The never-ending debate about the future of Human Resources continues to take major twists and turns, with companies all over the world opting to introduce employee experience approaches as a tonic for engagement, talent and productivity challenges and as the primary long-term method to produce leading organizations within the economy. So why exactly have organizations like Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Cisco, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Orange, GE, and Adobe started to move away from traditional HR and embraced this “workplace as an experience” movement? And why are so many others, from the top to the bottom of our economies, also pioneering and championing employee experience rather than HR? By Ben Whitter 28 February 2017
You know better than I that this debate is not new within HR as a profession. It seems as though there has been an epic rap battle between the two sides. Then, of course, there are the observers in the middle, who are simply waiting for a seminal moment or announcement of who won before they quickly go about implementing the next model as soon as they have attended the relevant conference or workshop. Others, though, don’t wait. They get on with creating a brand of HR suited to and built within their business and context, and it makes a huge difference to business performance.
This is reflected across the business world. While HR is being elevated to the top table within some organizations – the CEO’s No. 2 in some cases – at the same time, other companies are busy downgrading HR to an administration function, with organizational development in its own right taking the strategic spot or being fused with HR in some fashion. Training and L&D also come into play in what is a mixed bag of approaches. The range of titles, services and functions varies but it is all chipping away at the same challenge. In recent years, the ideas presented by Ram Charan in his proposal on splitting HR and the subsequent response by Josh Bersin partially indicate what has been playing out in the profession for way too long – although both colleagues present good and valid points within their respective articles.
In “People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO”, Ram Charan returned with Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Co., and Dennis Carey, of Korn/Ferry International, to present a view that re-evaluates the chief HR role. There continues to be fierce resistance to established models of HR, which adds some weight to the argument that HR needs rebranding and a renewed focus.
Quite frankly, the debate has tended to be circular. What’s more interesting, though, is the extent to which it has been driven – and continues to be so – from within the profession, which has only made the very real gripes against HR stronger. Does this suggest an identity crisis within HR? Perhaps, but maybe the field is also getting restless, as our many practitioners and colleagues know they are ready to play more instrumental roles within organizations in what is quickly becoming a more meaningful economy.
The best HR leaders I know have been labeled as mavericks at one time or another, because they build something that goes against the norm, they challenge the status quo, and they extend well beyond the perceived limitations of their function. They bring meaning to the workplace and it runs through everything that affects people. The other thing they do have is a clear mandate from the top to create the best employee experience possible, which is a big advantage, as Laszlo Bock (Former VP, People Operations, Google), Libby Sartain (Former Yahoo/Southwest Airlines, VP People), and others like Airbnb’s Mark Levy would vouch for.
I’m an optimist, but I’m certainly not alone in thinking that HR and organizations are on the verge of a major moment in their history together. In fact, it’s happening already.
As a timely example, I co-hosted a development session for HR and experience professionals in London recently with Mark Levy, Global Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb, the world’s #1 workplace as rated by employees in 2016. Mark’s approach combines the traditional HR functions of recruiting and talent development with marketing, real estate, facilities, social responsibility, and communications. His view is that “organizing around the end-to-end employee journey is the best way to provide an integrated and thoughtful approach to all aspects of your team”. That’s quite a platform, but that’s not the HR success story here.
What is clear is that this move quite visibly positions the employee experience as critical to the business. This is absolutely right, in my view, and gives practitioners the confidence and belief to know that HR is no longer a support function within the business, because the employee experience, to a large extent, is the business. I can see the repercussions now in how we develop, grow, and accredit HR people within our profession. It is the employee experience that is the clear winner, and as an HR guy, I like what this says about the future workplace once other sectors start catching up. And they will.
There is no question that the transition from HR to employee experience thinking will be a challenge for companies, as many other organizations are joining the race to refocus their HR efforts on the employee experience. Instead of asking why they are changing their focus, I think the bigger question is why it is taking so long for employers to act on the basic truth that it is employees who deliver the value to customers and keep them coming back for more.
But not every company sees it that way. And not every company has a CEO like Brian Chesky, Larry Page, Jeff Weiner, Mark Parker, Charles C. Butt, Scott Scherr, or Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom are currently enjoying through-the-roof approval ratings alongside top employer rankings, largely delivered by their people-centric approaches and wholehearted support of creating leading, forward-thinking and progressive workplaces. That people thing… They take it very seriously, because in this economy they both want to and have to. It is critical to their success.
There’s a whole host of others named, ranked, and rated by Glassdoor on their CEO’s performance, and you may be surprised to find that these companies could be operating in your market, doing what you do, but in a very different way. It’s not all about the tech firms, and employee experience is not all about perks, which is a recurring theme when citing great workplaces and their impact on productivity and performance.
It’s actually about creating meaningful experiences within work and meaningful organizations.
That being said, how easy would it be for you to follow these organizations in creating a function dedicated to the employee experience that brings together multiple functions (or silos, if they are starting to hinder collective progress) that all play a major organizational role, in order to align them all and so drive your business forward?
If you’re at the top of the pile, easy, right? If you’re an HR practitioner or a middle manager, potentially not so easy, as you’ll need to work your ideas up and across the chain, a process that could take a short or long period of time depending on your particular circumstances. Focusing on the employee experience appears to be common sense but as many out there will tell you, it isn’t commonly applied, and even where it is, there are always inevitable challenges within the status quo.
Is it easy to re-focus HR on the whole employee experience?
Maybe. Maybe not. But for the HR profession and organizations in general, the journey is going to be well worth it.