Despite its reputation, Human Resources is the management discipline of the future.

I once had a business partner who was fond of saying the main thing that all HR Directors have in common is that they aren’t much good with people.

It’s a nice line: it speaks directly to a common conception of HR as the Department of Hatches, Matches and Despatches, where a duty to enforce both the law and the unyielding will of the corporate machine trumps the benefits of treating people like, you know, human beings.

As I’ve mentioned before, many HR professionals do not fail to grasp the fact that their discipline has reputation issues. Many are also alive to the fact that 21st century business prosperity is a matter of enabling people to perform at their generative best, rather than treating them as production line robots to be optimised ruthlessly. After all, over the next decade or two the jobs that rely on robotic repetition will become the preserve of actual robots, either in part or whole.

In my recent book, Creativity Is Power, I assert that creative work is one of only two functional modes that will survive the rise of the machines (the other being caring), and that creativity is not (nor has ever been) a fringe activity with uncertain benefits. I also believe that the level of creativity in a business is a function of how well it manages its day-to-day activities. It’s not much of a stretch to see the significant role that HR can and should be playing in driving this agenda forward. Creativity is a people-powered discipline.

It stands to reason that, in the 21st century workplace, creativity is as HR does.

Yet HR* as a discipline still feels beached: hooked on vague language like ‘employee engagement’ and flimflam job titles like ‘Talent Manager’ (or, and the resonances here are increasingly unfortunate, ‘Chief of Staff’), and lacking a big moment of reinvention that will drive serious reappraisal of its potential value.

Tarring everyone with the same brush is an obvious danger here. Many HR departments are trying to do things differently, and a few are succeeding. But there is also no shortage of makeweights. What’s more, like Marketing, HR is not just a function of those working in the discipline itself: its success or failure is dependent on the prevailing culture in which it operates. If an organisation’s Board and employees do not understand the need for enabling (as opposed to administrative) forms of HR, and actively champion them being at the centre of their culture, then breakthrough performance is unlikely. Such a lack of sponsorship is still depressingly common. And we haven’t yet seen automation deliver a big sea change in the broader conversation about the role and function of HR in the way that, say, Big Data has catalysed a period of reappraisal about its discipline.

At Corporate Punk, we often work with HR and L&D teams who are struggling with two questions:

  • What do we need to do to get our people performing at their creative best?
  • How do we get the organisation to realise that this is our role, and to support it?

The answers to these questions are inevitably T-shaped, taking in both the HR discipline and the broader business leadership and cultural context. They usually involve HR people interrogating their role, operating model, and success measures. And they often involve a recalibration of focus, specifically where support for creative disciplines such as Marketing and Innovation is concerned.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to us that it is on HR’s shoulders that the future of many businesses partly rests. The Department of Hatches, Matches and Despatches needs to become the Department of Creative Change.

Here are just five lessons we’ve learned in our work to date that we hope will be useful for any HR professional navigating the peaks and troughs of this type of role redefinition.

1. Your work is not marginal. Change will come when you stop acting like it is.

I’ve already talked about the importance of HR to creative cultures. But it’s striking how little actual work many HR people are doing – aside from talking – to navigate their work from the margins.

As a litmus test of this, it’s worth pausing to examine your and your department’s self-concept. What’s your vision and purpose, and how is it made manifest in ways that feel essential to the creative and commercial performance of your organisation? If you can’t deliver a compelling, relevant and distinct answer to this question in under 30 seconds, there’s a problem.

And it might be a pressing one. The existential threat that automation poses to HR is broadly similar to the one that people will experience in lots of other contexts: namely, that the use of platforms to handle logic-based processes will enable jobs to be trimmed.

Ironic, isn’t it, that in a world that will rely more heavily than ever on people bringing out the creative best in each other, that many organisations are inclined to view the cost-cutting of people-related disciplines as additive to the bottom line?

It is time for HR professionals to stand up and start telling a bold story to their Boards about why they exist, and why their existence will continue to matter. The operational challenge that sits alongside this is to embrace automation wisely. Which is to say: use technology to add scale and efficiency to your HR function, but do this while grounded in a clear and communicable vision of what your department is there to do when the robots have taken away the comfort blankets.

2. Don’t become functionally fixed.

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits humans’ ability to perceive something as being for any other purpose than that which it was originally designated. Picture a chair in a dining room. Now picture a step that you might need to help reach a lightbulb in the centre of that room. The chair could perform that role, but the chances are that you didn’t mentally move that chair to under that bulb. You get the idea.

