to make sure one concept is shared with all of you.

In my view the role of “people operations” in an organisation is similar to that of the basic plumbing in a building. What you want to do is that water flows in in the right quantity, and flows out once it has been used. All areas of the building should be reached with the same level of pressure. And you should avoid any leaks. I know, many of my colleagues working in HR will feel almost offended by a parallelism with something that has so much to do with engineering. But that’s not the point. The key issue is that the HR organisation needs to act essentially as the network of pipes that allow the flow of water. That’s why an answer to any of the points that I have mentioned above, cannot be taken without considering holistically also the other three points.

We are talking about people, and how they can better contribute to the result of your organisation. If a person leaves the company, it is never just because of a low salary. If your time to fill a vacancy is higher than the average, it is never just because your IT systems sucks. If you have to constantly get managers from the outside because you are not succeeding in growing them internally, it is never just because of lacking competencies. If your productivity rate is falling it is never just because your managers are not able in motivating…

Leading a modern People Management function is essentially, in my opinion, discovering and eliminating 30 years of alibi and quick justifications. And taking ownership of one of the key functions for tomorrow’s corporate survival.

This is the second post in a series of six articles:

  1. Getting Rid of the Word Talent
  2. Need number 1: Hire Good Candidates (and get them onboard fast)
  3. Need number 2: Develop people internally
  4. Need number 3: Retain your people
  5. Need number 4: Enhance creativity and innovation
  6. A new paradigm for People Management

The Dos and Don’ts to build a successful HR Portal

Employee using a LaptopMany organisations have been for years investing in HR technologies, trying to lower their operational costs and raise efficiencies by letting employee and managers access HR processes through specific Self-Service functionalities.

Yet, not all organisations have been successful in obtaining the expected results. Whether as a specific implementation project, or as part of a larger HR Transformation effort, HR technologies play a key role as the enabler of a lot of today’s HR processes. but their implementation poses challenges that are not always comparable to the ones other ERPs face.

The main one is that HR systems are addressed to all employees, and not only specific ones. Not only, in many cases they also need to involve people that are not yet employee (interns, contingent workers, free-lance) or people that are not anymore employees (retired, but also people who changed job). So, how to implement a system that can really be usable by all these type of people?

In many cases, the idea of a HR Portal came through, in an effort to really create a simple to use point of access for employees and managers to all HR transactions. If until a couple of years ago this was often just to create an easier to use front-end for the all-in-one ERPs mostly used (such as PeopleSoft, Oracle Business Suite, SAP), today portals also play a key role in connecting different best of breed HR solutions (such as Taleo for recruiting, Saba for learning, SuccessFactor for Performance Management, just to cite some of them).

But why is it so difficult to achieve the desired results?

From the different examples I’ve seen so far, I believe we can identify at least five common mistakes:

  1. A Portal is not a Project: this is one of the most evident mistakes. Many organisations treat the realisation and implementation of a Portal as a project, with its budget, its governance model, its design and build phase and its final go-live. But here lies the problem: a Portal needs resources, governance and continuous update to work after the go live. If an organisation fails to understand this in the early stages of its inception, the whole Portal idea will fail at a certain point. 
  2. A Portal is not (only) about Technology: yet in many organisations this is seen as a (mainly) IT project. In reality most organisations already have the technological capability of building a portal. Issue is that a portal is a lot more about understanding user interactions then about setting a technology environment alone. Similarly to web design, the key elements are: usability, content management, taxonomies… elements that sometime a hardcore technologist does not always understand.
  3. A Portal is not an Intranet: putting a couple of documents on a Sharepoint site, and linking in 2-3 transactions, doesn’t make that a portal. A Portal is all about a unique experience for the user. Which should evolve and grow and accomodate different types of usages by different kind of suer profiles.
  4. A Portal is not a “one size fits all” tool: on the contrary, one of the key feature of a well-designed portal is to make sure it delivers content that is unique for each user profile. And it should also accomodate different user behaviors in searching for content, as well as in accessing portal content (from work, from home, via mobile…).
  5. A Portal is not a “link collection”: I think that the era of creating a one pager with links to all HR applications is over. Although this could be used to give access to all applications from one page, and maybe solve single sign-on problems, just creating a landing page with links is definitely not a solution.

So, what are the best advices to get a real Portal off the ground that can help achieve the organisation objectives? There are many articles online on Best Practices, yet I believe that talking about Best Practices is somehow dangerous. There’s no way that a successfully built HR portal for one organisation, can work, and achieve the same level of results, in another.

