CEOs demands for increased performance cannot be met by today’s HR

Let’s leave aside the discussion of the global economy and its seemingly unending erosion of jobs. Companies — even those that are profitable — have cut staff to what may be beyond levels of sustainable performance. Nonetheless, executives globally are still looking to get an additional 20 percent performance improvement, according to new research from CEB reported by Thomas Handcock.
I believe the findings are correct and represent policy at many global firms, And I concur with Handcock’s response, as far as he goes. He argues that the key is to help employees become more effective at operating in a network (emphasis his):

Thomas Handcock, Training Not Delivering Results? It’s Time for L&D to Work Smarter (Part 1 of 4)
Achieving this breakthrough performance is not a matter of increasing employee workloads. In fact, our data shows that the majority of employees have already reached the limit to their workloads. The answer lies in a critical reassessment of how work gets done and what good employee performance looks like.
Employees are operating in a new work environment characterized by increased complexity and inter-dependence. The idea of the “individual contributor” who works on a concrete set of tasks by themselves and whose work focused interaction is limited to reporting back to their manager is a thing of the past. In the modern knowledge-based enterprise, employees need to work with and through others to succeed. As a result, organizations must move beyond building the ability of employees to execute on their individual tasks and objectives, and instead focus on building employees’ network performance— their ability to contribute to the performance of those around them, and draw on the capabilities of their network to impact their own performance.

The unexamined problem is the company culture and organizational strictures. It is not enough to train workers to be more adept at instant messaging, Yammer, and social media, for example. But for more fundamental changes in social productivity, people have to be able to rethink the strictures of work. For example, Bette, a designer in a consulting company, AdjectiveNoun, may have discovered that Red Pen is a very small and simple app for sharing and commenting on designs (see “Red Pen is the simplest and smallest design review tool I’ve seen“). But if AdjectiveNoun’s policies deny her the ability to pick her own tools (bring your own brain) or if other members of the design team drag their feet because they don’t want to experiment with new tools, then Bette’s efforts to increase her own productivity, and potentially the network productivity of the groups and the company too are limited.
Other innovations could be blocked too at a structural level. Handcock is too quick to look at the individual and not the company as an organization with its own culture. As I discuss in “Cultural change is really complex contagion,” there are serious barriers to adopting behaviors that might be considered risky:

“New behaviors are hard to spread when the following conditions hold:

  1. Workers have few trusted and close company friends
  2. The new behaviors being advocated are unfamiliar, risky, or contrary to the current status quo
  3. Very few employees have adopted the new behaviors.”

So if Bette attempts to change the way that meetings are conducted — trying to move to a more lean discipline, with less large group meetings and more direct one-to-one coworking — she could encounter serious pushback.
My recommendation to companies is to avoid the top-down, HR-led approaches to training employees on how to be more productive in the new fast-and-loose, postnormal economy we have moved into. Instead, the new HR has to be fast and loose itself if it is to be effective. What does that mean? A fast-and-loose approach to HR must include these characteristics:

  • The new HR must relax the tight connection model and adopt looser connections with everyone. That translates into letting people figure out how to train themselves and how to do their own jobs better.
  • Instead of analyzing work in an abstract way and trying to optimize it in the general, find the people who are most advanced in adopting the new behaviors leading to greater network productivity. These “positive deviants” are the ones best suited to serve as role models for others (see “How ‘positive deviants’ help a culture change itself“), and HR should work with them to get their take on how best to get others to understand the new behaviors.
  • HR should work to change the cultural barriers to people creating more connections in the company, both loose and strong connections. Is hanging around in the cafeteria talking with others treated as a necessary aspect of work, or is it considered goofing off?
  • Instead of putting up inspirational posters, HR should work to break down barriers to work experimentation in practices, tools, and social relationships.

In a world that is changing at a dizzying rate and in unpredictable ways, HR needs to work toward a business culture that is more improvisational, where people realize that participating in spontaneous projects improves how work gets done and are rewarded for their participation, and to potentially shift to a new approach and leave the old way behind.
And the biggest barrier to innovation in the workplace might be management. DDIworld published a study that suggests there is an enormous disconnect between management and workers about innovation. Seventy-eight percent of managers thought they demonstrated openness and appreciation for unique ideas and opinions, while 43 percent of  workers agreed. What about helping workers learn from mistakes? Seventy-seven percent versus 51 percent. Enabling employees to learn more about business trends and emerging issues? Seventy-seven percent versus 51 percent.
Until this gap is closed — and not by better propaganda or coercion — there is little chance that we’ll find that 20 percent boost. My suggestion is to fragment management and dilute the idea of direct reporting into five or six looser relationships. I’ll leave that for another post. But it’s clear that something dramatic has to change, because management is inherently blocking the growth of networked productivity by slowing or blocking innovation.