Creating the AGILE HR Organization

Speed, fitness, flexibility, nimbleness, resilience … words more often used to describe a world class athlete than a business organization. Moreover, how often do we hear these words to characterize our HR departments or staff? Not nearly often enough.

By all accounts, the 21st century is bringing rapid innovation and change driven by the continuing digital renaissance, expanding global markets and a “real-time” communications paradigm. The accelerating rate and volume of change will continue to be driven by the exponential growth and global availability of information, human resources, technologies, and technology-based infrastructure. This new environment of accelerated uncertainty and change is not going to blow over or settle back down ~ it is our new reality. A quick read of Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, “The World is Flat”, will give you a glimpse of the continued turbulence that lies ahead. We call this the era of “turbo turbulence” – change and uncertainty happening faster and more unpredictably.

How well organizations are prepared to survive in this turbulent business climate is a fundamental issue and challenge for most leaders. Part of the answer is that competitiveness and success will be earned through building capability to continually monitor, anticipate and adapt to trends in the environment so that products and services are matched with and sometimes predict customer demand. Organizations that can effectively adapt are ones that quickly see opportunities, are shrewd in developing short-cycle strategies, are able to meet customers’ individual needs, develop capable, flexible and project-based processes, and are fast at learning and unlearning.

As business leaders attempt to cope with these challenges, the importance of creating organizational and strategic agility has been highlighted in an increasing number of publications and senior management surveys (e.g. AMA/HRI Global Agility Survey, Conference Board CEO Trends, McKinsey Global Trends Survey, Accenture Survey, Agility Consulting Adapt and Thrive Survey, etc.). The 2004 Conference Board study of 540 business leaders places “creating greater organizational speed, flexibility and adaptability to change” as the top CEO priority reported by 88% of the respondents. Similarly, the McKinsey & Co.’s 2006 study, Building a Nimble Organization, surveyed over 1,500 executives world-wide and reports that “executives see an urgent need to increase the agility and speed of their organizations and are trying in various ways to do so”.

These executives overwhelmingly reported that these issues have “become more urgent for business in the past five years” and a majority indicated that they are taking steps to address them. If leaders cannot react quickly to sales declines and continue to produce to forecast, the result is an inventory build up – often in a potentially obsolete product. Or, if leaders cannot scale fast enough, the result is lost sales. And if global talent cannot be quickly identified, developed, engaged and retained, there will not be the right human capital at the right place at the right time.

After years of research and evaluation into the critical factors influencing organizational and leadership agility, it is clear that HR leadership teams can and should have a key role to play in planning and building organizational agility and insuring its sustainability. The challenges and barriers to an agile transformation include behavioral, attitudinal and organizational dimensions that are woven throughout the leadership and cultural fabric of the enterprise.

The benefits of adaptability give companies the freedom to make smart and fast decisions that are in the best long-term interest of the company. But the secret ingredient lies in the alignment between people, process and technology that adaptable companies use to conduct business with an unrelenting obsession around anticipating change, remaining focused on their vision and leadership practices that allow them to continually be nimble in the ever changing business environment.

Some of these factors were recently examined in a 2006 survey conducted by Agility Consulting, LLC in conjunction with the Human Resource Planning Society and their Annual Conference – with this year’s theme of “Adapt & Thrive”. Of particular interest in this survey of Senior HR executives attending the conference was exploring the role of the Human Resource function in helping organizations “adapt and thrive” in today’s business environment.

One hundred and thirty senior HR professionals responded to the survey and they identified six key categories of focus for helping their organizations “adapt and thrive” including:

  • Emphasis on innovation
  • Employee engagement and empowerment
  • “Walk the Talk” with adaptive leadership
  • Building capabilities for “rapid change management” Ÿ Workforce Alignment with Vision
  • Awareness of trends

The challenges in HR’s ability to Adapt & Thrive were also highlighted by the survey respondents. The top challenges facing the HR function in their quest to help lead their organizations to greater Agility include:

  • On-going transformation from just delivering tactical products and services to becoming more strategic partners
  • Overcoming resistance to change” from within the HR function
  • Growing the adaptive competencies within the HR function

Agile organizations, including agile HR organizations, develop effective capabilities in five core organizational processes that distinguish them from their “fragile” counterparts. They include skill at:

  • Anticipating Change
  • Generating Confidence 
  • Initiating Action
  • Liberating Thinking
  • Evaluating Results

“Fragile” organizations can learn from their “Agile” counterparts about what it really takes to strategically plan and execute adaptive strategies that thrive and result in creating sustained profitable growth. Here are a few examples of the kinds of initiatives that Agile HR teams pursue as they support and participate in the organization trying to “adapt and thrive” …

The challenge for the strategic HR practitioner is to help grow the organizational capability to adapt and thrive. Adaptive leadership is more than just the use of a particular set of behaviors,

programs, or strategies. Relevant competencies include strategic thinking skills, active interpersonal and collaboration skills (with emphasis on emotional intelligence), a learning orientation (openness to feedback and new ideas) and knowledge of the organization (e.g., culture, processes, products, or services). These competencies are relevant for leaders at all levels, but they are especially important for top executives and being modelled by the HR leadership team.

The juggernaut to effectiveness will continue to be whether the HR leadership and organization can demonstrate leadership in building adaptability within its own function and people.

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Tom O'Shea, CMC

Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) - these are the times we live in and exactly why Tom O’Shea is considered a trusted advisor helping leaders, teams and organizations adapt and thrive to navigate VUCA and deliver future success.

Tom brings a unique blend of strategic, operational and organizational expertise that is rare and valuable.  With perceptive insight, proven strategies and impactful coaching skills, he helps clients at the enterprise, team and individual leader levels exceed even their own expectations.

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