However, here are some basic suggestions that I believe you should take into account:

  1. Design your portal around your own people: start from the pain points and the real needs of your employees and managers, not from the way HR or Technology see them. If you are able to create a dialogue with the final users of the Portal itself, and possibly embed this dialogue also in the Portal design (through whatever “social” feature you think to be most appropriate: comments, tagging, forum etc.), you will not only obtain a good initial design, but you will create a community that will help bringing that design forward.
  2. Deliver a “beta” version… : like many “Web 2.0” sites have taught us, it is impossible to foresee all different types of tools, interaction points, features etc. that a Portal may require. Instead of trying to have an extremely long design phase, to take all this into account, try to get your Portal live as a “beta” release as soon as you have built the core functionalities. Then release something new every 2-3 months, maybe using the Viral approach that Facebook and Google have so successfully implemented (releasing a functionality to a small group of people first, looking at their reaction, and seeing how new people start asking for those features).
  3. Think of HR holistically: in many organisations the responsibility of a Portal sits under one of the specific HR functions or Centers of Expertise. Although this may sound sensible, your Portal needs to become the core of your HR Service Delivery Model. This means you need to be able to connect all the different functions and areas of HR. Not only, you should be able to embed into the HR portal also elements that are considered “HR” from your end-users perspective. A typical example is the Employee DIrectory. Administered often by IT as part of the provisioning system, often sits on another system as is not integrated with the HR portal. Now, try to explain this to an average employee… Same destiny for areas like Health and Safety, Travel Policies, Expenses etc.
  4. Develop a Clear Governance Model: this is one of the areas in which most organisations fail. Managing an HR Portal means defining clearly who does what, and who is responsible for what, at all content levels. Your Governance Model should take into consideration that you will be having different types of content (a Policy might have different approvals rules than a news item), as well as different customers (employees of one country may be affected by one policy more than others, specific HR actions may be for one specific region only etc.). If your organisation is big and spans multiple country, you will amplify the need of a clear governance model due to language and local regulations needs.
  5. Be “open” in terms of technology: this is the only technological advice I’d give: be open in terms of platform. Meaning, make sure that what you have chosen can accomodate interaction with different systems: SaaS, other ERPs, web-services, API etc. Portal are often becoming integration points with many systems. As such you need to be able to accomodate both the AS-IS technical scenario, as well as the future TO-BE… whatever that may be.

Although these may sound “generic”, these suggestions are really key in defining a Portal that is going to be effectively used by your workforce, thus driving the results you want to achieve.

The Value of a “wow” Shopping Experience


A couple of days ago I’ve spoken at the annual Marketing Symposium that Deloitte organizes in Luxembourg. My short intervention was focusing on the concept of Shopping Experience, and on the way it relates to what I define “people centric retail development“, i.e. the concept that store personnel is the driver in the delivery of a real “wow” experience for the shopper.

I really believe there needs to be a focus on this aspect. The retail industry is facing a real challenge at the moment: the luxury segment is forced to become more and more exclusive, to keep its affluent clientele. The more “cheap” segment is constantly evolving, and is now seeing tenacious battles between the various market leaders as well as new entrants. The “in between” segments are the more challenged ones, squeezed in between the chic and the cheap. So far they have been able to compete thanks to a certain degree of specialization. But more and more they will need to relate their own survival to their capacity to deliver enough positive shopping experience to a) keep their customers coming back and b) to get some buzz on the social media.

The issue is that way too many retailers are focusing on just the “usual” strategies: more advertising, more expensive stores, nicer windows, extravagant events, promotions… It just feels so overwhelmingly normal to act in these areas, that you often fail to see the difference. But… Just think about your own experiences. I guess each of you has been shopping… And I believe that you can recall a really great shopping experience. Typically you will recall that you exited a store with something you were not really intending to buy… But I am sure that if stimulated your memory will recall a lot more the person who served you, the environment, the smiles and the feelings than anything else. Sometime this is so powerful that I recall in a workshop a woman started telling her story about such an extraordinary shopping experience she had in the southern part of France, that she was able to describe that experience for almost 15 minutes. At that point both me and the participants were really curious and asked: what did you buy?I don’t remember, was her candid answer. But she will continue to remember the smile and the words of the shop-owner!

The issue is that a retailer that is suddenly finding a dip into its sales, will never think at its sales force as the first aspect to be addressed. Advertising, marketing, product development, all these areas are normally addressed first. Sometime with very important investments. Of course, you need to have good products in store, you need to have a sound marketing strategy, you need to have an engaging advertising campaign… But I assume that if you’ve done your homework right, all these things should be in in place.

So where to focus? On the people in store! And on their skill levels. On their retention (as much as possible) and on their career. On really making sure that the possess all the tools they need to deliver a successful and “wow” shopping experience to their customers. Yes because in reality, at the end of the day, they are the ones interacting with the customers.

I think that retail is built upon a paradox. The people that are nearest to the customers, are usually paid at minimum wages. They’re not considered as a real talent pool. They are so mobile that very few retention strategies are put in place. Sometime all there is is a tactical element of “let’s avoid they leave and work for the competitor”, which so often is the shop next door.

