To remain relevant HR has to shift roles


HR leaders will have to shift roles, partnering with managers to craft new solutions that work alongside other changes

In an era of transformative cognitive technologies like AI and machine learning, people practices are becoming nimbler too. ‘Talent tech’ – innovations in how firms hire, staff projects, evaluate performance and develop talent – is now pervasive, potentially transforming every aspect of an organisation’s people practices.

These appear to be a bonanza for HR leaders. But ironically much of its adoption is not being driven by HR but by those who most acutely suffer from the limitations of older, less flexible people systems.Increasingly line managers are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to hiring, staffing and developing talent. So to remain relevant HR leaders will have to shift roles, partnering with managers to craft new solutions that work alongside other changes.

For example, at law firm Allen & Overy the idea of replacing traditional annual performance appraisals with a technology-enabled continuous feedback system did not come from HR. It came from a practice leader: the head of capital markets.

All too often HR managers try to implement a particular practice or technology rather than solve a business problem. And unsurprisingly managers don’t find it useful, and adoption rarely extends beyond a tick-box exercise. That’s why talent tech implementation has a greater likelihood of succeeding and scaling when it’s driven by operational managers. Because they have better insights into specific business challenges, they are more likely to adopt solutions people like them will want to use, and they are more often role models for others.

Managers are also eager to move fast with technology adoption. But their priorities can conflict with other parts of the business.

At one of the companies I worked with a young ambitious manager decided to experiment with an on-demand talent platform for staffing employees on discretionary projects. But the experiment raised questions about what latitude bosses had in deciding who’d be allowed to take on extra projects, and about whether performance on these ‘extra day-job’ projects could or should count towards an employee’s annual appraisal and compensation. HR was not involved early enough, was more attuned to the risks than the opportunities, and opposed scaling the project further. Only after a lot of stakeholder management and interference by a senior leader did the pilot get back on track.

So how do you remain relevant as everyone around you experiments with talent tech? First, make it a priority to stay informed about talent tech innovations and learn from the experience of early adopters, no matter how different they may seem from you. For instance, Allen & Overy’s new feedback system was inspired by Adobe. At the same time make sure to cultivate relationships with ambitious, high-potential executives by learning what they see as pain points in existing people processes. These are your early adopters so having pre-existing relationships will help forge a working partnership.

Second, bear in mind that successfully implementing talent tech usually requires shifting from ‘plan and implement’ to an ‘experiment and learn’ approach that is by definition more iterative, multidisciplinary and agile – and often conducted in partnership with small and lean start-ups. This is a real departure for many HR professionals, who are used to much longer timescales for defining and then implementing large complex systems organisation-wide. Gaining experience and comfort with smaller projects or pilots based on lean methodologies is crucial. Otherwise managers frustrated by what they perceive to be bureaucratic procedures and enforcement mindsets will simply circumvent.

Third, in most cases the data necessary to run talent tech tools exists in different formats residing in disparate silos. That’s why, regardless of where the idea comes from, partnership with HR early in the process is so important.

The ramifications of reimagining work are far-reaching. This necessitates talent strategies built on the ability to not just hire but access the right people and skills at the right time, and then put them to work in flexible ways for which they will be coached and rewarded in ways congruent with how they work. HR leaders who recognise this fundamental shift will help lead the way.

Herminia Ibarra is the Charles Handy professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School and HR magazine’s Most Influential Thinker of 2017