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Rethinking HR processes to increase efficiency HR has come a long way from its functional roots in control and compliance. Nowadays, HR is a business partner — aligning and...

Rethinking HR processes to increase efficiency

HR has come a long way from its functional roots in control and compliance. Nowadays, HR is a business partner — aligning and integrating its services with the business to help employees achieve corporate goals. That sounds great, but it isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

HR’s current paradigm of alignment and integration is going to fall short in the coming years. Anything that distracts employees from their work and reduces their productivity will fall short. And that includes far too many HR processes, including performance management, learning and development, rewards, etc., that currently run separately from or even, in parallel with work.

Tomorrow, HR processes will need to be like the electricity that runs through your office and the online networks that connect your employees to each other and the rest of the world. No matter how complex the process and no matter where your people are, HR needs to be relocated to the point of work. In short, HR must become ambient.

The fundamental premise of ambient HR is that it’s intrinsic to work and employee performance. (If it isn’t, why are you bothering?) The ideal guiding principle of ambient HR is that anything being done to support performance, whether at the organizational, team, or individual levels, should be within a few keystrokes’ reach of the people that need it. Ambient HR goes to employees, not vice versa. It doesn’t distract or divert people; it doesn’t require them to step away from their work or learn systems and vocabularies that are not part and parcel of their jobs.

For the first time, the technology needed to embed HR in work at scale is available. The digital transformation of our companies — indeed, our world — is solving that problem. What’s needed now is an ambitious and prodigious design effort; an employee-centric, data-driven rethinking of HR processes and service delivery.

Where might the application of design thinking to the challenge of ambient HR yield the greatest returns? Here are some of the HR processes that are ready for a thorough rethinking.

Performance management that people won’t hate

Everybody hates performance management (PM). Earlier this year, Bersin asked more than 1,000 HR professionals and executives, “How likely are you to recommend your organization’s performance management approach to other organizations?” The resulting Net Promoter Score (NPS) was negative 60 (-60) — far and away the worst overall NPS we’ve seen in our research. So, it’s no surprise that companies are rethinking PM and that many of them are seeking to make it a more continuous process, with more frequent check-ins.

But why aren’t companies managing performance through the same processes that they use to manage work? Employees are already managed day to day, week to week, and month to month. That’s what managers and supervisors do. As my colleagues and PM experts, Kathi Enderes and Matthew Deruntz, write, “It’s time to stop treating performance management as a separate process and instead embed it into the natural flow of work — thus rendering PM inseparable from work and indistinguishable from work activities, but structurally critical to the success of any organization.”

In fact, our research finds that in the most advanced companies, PM is digital, agile, and real-time. Using design thinking and data to help people become more productive as they work, these companies embed goal setting, progress tracking, development and performance indicators, feedback, and performance assessment directly into the productivity and work systems employees use every day, such as email, collaboration platforms, or sales enablement tools.

In ambient HR, performance management is intrinsic to work.

Invisible learning & development

Emerging technologies have powered an exponential leap in the learning and development (L&D) options that companies can offer to employees. Yet, L&D remains a stop-and-go endeavor. Employees must stop working to access learning and become proficient with it, then go back to work.

Moreover, the L&D function itself is incredibly visible. Its stock-in-trade is the curriculum and course in all their myriad forms. And it is most visible on the campus of the corporate university, where the idea of learning for learning’s sake holds sway and employees leave their jobs behind and morph back into students.

There will always be value in visible L&D, especially as a spur to innovation and to build a deep bench of leadership talent, but it shouldn’t overshadow the urgent need for learning that is focused on performance improvement. This latter kind of learning should be invisible, that is, it should be built into work. It should be embedded in everything employees do and delivered wherever they are.

Invisible L&D will require the creation and implementation of tools, systems, processes, information, platforms, networks, etc. that are all driven by learners’ needs. It also will require the adoption of new goals and metrics for employee development. Instead of a focus on course completions or return on investment, HR will need to beginning measuring its effectiveness by its impact on employee performance and productivity.

In ambient HR, work is learning, and learning is work.

Rewards that promote productivity AND satisfaction

Given the amount of money and effort companies devote to them, it’s ironic that employee rewards sport the second worst NPS scores we’ve seen, after performance management. Bersin’s first High-Impact Rewards survey found that the NPS of employee rewards, calculated from more than 1,100 survey responses, was negative 15 (−15).

The problems are two-fold. First, even as the variety of benefits that companies can offer employees expands, few companies have cracked the code for delivering the right rewards to individuals (and teams) in a manner that is both efficient and supportive of a highly productive employee experience. Second, there is a substantial lost opportunity to use an expanded, customer-centric view of rewards to augment the relationship between the organization and its workforce.

Ambient HR would address both issues. It would utilize continuous listening to determine which benefits employees truly value. Then, with the help of smart, intuitive digital platforms, it would empower employees to personalize and manage the tactical elements of the day-to-day employer-employee relationship. Additionally, it would weave intentionally curated health and wellbeing offerings into key moments in the employee experience, seeing these offerings as means to enhance the work itself, not simply as benefits. Combined with embedding performance management in work, the organization can then close the gap between performance and rewards, strengthening the linkage between the two. More effective than a traditional rating, employees would always know where they stand in terms of performance and since compensation would flow directly from performance, why they are being paid and what they are paid would be crystal clear.

In ambient HR, rewards become a font of employee satisfaction — enhancing the employee experience, rather than detracting from it.

HR’s work is just beginning

Ambient HR — processes and support that pop up whenever employees need them or, perhaps, before they fully realize that they need them — is an ambitious and aspirational vision that will be no mean feat to realize. As of yet, no company has all the necessary pieces in place, so there is no playbook. Much of it will need to be cut from whole cloth by company leaders and HR professionals with the help of design thinking and technologies that are still emerging, such as AI and machine learning.

Once ambient HR is in place, the work will continue. Just like the electric grids and digital networks that surround us, this new kind of HR will require maintenance and improvement.

Ambient HR is not a world without HR. It’s a world in which HR will be so essential to work and embedded in companies that we will take it for granted … unless it isn’t there.

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