HR

How complexity & simplicity come together in the art of future HR design

written for insideHR August 2019

Simplexity is an emerging theory that proposes a possible complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity, and it has important ramifications for HR professionals looking to improve both the mechanics and dynamics of the workplace, writes Rob Scott

Many organisations are moving towards a digitised work environment. And while there are many facets to this transformation agenda, the one overriding message from many human capital thought-leaders around the world is the need for increased simplicity. Reducing complexity in HR processes and activities is seen as an elixir for Josh Bersin’s overwhelmed employee who is suffering from low engagement and negative trending productivity levels.

But does the adoption of a simplicity mantra just mean problem-solving and innovating by making things more logical and easier? That would be nice, but it’s a little more complex than that, it’s what we call simplexity, a term which describes a complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity.

Firstly, why do we have complexity in our HR processes? Well, we don’t typically aim to build complex outcomes, but over time we make modifications, often in a reactionary way to ensure continuity, to align with new technology, include a process owner’s ‘great ideas’ or to rectify ‘minor’ problems.

In many respects we don’t notice the ‘complexity accumulation’, just as we don’t realise our own weight gain until we’re confronted with a Facebook ‘Memories’ notification of our slimmer-self three years earlier.

“Trying to resolve processes which have evolved into complex problems is likely to result in a confusing mess”

Over time organisations spend a lot of effort and money trying to patch and rectify problems we can’t really solve. But at least the problem temporarily disappears right? This may last for a while, but eventually we reach an infliction point, where we move beyond a point of ‘functional complexity’, in other words a level of complexity which is still acceptable, but not optimal. We all know what the ‘chaos zone’ feels like and we often react with statements like “How on earth did we land up like this?”.

Simplexity graph

When we attempt to resolve problems within the ‘chaos zone’, often using simple logic and keeping other inputs or outputs constant, we end up with a confusing mess. Ownership, involvement and role clarity in understanding the problem becomes blurred. Re-imagining is often the best way forward in these cases. Painful, but gets you back in the right zone.

What we really mean by simplicity is the end-user experience, not the back-end design. It’s a dichotomous situation, which is why we refer to it as “simplexity”.

It’s a reality that if we want our organisations and people to adapt, grow, be agile and leverage new technologies such as AI, automation and Blockchain, then complexity by definition will increase. However, if we want efficiency and improved people productivity, then complexity from an experience perspective must decrease.

2 steps to simplexity
So, what do you need to do to manage this contradiction?

“Organisations spend a lot of effort and money trying to patch and rectify problems we can’t really solve”

Firstly, accept that effective simplexity is a function of our understanding, not our personal desire to solve a problem or introduce something new. This means we should engage the right skills who recognise the subtleties and nature of the complexity and who can unpack the problem in ways which allow others to give appropriate input and direction. Including the right design-skills can ensure you build the bridge between complex creations and simple experiences.

Secondly, ensure you don’t land up in the ‘chaos zone’. Make sure you constantly evolve within the ‘functional complexity zone’ and purposelessly block any silent creep into the chaos zone. Actions such as process effectiveness alerts, engagement results and continuous improvement cultures can serve as ‘chaos zone’ mitigation solutions.

Bottom line – simplicity is an experience, not necessarily the design.

Simplexity in a nutshell

  • While we all want process simplicity, it’s a reflection of the output or experience rather than the back-end design.
  • Simplexity is a dichotomous term because it simultaneously requires the adoption of more complex tools such as AI in order to progress, but at the same time needs the end user experience to seem simple.
  • Trying to resolve processes which have evolved into complex problems is likely to result in a confusing mess.
  • Achieving simplexity is a function of our understanding. We need to step back from what we don’t know and introduce the appropriate skills.

9 Exciting Trends and Opportunities in HR for 2019

Grateful to  Orlando Imperatore : Flickr 2018

Toss away the crystal ball!  Of course there is no rational way to ‘predict’ what will be important for HR leaders and business execs in 2019. In almost every case, each organisation is on a unique journey of people transformation, technical empowerment, culture mind-shift or simple operational improvements.

So my list is a collection of stuff which I’ve happened to engaged HR and other leaders about in the last 12 months and which was being considered for future plans. Perhaps only 1 is of interest to you, maybe all 9 – It doesn’t really matter. 