I believe there are 5 steps each retailer of the “in between” segments should carry:

  • Develop a competency model linked to the shopping experience you want to deliver. You should identify about 6-10 behaviors, that can be easily recognized by your sales people. This will guarantee you a first aspect : consistency.
  • Deliver development tools to the stores. Let’s face it, it is almost impossible to use traditional classroom training in stores today. And elearning alone is not necessarily the best answer. What you should focus is in creating a blend of traditional learning methods and on the job supporting tools. Checklists, shadowing exercise, speed coaching routines… Anything that can be used in the 10 minutes that a sales rep can dedicate daily to his development. Of course, all this needs to be strictly linked to the competences identified above.
  • Reward behaviors more than results. If you have designed your competences correctly, and they are consistent with your business strategy, don’t be afraid: set a reward policy based on it. I’ve seen so many companies striving for teamwork and support as their key behaviors, but never reaching results because they were incentivizing sales reps only through individual commissions. A behavioral model that is not supported by a rewarding mechanism is a certain failure.
  • Create development paths in-store. Especially smaller stores have difficulties in retaining talent also because they often don’t offer career opportunities. So, think out of the box: development is not necessarily synonym with vertical career, especially with the younger generation more and more interested in lateral moves, new leanings and more challenges.
  • Focus on one touch point with the shopper. Retail is detail, it’s an old saying, full of truth. But at the same time, tying to do everything is also destined to failure. When Gordon Ramsey tries to save a restaurant in his successful tv series, the first thing he often does is reducing the menu from hundreds of servings to something that fits one page. You should do the same: concentrate your effort (and your people efforts)on the one moment of the Shopping Experience you are best at. It can be your fantastic windows, or your excellent browsing experience in store… Make sure you get good on average, and great at one of the key points of contact. This will make the difference.

Las but not least, if you work in a retail company, and never worked in a store, make sure you take two weeks time to spend in a store. Without this experience, no marketing genius, development guru, production specialist or finance mogul will ever really have a lasting understanding of how your shoppers behave and what they think of your brand.

And you? What do you think about the importance of your shopping experience?


Tipping ideas


Time for good ideas

One of the key features I would like to deliver through this blog, is some key effective tips that can help improve how everyday’s life. I’ve decided to user not much text for this, as I would really like to keep these short and simple, the way an actual “Tip” should be. I know this is not a completely new idea, but it is worth trying, also because often all what is needed is just a simple place where to find good and effective ideas. Plus, I’ve decided to only place the few Tips that I know are working, simply because I have tried them myself.

So, let’s start! And please, make sure you get any idea or feedback through this blog’s comments!

Reset and Restart

Time for a Restart for this blog

It’s more than a year that I’ve not given attention to this Blog. What happened? Well… I changed job, I moved to another country… substantial changes in life and basically the need to devote time to other priorities. But… writing has always appealed to me, and I wanted top take back some time for myself, and start back in sharing thoughts and experiences. But what is going to change?

Well, the first thing you have probably noticed: this post is in English. As my current work is mainly done in this language, I sort of feel I should share my thoughts also with the people I work with. Both clients and colleagues, should have the opportunity (I hope) to exchange ideas on this blog and comment on my ideas. Plus… somehow I feel that the topics I am usually interested in cannot be framed and limited by one language only.

I’ve also decided to refresh the design of the blog. It will take sometime before it gets fully usable, but I believe it to be a lot more fresh and contemporary (and looks good also on my iPad!).

So, welcome back… and let’s get started again!

Design Thinking for HR

Design Thinking has already been identified as a key transformation element for HR, in its quest to improve Employee Experience. However I argue that in many cases this is just used as a make-up methodology, without a full understanding of the potential for change.

Design Thinking is one of the key components of the “Digital DNA” that I suggest based on the Three Mindsets of development (together with Lean and Agile). As HR professionals we often seem to worry about how to apply new principles to the rest of the organisation, but how would this be applied to our function?

A methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this, I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, Design Thinking, HBR

This core concept is transformational for HR. It will involve leaving behind annual processes and approach-based planning for a simpler, more innovative and faster model driven by human-centered principles. And is perfectly applicable to HR: Why? Because Design Thinking focuses on problems that are complex by nature and on problems that affect people. It helps to bring the ‘Human’ back into HR. A trend that was already consistently identified in 2016 HR trends survey by Deloitte. Which then allows to really think in terms of Employee Experiences, as these two topics go hand in hand.

Design Thinking casts HR in a new role. It transforms HR from a “process developer” into an “experience architect.” It empowers HR to reimagine every aspect of work: the physical environment; how people meet and interact; how managers spend their time; and how companies select, train, engage, and evaluate people.

Josh Bersin, HR and Design Thinking

However, despite some early pioneers in action, a lot still needs to be done, and I still feel a lot of HR professionals see this as a cool way to have a post-it intensive workshop, and that’s it.

Step 1 – Think in terms of Journeys

One of the first areas to focus on with Design Thinking is to start in identifying with your current internal customers, and identify their journeys.

