The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t alter the basic forces that have been forging new trends in HR, says Dave Ulrich. If anything, it accelerates them.
Early this year, Dave Ulrich, a luminary in the HR profession and a regular speaker at major AHRI events, wrote about six defining trends for HR in 2020 and beyond (which you can see the bottom of this article). Then the most powerful social and economic shock since World War II, the COVID-19 pandemic, tore its way around the globe and everything changed. Or did it?
“The trends are still legitimate. The virus simply exacerbates or draws forward some of those trends and puts a timeframe on them,” says Ulrich, speaker, author, professor of business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and co-founder of The RBL Group.
Business success first
At conferences, Ulrich often presents the question, “What’s the most important thing HR can give an employee today?”
When he asked this to a group of business leaders at a seminar not long ago, they said the most important things are employee purpose and meaning, and opportunity to grow, learn and belong.
“I said, ‘That’s terrific, but you missed the most important thing we as leaders can give employees, which is an organisation that wins in the marketplace.’”
Ulrich’s latest book (co-authored with Arthur Yeung) is Reinventing The Organisation: How companies can deliver radically greater value in fast-changing markets. He gave it that title “because unless we win in the marketplace, there isn’t a workplace”.
“A market-oriented mindset acknowledges that the best way HR can help employees is to work with line managers to succeed in the marketplace. An outside-in logic means HR practices should be connected to customer and investor outcomes.”
In addition to looking at leadership and the outside in, Ulrich and his colleagues have evolved how to think about and create the right culture. For over 30 years, Ulrich has examined the importance of organisation (his first book was about Organizatinoal Capability: From the inside out). Today, organisational culture has, quite rightly, become a focus in the HR world. And the way we approach it continues to evolve.
Previously HR has worked to create culture maps that describe how organisations make decisions, manage information and treat people, and how employees behave. These descriptors define culture from within the organisation. It’s an inside-out approach.
“For me, given my third HR trend, about stakeholders, the internal culture should reflect what we need to be known for by our customers, communities and investors outside the organisation,” says Ulrich.
“So the issue is not just describing your internal culture. It’s whether you have the ‘right’ culture. The right culture connects your internal business processes and employee behaviours with external stakeholders. Culture is not just internal values, but the value that those values create with external stakeholders. Culture is not the roots of the tree, but the leaves of the tree that are growing and adapting.
“You might all love each other and chant ‘Kumbaya’, but until the customer or investor says, ‘That’s the culture that will lead to me using your products, or investing,’ then we’ve missed the point.”
HR in a pandemic
None of the above basic principles change in a world struggling with COVID-19, says Ulrich. What HR has to do in this crisis, just as it would in another, is perform talent, leadership and organisation triage.
“When there’s a major car accident, for example, the first responders on the scene do triage. They quickly work out who most needs their attention. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s necessary,” says Ulrich.
HR professionals are now finding themselves in a similar decision-making state. In working with talent, triage that asks HR ‘How do we logistically get people working from home (having digital connections and creating home working spaces)?’ HR talent triage also helps ensure employees’ personal health and mental wellbeing in socially distant and isolated working environments.
In organisational triage issues, HR works with others to help remote workers continue to act, think and feel in ways that serve customers (culture from the outside in).
For leadership triage, HR helps to make sure that leaders personally model the values that will differentiate their organisation from others in the marketplace.
When HR conducts triage in a crisis, it sets the foundation for longer-term care. In a crisis, it is what differentiates companies that survive and thrive from those that don’t.
“In triage, you don’t plan. You simply react,” says Ulrich. “So when you discover a person in your business has a household member with coronavirus, what do you say to them about staying away from the office? Who else needs to know? How can you ensure they’re still productive? What does that change in terms of your priorities?”
Our core values, Ulrich believes, tend to reveal themselves under such circumstances. “Somebody once said that when we hit our thumb with a hammer, we always swear in our native language. Pain and stress bring out our true colours.”
HR during a pandemic is also about navigating paradox, says Ulrich. On the one hand HR, along with line managers, care for employees by working on the frontline of emotional wellbeing. But on the other hand, HR also shares responsibility for business results. It could be argued that that has always been the case for those in HR, but in the pandemic environment the effects of the paradox are amplified.
“How do we manage this care vs competitiveness paradox? I don’t have a clear or easy answer for you. Trust your values and trust your instinct. If you find yourself turning too much to the people side, cut that back a little bit. And if you find yourself turning too much to the business side, do the same.
“Navigating paradox doesn’t often come with a generic recipe for success. Do required triage, quickly and boldly. As the crisis moves on, you will then be in a position to create longer-term opportunities to deliver value to all stakeholders. As always for HR, the best is yet to come.”
Ulrich’s six HR trends
- Changing context: The HR profession must adapt more quickly than ever to the changing context of its work. This might include the coronavirus pandemic, environmental challenges (the Australian bushfires, for example), digitalisation of work, or other social and political trends.
- Creating value for others: This is not simply about meaningful jobs, great working environments and fair pay. It’s also about playing a powerful role in creating a business that succeeds in the marketplace. Without that successful business, there are no jobs.
- Stakeholders are everywhere: No longer are HR’s stakeholders limited to the employees and leaders within the business. They’re everywhere, including customers, investors and communities outside of the business.
- Unique contributions: HR is the architect, and line managers the owners, of talent, leadership and organisational actions that deliver value to all stakeholders. In particular, Ulrich’s research shows that an organisation’s capabilities (culture, workplace) have four times more impact on business results than individual competencies (talent, workforce). In any business setting, HR explores how to better manage talent, leadership and organisation issues.
- HR should reflect the logic of how the business is organised: Design of the HR department should match the design of the business. So if the business is centralised, HR should also be more centralised.
- Reinvention is a must: Competencies of HR professionals change about 30 to 40 per cent every four to five years, which means they must constantly reinvent themselves.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
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