Does Human Resources Need to Be Agile?

A survey of 1,000+ business leaders worldwide by the Conference Board says attracting and keeping talented people is the biggest concern for CEOs. But you knew that. What may be new is how leading companies give themselves an edge by taking ideas from agile technology and applying these to talent management.

We’ve heard—and repeated—the mantra that businesses need to develop products and services faster. That employees need to work rapidly yet efficiently. That business groups can’t afford to work in siloes.

For me, this dates back at least 20 years. At Citi, we introduced cross-functional teams and identified domain experts who could move from one team to the next. That’s how we were able to execute challenging initiatives across a global organization. We identified people whose expertise was both broad and deep, and asked them to work on complex projects.

Agile has now given us words, and better systems and processes, for what we were trying then. Short projects, called “sprints.” Team meetings to solve problems, called “scrums.” Evolving new approaches, called “iterations.” And apps to monitor and communicate progress.

Here are three thoughtful articles from The Harvard Business Review, under the headline of “The New Rules of Talent Management.” Discover how organizations from Bank of Montreal, to IBM to ING are implementing an agile mindset and methodology to create better workplaces, foster innovation and improve their top and bottom lines.


FRAMEWORK : Human Resources Analytics

HR Goes Agile

Traditional human resources (HR) models made sense when companies had annual goals and annual performance appraisals to measure employees’ progress toward these. But as business models change, HR must reflect the new reality.

The agile approach tears apart long-term strategies into manageable pieces. In our current world, employees need immediate feedback. Leaders need to know what’s happening in teams—and who knows this better than other team members? Particularly when the person an employee reports to may not be on that team.

See where some of the biggest changes are happening:

  • Performance appraisals are becoming an ongoing dialog.
  • Managers are receiving more real-time coaching to sharpen their people skills: from human coaches and virtual coaching programs.
  • Work is organized around teams: with multidirectional feedback, decision-making pushed to the front line, and managers in charge of handling complex team dynamics.
  • Compensation is being linked to near-term behaviors and results.
  • Recruiting is influenced by the teams on a project that determine the characteristics of who should be hired.
  • Learning and development can be directed by artificial intelligence (AI) programs. These monitor employee performance and direct the person to the virtual training programs needed for improvement.

FRAMEWORK : Human Resources Analytics

Co-Creating the Employee Experience

This Q&A with IBM’s Chief Human Resources Officer Diane Gherson demonstrates how the company is doing something too rarely seen. Management understood the quantifiable connection between employee satisfaction and its performance. Research indicated that employee engagement accounted for two-thirds of its client experience scores, and each five-point improvement in employee satisfaction added an extra 20% in revenue. That created a compelling case for investing in the employee experience.

Because IBM develops sophisticated tools, the company already had what it needed in-house to execute this strategy. Management took analytic methods it was using to measure and enhance the client experience—such as the net promoter score—and applied these to do the same for employees (I’ve encouraged organizations to do the same since giving a presentation on this at the Talent Science Conference in 2014). In overhauling talent management, Gherson focused on strengthening three employee experiences: learning and development, performance management, and sentiment analysis. She and her team also encouraged employees to speak up during the process to improve the result.

Here’s one example I loved. When IBM eliminated the compensation for its rideshare program, HR was flooded with negative feedback—monitored by its AI system. Gherson was alerted. Within 24 hours, she acknowledged what people had said and reinstated the original policy, showing employees they had the power to make change happen.

Explore how IBM is combining AI with good judgment to create a more attractive and rewarding environment for its people.


FRAMEWORK : Human Resources Analytics

One Bank’s Agile Team Experiment

This “experiment” was the most game-changing among the companies profiled in these articles. ING leadership decided to make three fundamental changes: 1) better focus on delivering “Banking on the Go” services to its 30 million online customers, 2) redeploy its internal resources to support this, and 3) simplify its organization and speed up its response time. To do that, it implemented an agile team-based system of tribes, squads, chapters, product owners and coaches. (There’s a simple and useful graphic in the article that illustrates the structure under the heading of “Tribes, Squads and Chapters.”)

In the past, customer issues could go unsolved—or fall between the cracks—as different departments took or didn’t take ownership. ING developed smaller teams that would provide end-to-end project management. They were given permission to try new ideas and, more importantly, were rewarded rather than punished when something failed. The philosophy became “fix it and move on.”

To prevent teams from wandering down the wrong path, every quarter there are strategy meetings. Tribes look at their biggest successes and failures, review what they learned, and spell out their goals for the next three months.

Here is the result:

  • ING has empowered small teams to set up and resolve customer issues.
  • It has domain experts across the franchise that support the agile teams.
  • Its business management and leadership ensure strategic direction is aligned to the corporate strategy.

How does this apply to you?

The idea of marrying talent and technology to create a better business—culturally, operationally and financially—is a worthy goal. By diving deeper into the articles and breaking them down into “chunks,” identify what is important to your company and open the dialogue across the organization.

“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”

— James Belasco and Ralph Stayer