Customer Journeys , where here the definition of Customer can include generic employees, or specific subsets (candidates, managers, etc.). A Customer Journey map is a visual or graphic interpretation of the overall story from an individual’s perspective of their relationship with an organization, service, product or brand, over time and across channels. This perspective is normally captured in the identification of Personas, which, in the world of HR, should be intended as Behavioral Archetypes rather than as the representation of individuals and their attributes. If you are not able to identify what your customer needs, clustering behaviors, the risk is to create personas that are “average inexistent individuals” (year another averagarian issue).

Designing for the behavioural level means designing product behaviours that complement a user’s own behaviours, implicit assumptions, and mental models. —

Robert Reimann, Emotional Design

The above is fully aligned with the 5 logical stages of Design Thinking (more recently a 6th has been added, the “scaling” to successfully address the need of the move from testing to implementation to the wider audience), which start from empathize, as a way to understand the problem you are trying to solve.

Fig 1.: The 6 stages of Design Thinking, source: Enrique Rubio

I don’t want to go too much in detail in the practical steps, as there are some very well detailed examples, directly applied to specific HR problems.

One of the key component of the definition of a Journey is the idea that HR should think in terms of Customer Service,

Step 2 – Identify the Moments of Truths

The most important step in the definition of an Employee Journey, is in my opinion the identification of the Moments of Truths. Identified first in Marketing, these have been immediately tied in with successful delivery of Customer Service. These are defined as “those few interactions (for instance, a lost credit card, a canceled flight, a damaged piece of clothing, or investment advice) when customers invest a high amount of emotional energy in the outcome”, and are strongly linked to the capability of employees to handle these moments beyond expectations. An important reminder of the need to focus on frontline employees.

Employees deliver exceptional customer service—and perform well at moments of truth—only if they know clearly what they are supposed to do and why.

McKinsey, The ‘Moments of Truth’ in Customer Service

The interaction between customers and the organization touchpoint, intersecting at the “moments of Truths”, create the overall Experience.

Fig. 2: Focusing on what counts in a never-ending journey.

In Employee Experience Design, a very similar concept is used: Moments that Matter. Jacob Morgan, is his book The employee experience advantage, makes a distinction between three kinds of moments that matter:

  1. specific (like the first day on the job),
  2. ongoing (like the interaction between employee and supervisor) and
  3. created (like the annual office party).

John Coné uses another interesting classification (Obvious, Opaque and Invisible).

In any case, these are defined as the moments that help shape the Employee Experience. Tom Haak is keeping an inventory of the ones he has seen mapped. And its from here that I would like to pick an example: it’s number 16, “The Lease Car”, part of the onbaording I assume. And is wrapped with the following comment: I can choose any car I like, as long as it is a Volkswagen Polo.

The above is a perfect example of a “Moments that Matter”. Is a future employee is allowed to get a leased car as part of her/his package, this is often “sold” during the hiring process as a “perk” with full availability, but then translated in practical terms in here’s what we have for you.

I still see a difference between the Moments that Matter suggested (which in a journey can be many) and the Moments of Truth (where the emotional load of the employee is really high), and that in my opinion require a strong intentional design, and should be carefully crafted to align with the corporate culture.

The sum of the two (MtM and MoT), identified with your specific personas in mind, will make a standard journey your own employee journey, making this document an important differentiator and a key component of your culture.

Step 3 – Invest in Good Visual Design for communication

A good Journey should be easily communicated to the large public. This is absolutely important, because this should not be just an “HR for HR” tool.

There’s not one way of designing these: use creativity but make sure this allows for the widest possible communication. Which is an important peculiarity of Employee Journeys vs. other type of Customer Journeys. These can (and should) be communicated to the relevant customers. Why? Because this can constitute to create a service contract with the HR function (and not only) and the employees.

Step 4: Scale and Improve

Way too many organizations apply Design Thinking to some journeys, hand the posters in the HR department corridors, and end up making some make up changes to some of the processes or to the latest HR tool implemented.

The real challenge is to implement Design Thinking at scale for the entire organization. The Danish Design Institute has identified a Ladder of development of Design Capabilities in organisation.

Fig.3 : The Danish Design Ladder

As we move away from Product Design, and apply the principles of Design Thinking as a process, we can enable organizations to really be strategic in their Design, and make this part of their strategy. By ensuring the entire HR organisation focuses constantly on Design Thinking, will ensure that other organizational departments will follow, thus enabling the transformative behavior we are all looking for: human-centric mindset.

Step 5: Measure and Evolve

Mapping your Employee Journeys has also another important impact: it allows to identify exactly what needs to be measured, becoming de facto the enabler of truly impactful People Analytics. Vy moving the focus on employee expectations and their behaviors, we however make the concept of experience more subjective, as an experience is by definition personal.

This complexity may push some people to not even start with the measurement focus. But the reality is that it is very important to develop a strategy, and focus on measurement keeping in mind at least three aspects.

