people signals


talent leadership change innovation


Every now and then a book keeps changing you long after you closed the cover on it. This summer I read Tim FerrissThe Four-Hour Workweek since I am up to anything that is wacky and gets a lot of links. Since then, it has continued to shift my GPS coordinates on how I approach my job and look at challenges: not the effort counts, but the output.

It seems sort of simple that output is more important than input. Somehow it slips the attention in most cases though that not all input is created equal. Some activities are huge on generating results and others are huge on effort with little connection to what you want to reach. The Pareto Principle is so common that most people ignore it, just like the picture of the kids on the fridge.

These days I am wondering why output-thinking is so rare, especially in HR. Is it that it takes the output is unclear? The first task might be to think through what would actually count. And since this is really non-trivial, people end up looking going with whatever inputs they find nice and fitting. So much HR KPIs I have seen are pure activity: number of transactions, number of calls handled, participation rates in whatever, feedback in a I-liked-it format.

Take the case of 360°-Feedback. Why are you doing it? Couldn’t the most effects be reached with simple, frank conversations? What’s the point of spending countless hours placing clicks on unclear dimensions and hundreds of dollars just to find out you need to listen more?!

Sure, HR doesn’t have the single focus of a bottom line as sales does. It is real fuzzy and complicated to find your focus. But if you don’t know your output, you will fall back to activity focus which leads to ineffectiveness and a frustrating work experience. Translate: high cost, smart people go elsewhere.

So one of the first issues for HR is to figure out what the output is. This is actually the first issue of everything that needs to be done (for example for your blog and posts, or in coaching). If you don’t your GPS will stay focused on activity and Pareto will be your worst friend.


Filed under: HR

peoplesignals vs processsingals – the future of the people business

What will HR look like in 2015? Recently, I came across a small scenario exercise that predicted the future of HR will be determined by the combination of two factors:

  • Dollars or people
  • Outsourcing or not

With these two trends the authors sketched 4 scenarios for HR in 2015:

Scenario One: Say It with Numbers
Assumptions: Organizations are ruthless about demanding a return on their human capital investments. Only the most repetitive, non-value-added transactions are outsourced.

Scenario Two: The Ambassador
Assumptions: Organizations recognize relationships as critical to success. The company holds the reins of most HR functions, and outsourcing is minimal.

Scenario Three: Two Heads Are Better Than One
Assumptions: HR is under pressure to ensure that human capital investments provide a solid return. The use of HR outsourcing has risen significantly.

Scenario Four: Relationships Are a Risky Business
Assumptions: Organizations renew their efforts to capitalize on relationships, both within and external to the business. HR outsourcing is used widely to deliver HR services.

Now, all that sounds to me like a decision whether HR will be a champion of people or process. The processsignal-approach to HR is in search of The Mighty Dashboard, squeezes the dollar on human-ROI and centralizes as much as possible. Low costs are certainly a plus. The question is whether growth can be gained by minimizing costs. The peoplesignal-approach realizes the we live in a liquid world where the best solutions are local and growth is fueled by strategic people investments. It seems that in the last years there was a big emphasize on the process quality of HR. The problem with the Big Master Plan approach to HR was nicely put in a recent study on how to measure an HR strategy:

Every business has its own strategic priorities, with unique HR implications and requirements; we could not identify a meaningful universal “template” for measuring HR’s business contributions.

Why is there no meaningful universal template? Maybe because there can’t be one. HR played too long on the wrong side of the field, the field in search of universal solutions. If Talent Management is mainly seen as a process instead of a relationship then it is no wonder that companies get into a war for talent and can’t control their people costs. Maybe we listened too much to the wrong signals. Maybe it’s time to tune in to more peoplesignals.

Filed under: HR, HR Business Partner

the changing currency of work

A while ago I got an essay that a friend wrote in his business school course. In his fifites, it was a very autobiographical piece, dealing with his role in a large company with frentic changes. He was wondering: what am I doing? is it worth it?

I heard those questions quiet a bit recently. People seem a bit disillusioned at handling Excel and PowerPoint all day in order to excel in the company and powerup their career. It seems like the currency of what people look for is changing a bit. Big companies used to offer stability, variety, safety and options. With that comes a hefty dose of politics, reporting, inefficiencys, nonsense. Companies themselves seem to cancel some of the very reasons people work there: safety doesn’t hold anymore (jobs going east, struggling for survival) and stability is a joke (who has the same manager for more than a year these days?). Along with long hourse and a frustrating limited scope of what you actually can do, it is fair to ask: is it worth it? The new currency seems to be time and flexibilty. There are a number of books and articles taking up this thought.

Tim Ferriss – to live like a millionaire, you don’t need a lot of money

Tim‘s book The Four-Hour Workweek beats the drum to escape 9-5 and fulfill your dreams. His assumption is that a lot of work is unnecessary, that it could be managed much better and that you can do a lot with little money. (Actually, the hard part is knowing what to do if you are not caught up in seemingly important work projects.) He calls for a liberation from the constraints of the office. If you are not at your desk, you can be more effective, or outsource your job altogether. That boots your options in time and location.

Daniel Pink – free agent nation

Free Agent Nation was published 10 years ago – at the dawn of the bubble. Some statements sound very pre-bubblish, but the trend has being going for a while: why invest in a stale corporate environment when you have the smarts to be more flexible and work on what you want? “In free agency,” the beat of the free agents goes “people assume their own shape rather than fit the shape of some corporate box.”