Here we go! and in no particular order

  1. PA – Personal Analytics 
    • HR Analytics has become an important tool for supporting organisational decision making around people. But it tends to support the employer more than the employee. As we see Employee Engagement, Happiness and changes in the Workforce and Workplace take center stage, there is a gaping hole around providing individuals with Personal Analytics in order for them to make better personal and business related decision within a continually fast-paced and constantly changing work environment.
  2. Trust
    • As we see new technologies such as Chat-bots, Robotic Process Automation, Machine learning Algorithms, Personal data-sharing and Tracking cozying up next to  human workers, the trust relationship which underpins so many things in our organisations is being diluted. The need is not just about building trust in technologies which are performing ‘human-like’ tasks or gathering our data, but effectively managing the implications for functions such as HR who have custodianship over some of these new-age tools. 
  3. Non-Exec Talent Coach 
    • Executive coaching is a mature offering, but as the nature of work and the variety of relationships between an organisation and a worker develop  ( I don’t want to say employee, because many are not technically that), the need for Independent Development Coaches at  lower levels, and which is not funded by the employer is being sought. Some of this demand exists because younger talented individuals do not want to mirror the behavior of current leaders (Think about many current Bank Leaders…. not a good model to follow), but want to become the best version of themselves without company influence.
  4. Beyond Engagement
    •  I’ve never been a fan of culture or engagement surveys – statistically they are full of errors and often based on pop-psychology. However listening with ‘Data Ears’ is becoming more relevant. In other words understand the mood of the company, or Engagement levels (Customer or Employee) or Happiness levels by analyzing the data trail left by employees, customers, your supply chain seems far more reliable and less prone to typical survey inaccuracies. 
  5. Personal Data Repository
    • One of my favorites. I’ve been engaging on this topic for a number of years. But with the changing workforce landscape, the growing contingent and gig enthronements, workers want the ability to store their own work history (think mini HR system), including Learning records, Pay and Benefit data, Performance scores, basic biographics, Job and Position history. They want control over their own data, and the ability to share it and withdraw it easily with an employer. This is not your typical Linkedin profile BTW. Big opportunity for HR Software vendors.
  6. Communication
    • Not necessarily new, but becoming an area of focus again as organisations get lost if their digital and technology transformation activities. Humans are irrational, make mistakes and are not perfect. Technology, with all its benefits, has the ability to create sterile and perfect environments, which are not conducive to human productivity or happiness. Making sure we don’t capitulate our responsibility to communicate to machines/technology is important. 
  7. The Science of HR 
    •  HR is actually a lot more complex that most people realize. Often the individual HR activities are not complex (some can be though), but ensuring there is alignment across a multitude of interrelated HR activities is where the real complexity lies, and where things often go wrong. Underpinning all HR decisions is the level of HR Maturity. When HR activities are not executed based on the Maturity level, you typically get Executive despondency towards HR or frustrated HR leadership. 
  8. Instant answers to HR Tech
    • The fast-paced and continuously changing work environments are demanding HR and IT leaders make quick, but informed HR Technology buying decisions. Gone of the days that it takes 4-8 months to do a traditional RFP, only to discover the new SaaS tools you were considering have significantly changed. There are some great services, analysts and tools available to speed up these decisions.
  9. HR Operating Model Change 
    • Many organisations are realizing the traditional Dave Ulrich HR operating model needs some adaptation. Not a radical change (as it is mostly still working), but a focus change to ensure the operating model can support ‘speed and agility’ needs of modern organisations. Changes include the ‘Business Partner’ reaching into the customer and supply chain world, the ‘Centre of Excellence’ (CoE) becoming a Networking Management Function and the ‘Shared Service Centre’ transforming into a Digital Data Centre.

That’s it!. And why not 10 I hear you ask, no reason, I only had 9 to share. Whats the point of making stuff up 🙂  

In Search of Imperfection

written for InsideHR

People leaders need to get the balance between technology, environments and human irrationality right in an increasingly digital world, writes Rob Scott, who explains that there are a number of considerations in optimising employee performance in the process

I recently attended a presentation by Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer at Danish company Woohoo Inc. He makes the point that we very often, but incorrectly assume employees are happy at work when they have job satisfaction. According to Kjerulf, job satisfaction is what we “think” about our jobs, while happiness is what we “feel” about our jobs and work environment.

The employee performance conundrum
This was timely as I have been engaging with several leading-edge clients who are struggling to find appropriate ways of improving their employee performance and engagement levels. These companies have all the great benefits and perks such as free food, zone-out pods, wellness programs and gym membership which attract talent, they have tier-1 HR technology and collaboration tools, use and explore automation, robotics and AI to augment employee capability and remove humans from work which is done better by machines. Wow, everyone should be happy, satisfied and engaged. But they’re not.

Josh Bersin, a leading global HR technology analyst cites challenges with engagement, productivity and employee experience as one of four forces disrupting organisations today. In his presentation A Wild New World of HR Technology, he alludes to the lack of employee performance and productivity improvement, overwhelmed employees and marginal improvements in employee engagement despite all the great technology we continually introduce into our lives and workplaces.