Improving the employee experience is the end game, but getting there requires, continuous listening, feedback from multiple channels and functions, integrated to give a holistic picture of the employee lifecycle. 

Laura Stevens, Three basic conditions for Employee Experience

Only this will really make sure your effort will be successful, and will enable the continuous improvement loop that ensures true success.

Linking it to Digital Transformation

To conclude this long post, I would like to build one final link that further supports the importance of design thinking.

By focusing on Employee Experience strategy, we are implicitly activating one of the key pillars of Digital Transformation. What is important, however, is to ensure this is intentionally linked to the maturity we want to achieve. As this is a cultural transformation, one of the best way to adapt the employees behaviors is to transform the services they receives based on the above mentioned behavioral expectations.

Fig 4: Digital Employee Experience Design as an asset for Digital transformation (source: HR Trends Institute)

By adopting a human-centric mindset, Design Thinking in HR, leads to the creation of a happier, efficient workplace wherein employees have access to the right resources, possess the right mindset and are able to make their best contributions at the workplace. This, by itself, can offer huge advantages in terms of attracting and retaining quality talent, creating a holistic work environment and in being positioned as an employer of choice.  

So, what are you steps in adopting Design Thinking?

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Cover Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

Digital Transformation in Store

As the role of the physical store gets redesigned by the impact of technology, there’s more evidence of the centrality of retail associates in delivering successful experiences and drive sales across channels. Simply plunging technology in stores has failed in accelerating this: to succeed employees in store need to be at the core of the Digital Cultural Transformation of the company.

Perhaps no other industry has been impacted by changing customer demand like retail. People want to have 24/7 shopping experiences, and they want it now. However this trend did not crystallize into one channel taking dominance over the others, rather the expectation is to be consistent across all channels in the value chain. Which is why a lot of the Retail Apocalypse proponents, have found out that also traditional brick and mortar retail still has a meaning.

I have already addressed how I believe the work in retail is changing. And have also more recently argued that the expectations put on Retail Associates need to be compensated adequately. What I want to focus today, however, is the extent to which Digital Transformation should become an important topic to be addressed at the Store Level.

We have already seen that traditional organizations need to think of Digital in terms of a process of cultural maturity, and not in terms of a single transformative event. This means that retailers cannot forget their store employees in their journey, as these are a big part of their population. We all know the concept of Tipping point, and the necessity to involve a high number of people to make change happen, especially in large and diffused organizations.

One of the obstacles that we have with retail, is the tendency of considering store associates just the “periphery of the empire”, pure executors of directives. When change needs to happen, normally a one-size-fits-all approach is applied, trying to seek economies of scale vs. effectiveness, which in the reality doesn’t work.

A typical issue I see in Retail is that we assume that, because on average we might have younger people working in store, they are “naturally” digital. There are more factors at play, including fact that some people looking for low paid jobs in retail, come from economic backgrounds that might have limited the access to technology. Plus, there is also an attractiveness issue: if it is sure that some retailers (think Apple) are able to attract true digital natives, what about retail segments that are perceived as less technological? In a recent experience we noticed that a sample of retail employees had a very low technological penetration compared to expectations: more than. 30% did not have an email address, and 20% did not have a smartphone.

Solution is not just adding any technology in store: employees need to understand their role within the entire Consumer Journey in terms of Shipping Experience. Also because, time after time, it is confirmed that knowledge of workers is one of the key factors in the shopping experience, as the latest PWC Global Consumer Insights survey shows.

And BTW, also item 1 (ability to navigate the store) can be heavily impacted by the way store associates interact with customers.

Too much of the Omnichannel craze has been pointing solely or mainly on the implementation of new technologies in store. Yet hoe many iPads shipped in store, ended up into a drawer because we never took the time to ask and involve associates in how this tool could be used across the journey in store.

Just delivering iPads is not the solution…

Building a Digital DNA

One of the main issues is how can we give our sales associates the minimum of skills needed to thrive in this new digitized world. Which is not about just training on new technologies, but ensuring awareness is created across three key building blocks of skills:

  • Human Skills apply social, creative and critical intelligence. These skills – critical thinking, creativity, communication, analytical skills, collaboration, and relationship building – appear on many lists of sought-after “soft skills,” and are needed in the way we deliver memorable experience to customers.
  • Digital Building Block Skills are critical for many specific jobs, and increasingly useful also outside traditional digitally intense job families. In the field of retail, these skills include analyzing data, managing data, digital security and privacy as well as general understanding of social media and digital communication.
  • Business Enabler Skills play a synthesizing, integrative role
    in the workplace. These skills allow the other skills to be put to work in practical situations, and include basic communication, all business process knowledge, business acumen and new ways of working.

What new technologies offer is the possibility to enable associates to develop variegated profiles, leveraging preferences across the above building blocks. Good store management should be empowered to ensure team diversity covers by creating the right mix.

