What’s the role of HR in agile organisations?

By Amy Finn

As organisations strive for greater agility, many are quickly realising that introducing Agile practices and processes like Scrum and SAFe just isn’t enough. Successful agility is dependent on a shift in culture and values – becoming more transparent, collaborative, user-centric and team-based.

But HR practices are often found wanting when faced with these new demands, having been developed when process, predictability and status were key. When agile teams only plan three months ahead, for example, does it make sense to set annual objectives for team members?

This begs one question – what is the role of HR in agile organisations?

In my view, HR will continue to play a critical role in all organisations – including those that embrace agile. Not least because failing to focus on people and culture can lead to reputational damage, like that seen at Uber where rates of pay and gender equality have been big issues in the media.

But to continue to add value to agile organisations, HR needs to radically re-align their objectives, processes and structure to a more agile mind-set. We've found four key areas HR professionals need to consider to establish greater levels of agility.

Performance relationships

In agile organisations, teams understand that learning equates to improving, so feedback is given freely as part of team-based, day-to-day interactions. As a result, the layers of administration and process often seen in performance management are stripped away, but it’s critical that a core framework still exists. 

The performance management processes in agile organisations must be short-term and iterative, with objectives set to a specific agile cadence. Separate performance conversations with HR professionals should become focused on longer-term objectives and the need for continuous adaptation and learning, as daily performance is addressed by the team. At Adobe, for example, colleagues have regular ‘check-ins’ to continuously talk about performance.

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Talent facilitation

As organisations increasingly buy in expertise from the gig economy to meet specific goals, the need to provide formal training will reduce. And as they move towards small, cross-functional teams, talent strategies will be less about developing only specific expertise and more about developing multiple capability areas (‘e-shaped people’ with experience and expertise, exploration and execution), including communication and collaboration.

In an agile organisation, talent professionals will work with, and across, teams to help them identify areas of mastery, and develop them further. They will be the link between teams, enabling the smooth flow of capabilities to where they want to go and are needed.  Talent will be nurtured by letting people make decisions and giving them the freedom to move to new areas of the business.

Recruitment and resourcing professionals will use artificial intelligence to down-select individuals with the right skills and expertise, so will focus on cultural fit, capacity for change, openness and collaboration.

Team-based reward

Agile organisations assume that those who choose to work with them are intrinsically motivated.  They enjoy what they do and they want to excel and improve.  This is backed up by Daniel Pink, whose book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us showed offering financial rewards has little impact on motivation and performance.

Reward in agile organisations therefore needs to become less financially focused and more team-based. HR needs to provide a simple framework in which salary and bonus is competitive and equitable, and recognition decisions can be taken by the team.

HR professionals will need to work harder and more creatively to understand what will motivate and inspire individuals, and give them more flexibility in how and when they work. For example, Netflix lets employees take as much holiday as they want, letting people and teams self-regulate.

Resources, not courses

Agile organisations are inquisitive and eager to learn. They attract individuals with the same attitude and curiosity to continue to learn and adapt. That means training isn’t something that’s done to tick a career development box, or to top up existing functional skills. Instead, it’s part of the implicit contract between employer and employee, as organisations become ‘deliberately developmental’. 

Knowledge management and learning must be part of daily life, as people add to their armoury of skills and experience. People will expect to have access to the learning they need, when they need it, rather than adhere to complex and time-consuming processes. HR teams must therefore focus on sourcing and providing access to a range of learning resources via digital channels at point of need.

The way organisations think and operate is radically changing, and people are at the centre of this change.  HR teams are fundamental to achieving greater levels of organisational agility – and therefore to companies surviving and thriving. But they need to radically re-think the way things have been done for years and embrace the new agile mind-set.

About the authors

Amy Finn PA people and talent expert

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