“Wow, everyone should be happy, satisfied and engaged. But they’re not”

Why leaders need to empower people to improve employee performance
For several years, I’ve been driving the point that effective digital work environments are not about throwing more technology at people and problems. Unless you empower people to do more with the technology in a modified human behavioural way, you are likely to create the challenges Josh Bersin highlights.

Furthermore, as people leaders, it’s important that we figuratively step back to see the broader technical environments we are busy creating – not just from a software and apps perspective, but inclusive of the steel, concrete, glass, noise, space and technical gadgetry we combine to form our “happy” work environments.

Often these environments are created to serve rationality and optimisation but can unintentionally become “technology concentration camps” – an environment which is perfectly rational, but dreadfully unliveable.

In my view, we have become singularly focused on building environments and supporting processes using modern and emerging technical assets in order to attract, retain, engage and develop people. But we have overlooked the potential mismatch between these creations and the fact that people are not perfectly rational and don’t operate well in sterile, passionless environments.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a technology fan – it underpins our human desire to constantly progress and improve. However, we should realise as human beings, we are at our happiest when we can be irrational, make mistakes, share emotions, be spontaneous, indulge in passions, seek out the mysterious and have faith.

Allowing employees to be human
It was the French writer Ellul who said “The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made an enormous error in misunderstanding this aspect of human nature and presumed to exorcise all that was not rational.”

“As human beings, we are at our happiest when we can be irrational, make mistakes, share emotions, be spontaneous, indulge in passions, seek out the mysterious and have faith”

As we evolve our digital work environments, shifting tasks to robotics and AI away from human jobs which we are not good at, are less accurate at, or are slow to do in comparison to technology, we will be left with a ‘perfectly optimised’ human worker, but perhaps not a happy or engaged one. The ‘perfect’ technology environment may be producing the opposite effects of employee performance, happiness, engagement and productivity.

Our challenge as people leaders is to get the balance between technology, our environments and human irrationality right – building the perfect ‘imperfect’ environment is the goal. Those that succeed will be the attractive organisations of the future, sought out by talented people.

3 key insights: employee performance in the digital world

  • Our digital work environments are increasingly becoming optimised and rational, driven by technology. But when we put humans, who are not perfectly rational, into these environments, we are impacting engagement and happiness.
  • We have an abundance of technology in our personal and work lives, yet evidence suggests that employee performance, human productivity and engagement has only marginally improved.
  • Our desire to remain competitive organisations has necessitated leveraging modern technologies and shifting human tasks to machines and AI. Organisations who understand how to optimise, but at the same time not dehumanise will be the successful companies of the future.

Time to turn the Ulrich Model into a Digital Delivery Model

Written by Rob Scott for Inside HR

The Ulrich model of HR delivery has been the cornerstone framework of HR for the past 20 years, but in light of the newly emerging digital world, modern HR must adapt to become agile and remain effective, says Rob Scott

There is no denying that all of us are on a digital transformation journey. Our work environments and operating models are feeling the strain of being caught between more traditional business operating models and the newer, agile demands of techno-digital environments. Deciding whether to toss out the old approach or focus on a more evolutionary adaptation of your existing ways can be a daunting decision to make for HR leaders.

The Ulrich model of HR delivery, developed by Professor David Ulrich 20 years ago, has been a solid guiding framework in full or part for most HR functions globally. And even though the model has been contested over the years, the building blocks of the model; HR Shared Service Centres (SSC) for administration, Centres of Excellence (CoE’s) for content expertise and the HR Business Partner (HRBP) for business alignment, have worked – so why change something that ‘ain’t broke’?

The underlying design principle of the Ulrich model has been about effective and streamlined connectivity between the elements of HR and business operations and strategy. It was built on assumptions that were pre-digital age. But the digital work environment has introduced new technologies such as Robotic Process Automation, Cognitive computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), new thinking styles such as Design Thinking, Evidence-based decisions supported by deep-dive Data Analytics as well as a deluge of demographic, ethics and loyalty impacts. As HR professionals, the worse thing we can do is bury our heads in the sand and fall prey to the Normalcy Bias, believing things will always function the way things normally function. We need to consider how a digital environment is changing the way the workforce is empowered, interacts and connects.

“The Ulrich model as a framework is still a relevant HR operating model, but the transition from the old roles to the new ones is an important adjustment required to support digital work environments”

In a Digital world, HR must respond and adapt quickly to changes which impact your business, whether that be through external competitiveness or internal innovation. This will require the roles of the HRBP, SSC and CoE to transform into ‘early warning’ detectors and predictors which can seamlessly morph into problem-solving guru’s and inform the creation of relevant and unique HR solutions. How should these roles change?