Avoid too much focus on productivity

One of the issue we seem to face is that in recent years there is a lot of focus on productivity. Per se this is not incorrect, however too often we are “stressing” retail associates because traffic in store has been decreasing, and the profitability of the brick and. mortar store is suffering. Again, a channel-focused financial model might be the cause, as many sales originate in store, but happen in other channels (digital and non).

What this means is we have less people (of less quality, as we often have to resort in giving less hours and more base pay contracts), which in turn are unable to deliver the shopping experience that is needed.

It’s the retail associates who make the experiences come to life, who solve problems, who connect one on one with their neighbors in the community, who know their products and brands inside-out and backward. They’re less cashier-behind-the-counter and more community ambassadors living and breathing the brand. 

Carol Leman, Brick-And-Mortar Retail Is Changing — Associates Need To Change, Too

If the above is true, how can we really make these associates to champion the experience for our brands? What I suggest is to make them the real core of your Digital transformation effort. Do you agree?

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Book Review: Kids These Days, by Malcom Harris

A book about Millennials written about a Millennial. Demonstrates that many of the stereotypes of this generation are incorrect. But then falls short in theorizing a global conjure that is pushing the risk of Human Capital formation from organizations to individuals. A strong j’accuse of modern America, with sound evidence, fails to show a global outlook of this generation.

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris is a bit of an unusual work of social and economic criticism. Like many books in its genre, it tours the current status of human misery and exploitation. But, on the contrary to many other similar works, it doesn’t end on the bright side offering potential solutions.

When we talk about generations, we always assume that the world is split upon into them, which leads to continuous assumptions about characters and stereotypes of generations, which we have seen already have not real basis. However, if you build a big enough cluster of people, you start discerning a number of characteristics that people belonging to a specific cohort share. On this the analysis of Harris is pretty good in clearly identifying these traits across a specific subset of Millennials: US born and raised ones.

Millennials: one of the most misunderstood generations?

Its reading is pretty much on the pessimist side from the beginning. Already in chapter one he defines the outcomes of a number of macro trends that impacted his generation:

The result is a generation of children with an unprecedented lack of unsupervised time who have been systemically denied the chance to build selves without adult oversight.

Malcom Harris, Kids These Days

His analysis stems, through the chapter of this book, along a diagnosis that starts from School and Education, to University (with a very high focus on the student’s debt potential crisis) to the world of Labor, up to including Social Media. And essentially shapes its side in the form of a generation. that is bound to increase its value in terms of “human capital”, by over investing in self-learning, with the idea of gaining better jobs, but in the reality this does not materialize has companies are trying to shape more profits, pushing outside the “risk” implicit in this Human Capital investment to the individuals.

A first reaction at summarizing these thesis, is that it feels a very Marxist approach, seeing such a strong opposition between workers and employers. At the end of the book, the author defines himself a “communist Millenial”. However most of his theories are strongly supported by evidences and social research he’s putting on to the table.

The biggest limit of this book is in its scope: one of the undeniable characteristics of the current generation (however you want to define it) is its global interconnection. Despite the growing attractiveness of populisms, it is a fact that work is more global today than in the past, and not just in the form of cost-saving delocalization. Thus, any analysis that wants to project Millennials into such an opposing scenario, misses the nature of work relationships in the other countries, where a lot of the factors are not the same. For sure this book crystalizes a strong denunciation of the “American Dream” as many intend today.

A second limit is in the way he intends companies as only fueled by profit. This character of capitalism, is being denounced today by more and more organizations in their way of doing and growing, thus illustrating the possibility to create an alternative scenario.

Millennials cannot be reduced into a book, not even if it is written by a Millennial, because whatever approach you take, any suggestion you will do will only apply to one subset of the “generation”. This was valid in the past, and is valid for a lot of other social science phenomenons (think again avegarianism).

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Do we still need managers?

Recent years have brought a new focus on the role of manager, up to the point that many have wondered if we still needed this role. Especially in a moment of technological revolution and fast change, a lot of the attributes we associate to managers seem to be counterproductive. So, do we still need this role in our organisations?

First, let’s fire all the managers was the title of an article by Gary Hamel of eight years ago appeared on Harvard Business Review. “Think of the countless hours that team leaders, department heads, and vice presidents devote to supervising the work of others.” But he was not the first, as Peter Drucker himself questioned the role of managers.

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

Peter Drucker

The work of Managers is not just inefficient, it also has not kept up with the pace needed by new technology transformation, societal changes, market evolution and, simply said, by what’s needed by a modern organisation.

Most managers are hardworking; the problem doesn’t lie with them. The inefficiency stems from a top-heavy management model that is both cumbersome and costly.

Gary Hamel, First, lets fire all the managers

What is a Manager?

