Why we need a new model for HR: part 3, people as product

In the previous column of a potential new model for HR, people and culture teams, we explored the ubiquity of HR business partners in HR 3.0 and their transience, versatility and a key focus on relationship brokering.

But also on their role in systems design, performance and data analytics, people operations and meaning-making.

For part three, we are going to look more specifically into one of the four domains in the HR 3.0 model: people, process, systems and products.

Catch up on the other parts of this series here:

Why we need a new model for HR

Why we need a new model for HR: part two

This feature will look at something already emerging from the excellent work of people like Jessica Zwaan and Nebel Crowhurst: products and product management.

Product what? Some might say. HR’s not about products. Except it is.

I first came across the concept of product management six years ago when I was invited to speak at the Product Tank event, ran by James Mayes.

It was my first realisation of just how big product management was. I was a little disparaging about HR and its lack of product acumen.

Yet it was a dawning of realisation for me that neither was I very product-oriented, so it was self-critical as much as professional field chastisement.

So firstly, what is product management; and more specifically, the role of a product manager?

Here’s ChatGPT to the rescue for us:

"Product management is the process of overseeing the development and lifecycle of a product, from conception to market launch and beyond.

"It involves a range of activities, including market research, product planning, design, development, testing, and launch.

"In practical terms, a product manager is responsible for ensuring that a product meets the needs and expectations of its target market and aligns with the goals of the organisation.

"They work closely with cross-functional teams such as engineering, design, sales, and marketing to define product requirements, prioritise features, and create a roadmap for development.

"Product management is critical to the success of a product. It requires a combination of technical knowledge, strategic thinking, and strong communication and collaboration skills."

So perhaps more importantly what are the products HR and people and culture teams create?

The short, pithy answer is anything that people need to use to go about their work. So HR’s products include:

  • Legally compliant frameworks and processes many of which take the form of policies and contracts.
  • Performance and development optimisation - taking the shape of practices and programmes of work like performance reviews, learning and development programmes and analysis of performance data.
  • Reward and recognition protocols - pay scales, bonuses, overtime arrangements and acknowledgement of loyalty, high-performance, values-based endeavours.
  • Organisation design, development and effectiveness models, systems and structures governing the flow of work, capturing innovation and improvement, measuring performance and areas of blockages or misalignment.

And much more. The reason we need product management is our products are not always good enough:

  • Policies built for the lowest common denominator or misdemeanour and are overly legalese, prescriptive or even paradoxically ambiguous.
  • Programmes of learning that are predictable, dated and overly time-consuming which fail to deliver capability enhancement and are tolerated rather than inspirational.
  • Recruitment systems that are overly biased, ineffective and take too long.
  • Engagement surveys that go through the motions with little or no action of influence for the better.

Now this isn’t to say that all HR work is pointless, damaging, under-achieving and lame. But in order to sharpen every product, we have in our offer to the people of the organisation, we absolutely need product managers to get a hold of the following.

Customer centricity

Everyone is a customer of HR’s products. There is a real need to take the approach that human-centred design is our baseline and foundation. Usability for people. Creating value for people. Keeping people safe, assured and enabled.

Minimally bureaucratic

Gary Hamel has been campaigning for the reduction in sclerotic, devaluing bureaucracy for years, and costed the implications in the trillions.

Unnecessary, overly cumbersome, and value-diminishing bureaucracy is often introduced in good faith but with poor design and zero product orientation and management.

This has to stop. We cannot keep creating work on work that has no value-creation element and frustrates and alienates people from more value-added aspects of what we do.

Shoddy L&D programmes, poor role design processes, and biased selection practices are just some of the negative impacts of control-freakery or misdirection.


Involving people in creating their own policies, programmes and product is a must. Not just focus groups - true influence, equity, ownership and creation.

We need our people to work with HR teams to get the products right. And create the Ikea effect of loving something you’ve built that has purpose and value.

Sustainable, regenerative and inclusive

We don’t design enough from a perspective of difference, difficulties and demand.

We need better insight, data, wisdom and adaptability in our products so that people can tailor them to themselves without breaching the regulatory or equitable nature of what HR designs.

Understanding the impacts on our people psychologically, spiritually and the impact on our planet, society, communities and those with different needs who increasingly aren’t part of the ridiculous homogenous group of “norms”.

Hyper-personalisation isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. We are unique, our challenges in life our unique and therefore our solutions and products that deliver those need to be adaptive to our circumstances.

Product management has proven - time and again in the digital technology world - to be the catalyst for better outcomes.

Product managers can take a really strong hold on what’s needed from a people and operational perspective.

This new model will sometimes cover long-standing permanent roles (in larger enterprises) and additional aspects of other roles in smaller HR teams.

So if you’re in a team of five, you might occasionally have to put on the product manager ‘hat’ for a while.

They can help us deliver better:

  • Policies and compliance procedures
  • Programmes of change and organisation development
  • Programmes of learning and capability enhancement
  • Recruitment and selection campaigns
  • Metrics, analytics, impact mapping and reports
  • Insight, knowledge and wisdom creation

This covers a whole host of roles from talent acquisition and recruitment specialist, to learning practitioners and change specialists.

So let’s be more utilitarian in HR.

Let’s have services and applications, programmes, policies and interventions that are welcomed, useful and add value.

Let’s see product managers in a new model for HR.

Perry Timms is founder and chief energy officer at PTHR