Applying DevOps to HR: 6 Actions to become truly Agile.

Applying DevOps to HR: 6 Actions to become truly Agile.

DevOps is, according to Wikipedia, a set of practices that combines software development (Dev) and information-technology operations (Ops) which aims to shorten the systems development life cycle and provide continuous delivery with high software quality.

The concept itself is pretty recent, as the first formal event on the topic was held in 2009. But in some shape or form this “collaboration” between Software Development and then Execution in Production, has had experiences already in the past. Today, it is thanks to this set of practices that Agile Software Development can deliver its value. In essence, what DevOps means is that instead of having physically separated processes (and teams) that develop a solution and then move it to production (i.e. make it available to the user), and maintain it and service it, we have a collaborative effort of a team. This is a central asset for example of the Spotify Engineering Culture, that so often is taken as a mantra to scale Agile in organisations.

Why DevOps?

What has this to do with HR? I share the idea that it is the DevOps principles that are more revolutionary for the HR profession than “just” Agile on its one. Why? Because the central idea of the DevOps approach is to create direct links between the work you’re doing and the results you achieve serving your customers.

Applying some Design Thinking methodology of customer involvement at the beginning is critical, especially as we think and transition to the concept of Employee Experience. We involve our customers in the design of any solution, we reason in terms of the moment of truths, we test and learn with them… but what about the execution side? And what about measuring the ROI of this? A clear advantage of DevOps methodologies is precisely the strong link with ROI measurement, not through countless KPIs, but through appropriate measures that thoroughly measure the value created.

Let’s also remember that one of the foundations of DevOps is also to include security considerations in the process. Instead of thinking of IT security as a separate process (which too often translates into “it’s someone else problem”), security concerns and practices are embedded in the DevOps toolchains, allowing a holistic answer to problems and issues. This, for me, translates well with the need for HR to ensure “compliance”, yet often this is seen as a separate aspect, delegated to the “experts” only.

Building an “HR-Ops” Mentality

Is there a possibility to create a similar “HR-Ops” mentality? I believe there should be, and for me, it is part of the quest to move back the focus of HR towards organisational performance. An example? Talent Development. We have been focused as a profession for many years on the development of individuals and their competencies. Still, often without a clear connection to the value, they would generate for the organisation as a whole. On the contrast, the most effective way to achieve results is also a form of “joint development and operations“, which is training on the job. One of the elements that appeal to me more about the concept of a Deliberately Developmental Organisation is that development is immediately tied in with a strong ROI.

But what are the elements that HR can learn from DevOps? Adopting the cultural foundations that make DevOps work. The DevOps Research and Assessment has done a thorough research of the critical aspects that enable a performing DevOps organisation, both from a process as well as from a culture perspective.

The Five Process Principles

When we think at the DevOps process, five principles have been identified as part of the 2019 State of DevOps Report and then enable real value creation. Let’s see them here, with a quick description of how these can be generically applied to HR (or to any other function in reality).

  1. Team experimentation: you can innovate a lot faster if you build teams that are empowered and who can try out new ideas without approvals from people outside the group. This means allowing for continuous experimentation, based on autonomy and strong accountability with a “fail-fast” mentality.
  2. Streamlining change approval: you need to replace heavyweight change-approval processes with concepts based on peer review principles to get the benefits of more constant improvements. It may sound technical, but the reality is that way too often necessary changes in HR processes are postponed because people fear the burdens of seeking approvals.
  3. Customer feedback: you can drive much better organisational outcomes if you are able to gather customer feedback regularly and incorporating it into your processes and services on a continuous basis.
  4. Visibility of work in the value stream: this is the most important principle, and it is about the ability for everyone to understand and visualise the flow of work from idea to customer outcome to drive higher performance.
  5. Working in small batches: you need to create shorter lead times and faster feedback loops by working in small quantities. Instead of chasing an entire process flow for a whole company, try breaking it down in digestible bites that can quickly produce results. Learn common obstacles to this critical capability and how to overcome them.