It’s more than 100 years that management is aligned with what the French engineer Henry Fayol had identified as the 5 functions of management, as well its 14 principles. Heavily influenced by Taylorism (it’s not a chance that the “division of work” is the first principle identified). The issue is that all this works in a stable and predictable environment, definitely not a characteristic of what today happens. Despite this, Manager as a role has had a lot of success, in many ways sustained by the intertwining of Business Schools and Consulting support, all focused on ensuring a flow of “managerial” roles across organizations.

Many have called for new roles (or new rules) for the manager, and many new models have emerged calling for flattened organizations where the role of the manager would be different. Holacracy is a key example of this trend, even if its implementation is definitely not an easy one. In another example Jacob Morgan has suggested the creation of a Managerless Company, where most of the traditional tasks get distributed across the employees in cooperative ways. Some suggested that an Hybrid will be the end result.

Fig.1 – Managers are called to do quite a lot of tasks

We need to recognize that the role of managers has evolved, and has become more and more “complicated”. We ask managers to be mentors, Leaders and Coaches, motivators and evaluators, managers of performance of their teams, and results of the company. All these “roles” are however part of how the task was imagined right from the beginning. Issue is that we haven’t carefully crafted our expectations around these, on choosing the right candidates for the job.

If the traditional tasks of a manager are more suitable for a steady and not evolving world, how do managers deal with change?

Manager as Change Agent

One go the key example of misalignment between the role of managers and modern reality comes from the concept and discipline of change management. With all the projects of change, transformation and so on, this topic has been one of the most known buzzwords in management in the past decades. I don’t intend here to add yet another definition on this discipline. But I would like to argue on the fact that too many companies have created parallel organizations of change agents, change champions etc. (the naming is just as creative as the subject can be), depriving the role of the Manager of one of its most important tasks: implementing change.

What this means is that we implicitly recognize managers as defenders of the status quo, incapable of managing processes of transformation that in reality should today be the majority of the work, and we constantly create shadow organizations that increase the communication’s entropy inside the organisation.

In my opinion if a manager fails to implement change, we need to question the entire need of its role in the organisation, as in today’s world this is the key skill that is required.

Manager vs Management

In many ways the question seems to be around if we need Managers as roles, or if we need Management as an activity. Very few question the second, as the need too management seems to embodied in her organisations work.

we don’t have to be starry-eyed romantics to dream of organizations where managing is no longer the right of a vaunted few but the responsibility of all.

Gary Hamel, First, lets fire all the managers

We can call it in many different ways, but what we want to make sure is that we abolish micromanagers. You don’t need to overpay people to organize the work of every employee: this is the concept that has failed. Yet, how many managers do this? One of the reasons is that we oblige a lot of people to become managers, simply because we don’t see other possibilities to award them a career. Without the necessary skillset to become managers, the only way people cope is resorting into controlling other people’s jobs.

By allowing people to self-manage in reaching their objectives, we will allow a much better and productive environment for the organization. The concept itself of having goals implicitly reaffirms the need of management as a discipline (else the danger would be anarchy), but not necessarily so the need to have

Yes, we need Management

If we see motivation and purpose under a different eye, we can interpret the need of management in a totally different way. By using concepts such as Lean and Agile, we can implement organisations that can be more nimble in their hierarchy needs.

We will still need roles that are able to manage, but in different ways. It’s not a coincidence that the world of Agile has focused on concepts of diffused leadership (think of the Scrum Master), flat hierarchies and disciplined prioritization: these become the cornerstones of better ways off working and achieving results. Change is not easy however, as a big part of management today still lives on the self-fulfilling prophecy identified by Weber when he analyzed bureaucracies. How many management levels exist just to feed another level of management?

And you, what do you think of the need of management?

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Book Review: Start with Why, by Simon Sinek

When I watched Simon Sinek famous Ted Talk on YouTube a fewer back, I’ve been fascinated by the ease at which he described something that in my mind was meant to be absolutely foundational: everything should start with a purpose.

This book works on a very simple idea. And Sinek is right on target. If you don’t have a burning desire or “why” established for your business, career, or area of interest, you’ll likely give up, burn out, or not have the passion needed to be your best. He breaks down not only how to rethink what you do each day in a different light, but more importantly why you do it.

The concept is very well linked to the recent comment done on the book Drive by Daniel Pink. Traditional “Carrot and Stick” mentality does not work. What caught my attention is the fact that the author looks in detail of why customers choose one company (or brand) vs. another. And how much the key reason for this behavior is unknown to most companies.

Companies don’t know why their customers are their customers, odds are good that they don’t know why their employees are their employees either.

Simon Sinek, Start with Why
Fig.1 – The Gold Circles of Why, How and What.

The key idea that Sinek brings forward is called The Golden Circle, which looks at the Why, as the origin of How, then What. Whereas modern management would apparently concentrate more on the what, the reality is that people are attracted by why companies proceed a certain product, develop a certain brand, propose a certain job.

What’s good about Sinek’s book, is that it ties in the entire value chain of relationship between customer, workers, decision makers. The purpose becomes then really a connector for everything, provided it is perceived was authentic.