Over the next few years, HR is about to go through a significant sea change. Even the most tightly defined vision and purpose may need to flex as automation takes hold and management thinking about creativity catches up with business reality. The danger here is that tomorrow’s HR designation becomes as functionally fixed as today’s. This isn’t good: organisations are going to need greater agility than ever before in how their HR teams think and act. HR needs to stay one step ahead of the rest of the business in terms of anticipating, identifying and overcome barriers to creativity, however and wherever they may occur.

So, HR professionals: not only does your self-concept need to move you out of the margins, it also needs to be sufficiently mutable to keep you one step ahead of an unpredictable future. That’s an interesting challenge for a discipline that hasn’t substantively evolved since the 1970s.

3. Transition to open, networked.

Much has been written about the importance of the open organisation in building employee loyalty and accountability. A few businesses such as August have defaulted to publishing their entire salary bills and benefits packages in the hope of lighting the way for others. More generally, ‘open versus closed’ is now a principal cultural and political battleground, with the narrative battle lines (inaccurately) drawn between the old and the young, the protectionists and the innovators.

Here are two realities. One, your organisation is open whether you like it or not. Not only do people tend to talk (and they always have), digital media has made your four walls porous.

Bad behaviour of any sort is probably going to leak.

Two, ‘open versus closed’ is not the binary, black and white world that the media might have us believe. There are infinite grey areas between these two states. And it is in those grey areas where the threat of damage can be reduced, and cultural progress made.

In the field of law, Objective Manager is just one example of a business that is helping other firms transition to openness. Its basic value proposition is simple: it allows lawyers to understand and interrogate each other’s performance objectives, which acts as a catalyst for knowledge and opportunity sharing, and so drives growth. It isn’t publishing salaries and it isn’t democratising performance reviews beyond what’s sensible. The platform simply socialises objectives in a way that harnesses the network effect. In many businesses, this kind of initiative is a great place for HR to start.

4. Soft skills matter more than hard.

Knowledge is no longer power: creativity is. This simple fact predicts the need for a wholesale change in skills development. When all the knowledge in the world is a Google search away, what do people need to learn? Creativity, mentorship, project management, collaborative behaviours, tolerance for failure and influencing skills are just a few that spring to mind. In the 21st century, soft skills will almost always beat the hard, and this is where coaching, training and mentorship often need to focus.

Important note: I am not talking here about questionable quasi-skills such as ‘presentation excellence’, which are often a consequence of a diseased corporate culture in which notions such as ‘stakeholder buy-in’ are awarded too more weight. Skills such as narrative storytelling will continue to count, but if they are enhanced mostly as a counterpoint to cultural dysfunction, bigger problems are afoot.

5. Get psychological.

The journey to delivering breakthrough HR is one of understanding the mind: for the most part, people’s potential is limited only by their neurological processes. Useful progress has been made on this front over the last couple of decades. Psychometrics is just one example of how psychology has been harnessed in a way that is beneficial to the HR agenda.

But huge blind spots are still common. For example, psychometrics tend to focus on the individual rather than the collective (creativity is mostly a collective endeavour). What group-focused profiling tools exist usually explain role compatibility but don’t factor in cultural idioms, headwinds and tailwinds. An individual being classed as, say, a ‘Coach’ within Facet Five will tell an HR leader something about their likely fit with non-Coaches on the team, but if the cultural dynamics are unfavourable to that team as a whole, then performance may still end up lacking.

Finally, a deep understanding of psychology has not yet reached critical parts of the HR mix such as Learning & Development. Adults learn in a variety of ways; understanding the distribution of different learning styles in an organisation is essential for there to be any sort of leverage on training expenditure.

So, aligned to a vastly sharpened self-concept, HR teams also need to work out how innovative psychology can be mined and applied to best effect. Creativity is a psychological process, to do with the alchemy that occurs in the mind of the individual and the collective. In turn, psychology is a quantitative as well as qualitative discipline (arguably far more so), which means that it can be measured, tracked, evaluated and reported to the Board. Ultimately, it’s through this sort of mastery that HR can assume its rightful place: as the engine room of every 21st century business with ambitions to outperform the competition, and last the distance.

*I use HR as an all-encompassing term in this article, to include L&D and Talent Development and Management. This is not only for the sake of convenience, but also reflects the reality of many departments.

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