The right cultural model

High Trust and free information flow are characteristics that are almost part of the design of such a winning culture. Still, their impact is not new, as it was investigated already a few years ago by Dr Ron Westrum. In his research, Westrum provides three characteristics of good information:

  1. It provides answers to the questions that the receiver needs answering.
  2. It is timely.
  3. It is presented in such a way that the receiver can use it effectively.

He then developed the following typology of organisational cultures.

PathologicalBureaucraticGenerative
Power orientedRule orientedPerformance oriented
Low cooperationModest cooperationHigh cooperation
Messengers “shot”Messengers neglectedMessengers trained
Responsibilities shirkedNarrow responsibilitiesRisks are shared
Bridging discouragedBridging toleratedBridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoatingFailure leads to justiceFailure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushedNovelty leads to problemsNovelty implemented
Table 1: The Westrum organizational typology model: How organizations process information

The DORA research has shown that the way people work influences culture. And the elements that are listed under the “Generative” type of culture are all key to enable a different and more proactive focus truly.

Six Actions to Focus on.

As you can see from the table above, there are six traits that we need to build to match the DevOps mentality in an HR context truly. Once we have enabled the process above, through the appropriate redesign of roles and functions, the following are the key aspects to reinforce and deliver value.

  • High cooperation. Create cross-functional teams that include representatives from each functional area of HR. This practice will let everyone share the responsibility for designing, testing and implòementing a new process or service towards employees. And will only work if there is good cooperation within the team.
  • Train the messengers. This means we want people to bring us bad news so we can make things better. Hold blameless postmortems. By removing blame, you remove fear; and by eliminating fear, you enable teams to surface problems and solve them more effectively. Also, create and foster an environment where it is safe to take smart risks and fail so that anyone can surface issues at any time—even without specific ceremonies linked to a team phase.
  • Share risks. Along with this, encourage shared responsibilities. Quality, satisfaction, reliability and compliance are everyone’s job. One way to improve the quality of your services is to ensure that all the team shares the responsibility for the delivery of the service. The improvement in the collaboration that comes from sharing responsibility inherently reduces risk: The more eyes on each process, the more you’ll avoid errors and ensure compliance.
  • Encourage bridging. Break down silos. In addition to creating cross-functional teams, think about other ways of breaking down silos. Co-locating HRBPs and HR Specialists roles can simplify the work and enable faster problem resolution. Involving also external partners (finance, procurement, IT), sometimes just through informal discussions, will also help even more.
  • Let failure lead to inquiry. Again, hold blameless postmortems. The response to failure shapes the culture of an organisation. Blaming individuals for failures creates a negative culture. If instead, failures lead you to ask questions about what caused the failures and how you can keep them from happening again in the future, you’ve improved your processes, your services and your culture.
  • Implement novelty. Encourage experimentation. Giving employees the freedom to explore new ideas can lead to excellent outcomes. Some companies give engineers the freedom to experiment for part of their working time. Others host internal hack days or mini-conferences to share ideas and collaborate. But how can you implement this in HR? When you release your employees from habitual pathways and repetitive tasks, they can generate enormous value for your organisation. Try something out, letting them manage the time needed and fostering serendipity in interaction with their customers. Also, encourage and reward improvements in process and ideas that help foster collaboration.

Conclusion

Will DevOps take over HR? I think that this approach is one of the clear advantages that some IT organisations have over HR in enabling the success of a firm, especially as they create the direct link with the customers (internal or external). For support functions, this has always been a somewhat mysterious path, but it’s in it that we can trace the real value contribution.

In its quest for Agile HR needs to take a stance on implementing some of these cultural attributes, as they are vital to reaffirming the centrality of its role. And will quickly demonstrate the value created for the entire organisation. As you noticed, I have not mentioned technology here. Although DevOps was born in a technological environment, the principles can also be applied to products and services that do not need technology. After all, a “DevOps” is not dissimilar to an old-fashioned tailor, able to produce and interact with the customer all the time, creating value in the relationship. This is how it was explained to me the first time I came across this concept. A genuinely human aspect we should retain and valorise.

What do you think of DevOps applied to HR?

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Cover Photo by Peter G on Unsplash

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