Holm Friebe – digital bohemia

A German book (“wir nennen es Arbeit“) that shoots against fixed employement in favor of a digital lifestyle of small collaborative teams on the move. Sounds a bit Jack Kerouck-ish. Young people need their ideals and rebellion. But it does indicate a bigger point: why not be with the work I like at the time I like at the place I like?

The answer might be the paycheck. As any free agent finds that is not in demand – it kind of sucks to be out of money and options. Probably a lot of people who ventured off into the dreamland of doing their own thing came back to the comfort of a big corporation with company car, health insurance and days off for vacation.

I still think the trend is the quest for something more. Especially talented people are aware that the company needs them more than they need the company. With the limited budgets in the Western countries, you can’t forever raise the income of your stars (and btw: the middle 80% is what make the business tick). So what can companies do? What can HR offer? I think it would be worth a try to offer the benefits of a free-agent-lifestyle (like free location, free times) with the benefits of a corporation (paycheck, insurance, vacation). Focus on outputs and leave it up to the semi-free people to figure out how they get the work done. Sure, communication might be an issue, but is it not anyways? Which company does really have a no-waste meeting culture? Where can you really focus and get quality work done between 9 and 5?

Maybe it would be the brave new world of collaboration. In The Compensation Handbook by Berger & Berger they highligh a number of trends that affect compensation and fit within this vein: people are more open to risk and seek self-employment; people choose jobs to support personal development opportunities and to support their personal lifestyles; the invisible paycheck becomes more important than the visible; the global workforce move closer and collaborates. Maybe it’s time for HR to think through this.

Filed under: career, HR

HR Business Partner – what on earth are they here for?

For a couple of years I have been in this role of an HR Business Partner. “Keep line management from escalating and roll out stuff” were the general job descriptions. “Oh, and use your knowledge to solve problems”. I have come to like the job, but have never seen so much self-reflection and discussion on the own job profile. True, HR is prone to that. Maybe it’s the suspicion that we are overhead and overhead is bad. Or that we aren’t quantifiable and that is bad. So what on earth is the value of an HR Business Partner?

Realizing that great administrative processes are commodity, HR came to the conclusion that you need someone to sell the services to line management and solve local problems. So the HR Business Partner needs to earn the trust on local level and understand the pain points of his partners. A recent analysis of job descriptions by the Corporate Leadership Council points out words like: ambassador, implementation, align business and HR strategy. CLC says, usually HR folks are good experts, but not very good at the following crucial skills:

  • Implementation skills (results focus, project management, change management, HR technology proficiency, and vendor management)
  • Business skills (organisational understanding, business/finance/economics/statistics understanding, data analysis, and understanding of global environment impact business).

This whole strategy thing irks me somewhat. It sounds too much like a desperation cry of someone who doesn’t know what is going on. Well, maybe a become strategic. Whenever I see a good HR Business Partner it strikes me that they have a good standing with senior management (personality) and get things done for them (experience).

Dave Ulrich makes the point, that HR comes in as a big chunk of the intangible assets. People are not just a huge part of the payroll but they are what brings companies their income. HR should wear the peoplesignals hat: what is going on at the people side of things? What do we need to do to manage our people assets? The HR Business Partner is best suited to have the ear to the ground and get things done. They should bring the appropriate attention to peoplesignals and provide solutions that work. Most managers are caught up in their daily battle to get things done, so HR BPs bring a deBono-like hat to amplify the human side of things.

Thomas just kicked off a series of show-yourself-HR articles pointing out HR hate, pleading for statistics and asked for risk coverage (others have responded). There seems to be two streams in the arguments:

  • HR, learn statistics so you can prove your point
  • HR, just understand the business and get peoplethings done

While the statistics case is compelling with an air of objectivity, I have not seen enough in action to believe. So an executive sees that pay-per-employee is rising, what now? Time to fill positions too high, action please! I have the feeling this peoplesignals business doesn’t work well when aggregated on an HR-KPI dashboard. Executives like their dashboards, but most actions following a problem on HR-KPIs turn out to be silly KPI-tweaking exercises. Maybe we need smarter KPIs. That would certainly help.
It seems that HR gets more street credit by thinking business and coming up with peoplesolutions that work (not that benchmarked me-too thingy). Lisa Brummel at Microsoft seems to be such a case. Again: credibility and experience. Jack Welch weighs in on this case:

Look, HR should be every company’s “killer app”. What could possibly be more important than who gets hired, developed, promoted or moved out the door? After all, business is a game, and as with all games, the team who puts the best people on the field and gets them playing together, wins. It’s that simple.
Leaders need to put their money where their mouths are and let HR do its real job: elevating people management to the same level of professionalism and integrity as financial management.

HR departments that plan picnics, put out the plant newsletter and generally drive everyone crazy by enforcing rules and regulations that appear to have no purpose other than to increase bureaucracy. They derive the little power they have by being the “You-can’t-do-that” police. So how do leaders fix this mess? It all starts with the people they should be hiring to run HR: not kingmakers or cops but big-leaguers, people with real stature and credibility.

Trust and judgment are really the operative words here. Those traits are what being a great HR practitioner is all about. To be truly effective in any HR leadership role, people in the organization must believe you have unfailing integrity.

HR needs to be the Business Partner to amplify the peoplesignals on the company agenda. If they do, the benefits will be beyond KPIs.

Filed under: HR, HR Business Partner