This can only work if Trust is built within the organization as a key consistency enabler. By building trust and enabling a communication that nurtures the purpose, we are really able to promote the best results. A culture of achievement and prosperity that extends to all the stakeholders of the company.

Despite seeming simplistic, the ideas of Sinek become foundational for purpose-led companies. The many examples provided in his book are already there to talk to us. But we don’t need to necessarily check the big enterprise to find results of this drive based on purpose. Also at individual level, successful artists for example do all share a sense of belonging to their inner why.

Two more advices are given by the author: 1) in an organizational context it’s important to establish a reach of the “why” across the organization, especially in moments of change. Only by reaching the “Tipping Point” you can ensure success. 2) you need to start with WHY, but also know the HOW to be able to succeed.

This reading (which I’ve now just finished for the second time), has been so important that I’ve decided to deliver a copy of the book to each of my team members a few months back.

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Pivoting on the Career Path

How can you grow your own career, in a world where AI, Machine Learning and automation seem to change the basic rules of the game? The answer is becoming a lifelong learner, pivoting among different possible steps to change the meaning of your new work.

One of the most interesting paragraphs of the book “The Technology Fallacy” that I’ve reviewed yesterday, looks at how people can get prepared for Digital Maturity by becoming lifelong learners. Ongoingl learning and a growth mindset will allow individuals to remain flexible enough to develop new skills.

The need to pivot will mean that individuals will need to chart their own career path amid these changes in work.

Gerald C. Kane et al., The Technology Fallacy

The change imposed by technology and the necessity to create more adaptable organizations, will lead an important transformation in the way we all perceive “career”. The days of steady, stable careers are over. As organizations get flatter, some of the principles of Vertical Progression get questioned. AI, Machine Learning, progress as a whole will make many jobs superfluous, and create new ones.

Your Work in the Future

Reasoning in terms of this new career model, is the key to move away from thinking in terms of The Future of Work, and challenge ourselves in thinking in terms of the The Work of the Future.

An important article from this perspective is that of Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby, who have described several different ways in which employees can pivot in their career path in response to technological advancement. They introduce the concept of Augmentation as opposed to simple Automation provided by the investments in Technology.

Augmentation, in contrast, means starting with what humans do today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a greater use of machines

T. Davenport, J. Kirby, Beyond Automation, HBR 06.2015

What they suggest are 5 Steps to consider in redefining the relationship to machines and defining employability in this changing context. Essentially suggesting 5 different ways to pivot your career.

The Five Steps to Pivot your career

  • Step Up: this means invest into higher intellectual ground. When employees step up, they choose to develop the skills that make them more valuable and marketable in a digitally disrupted business. This can mean acquiring entirely new knowledge or skills to keep up with disruption.
  • Step Aside: means developing strengths in areas that are not easily disrupted by technology. You might focus on interpersonal skills for example, focusing on a uncodifiable strength you already own, diligently working to heighten it.
  • Step In: means developing your broader skill set for the technologically disrupted organization. Computers still need oversight. Algorithms will need to be improved. This is the concept underlined by all those who recommend more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.
  • Step Narrowly: means focusing on specializing deeply in an area that machines are not likely to disrupt in the near future. It’s the equivalent of dominating a niche in the market and maintaining high barriers to entry. Particularly important if these skills can become differentiators vs. competition.
  • Step forward: means attempting to move ahead of technology disruption, building the next generation of computing tools. Behind every machine there’s many people, and this can very well be one of the best way to preserve a career opportunity.

What’s in it for Employers?

The complexity of the above is that rarely companies are equipped for a these multiple tenants of career. Most talent Development methodologies are deeply rooted into an “averagarian” way of planning a career that is vertical. And so manager react (ever tried to explain one that a lateral move is a career step?). And this ripples down in most employees.

The business case for lifelong learning is easily demonstrated, if the company accepts that it cannot control the development of its resources. People will need to be empowered to pursue their next career with passion. If even the World Economic Forum sponsors the Japanese concept of Ikigai as a concept to develop and happy working life, we need to ensure that Passion intended as the point in which personal interest and market opportunities are maximized for the individual.

This can be internal, but sometime can also mean allowing people to wonder in the external market.

The strategy that will work in the long term, for employers and the employed, is to view smart machines as our partners and collaborators in knowledge work. By emphasizing augmentation, we can remove the threat of automation and turn the race with the machine into a relay rather than a dash. Those who are able to smoothly transfer the baton to and from a computer will be the winners.

T. Davenport, J. Kirby, Beyond Automation, HBR 06.2015

What can I do as an individual?

Stop thinking about career in terms of the next promotion, the job title, the status symbols of the next level. Think in terms of content, and knowledge that you can develop. Study continuously something new, wether related to your current job or not, that’s not relevant. Be brave in scanning the environment, and understand opportunities. Nurture a variegated network (not just within your company….) and choose strategically what is your n ext step.

Any other advice you would share?

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