HR Business Partner » Alignment Agent

Modern HR technology, digital and automation tools fully empower line managers to be effective in hiring, managing and developing their staff. It’s time to get beyond playing the quasi-admin role for line managers. The Alignment Agent is externally focussed around your organisation’s supply chain and customers, ensuring HR solutions are adding customer-focussed value in line with business strategies and advising line managers and executives on required changes. The new Alignment Agent is seeking out business issues from a people perspective and doing problem-solving with data analytics.

Shared Service Centre » Analytics Engine Room   

As Automation and Robotic Processing takes over administrative tasks and AI replaces more complex HR admin tasks, the admin centre becomes obsolete but is reborn as an Analytics Engine Room that supports business problem solving and provides predictive capability to business leaders. Their outcomes inform future HR solutions. The future SSC employee is a data scientist or analyst. The engine room is not HR centric only, but can be part of a broader analytics entity or could be an outsourced service.

Centre of Excellence » HR Solution Provider

The new CoE will still require deep-skilled and experienced HR practitioners who will remain the thought leaders for appropriate people practices. They will be responsible for developing and deploying solutions which are identified by the new Alignment Agent and use data-driven outcomes from the Analytics Engine Room to validate their solutions. Solutions are not always standardised and can be focussed on providing the best solution for a part of the business.

The Ulrich model as a framework is still a relevant HR operating model, but the transition from the old roles to the new ones is an important adjustment required to support digital work environments.  It requires forward thinking executives and HR leaders to recognize the different demands of a future workforce and workplace, and an acknowledgement that technology, applied in the right way, is empowering employees and workplaces to be super-agile, and achieve significantly more. HR must change.

Some takeaway messages

  • The classic Ulrich model of HR has been the cornerstone of HR delivery for most organisations. It’s a good model, but it needs to be aligned to the emerging digital work environment
  • Much of what HR Business Partners and HR Shared Services Centres do is administrative in nature. The available HR software, automation and AI tools now available will completely change how these mundane activities are done. The Ulrich-defined roles must adapt
  • The old HR Business Partner role needs to drop the line manager ‘hand-holding’ style of management – Modern HR tools make line managers completely self-sufficient
  • Shared Services as we know it will disappear as administrative tasks are automated or managed by AI. A major skill refocus is needed to change these entities into Analytic Engine Rooms

Has Technology Weakened HR?

Picture: 周小逸 Ian : Flickr
12 May 2016

This seems somewhat of an odd statement to make in todays technology obsessed world – surely HR technology has allowed People practitioners to greatly improve efficiency by reducing manual and paper-based activities, improving data access & reporting, reducing errors, helping employees make better decisions and ensuring compliance to policy and procedure.

This is of course true at a transaction level, but herein lies the problem. The way vendors have generally designed HR technology is not an accurate reflection of how professional HR and Talent managers think, nor does it signal an understanding of the complexities in Professional HR Management. In fact the slicing-up of HR into different software modules along ‘logic’ and ‘transaction’ lines of thinking has created and perpetuates the view that HR is simply a set of somewhat loosely interrelated basic transactions.

And surely that can’t be too difficult to get right! ah, yeah!  But yet time and time again we see HR functions under attack for poor performance and low value contribution. With these perceptions abound, no wonder there is doubt among some C-levels that HR is needed.

If only HR Management was so simple and logical. But it isn’t. There are a significant amount of people dimensions used by HR professionals which are not logically inclined or lend themselves to be developed into a ‘transaction’, let alone a software module. Think about important people management facets such as ‘Ethics’ , ‘Style’, ‘Diversity’ and ‘Values’ – these are key HR influences in achieving particular strategic business outcomes, and they are fundamentally intertwined into such things as learning, performance, development, communication and knowledge sharing. But they are ‘non-existing pieces’ in the HR software puzzle.

This is not a jibe at HR Software vendors. In fact some vendors clearly understand the impact of these gaps and are working hard to address them. Particularly those vendors who are focused on superior technical integration between modules.

They realize that while they have in many cases reduced HR to modular transactions to make it easy for end users, they also understand that the all-important ‘HR complexity value factor’ is partly resolved when effective and seamless integration across these modules occurs. The combination of modular interaction offers some support in achieving strategic HR objectives. Keep going vendors, there is lots more to do in this space!

HR Technology has inadvertently contributed to a weakening of professional HR outputs, but the finger should however point directly at the HR leader who has allowed the function to be reduced to a set of modules and transactions.

It’s an easy way out for poor performing HR leaders, and provides an opportunity to shift the blame onto technology. Professional HR management is not an easy job, in fact it is highly complex, with over 40 major elements or activities being continuously juggled to produce desired business outputs. Those that are successful also understand how HR technology should be used and positioned to enable people to achieve great things.

Do you have an opinion on this?