Can leaders be too collaborative?

Can collaboration can go too far? Is there an arc to the effectiveness of collaboration, where at some point, collaboration begins losing its effectiveness? This kind of seems ridiculous to write. Of course we should collaborate. Teams are necessary in today’s ever-changing world. Collaboration is necessary for innovation. There’s no ‘I’ in team (on an unrelated note, does anyone else want to hurl when you hear that cliché for the 1000th time?). No one wants a bunch of cowboys doing their own thing in the organization and not working together on projects.

Anyone who has worked in a large organization has probably seen collaboration morph into insane bureaucracies. Timid and incompetent managers often hide behind collaboration to spread blame around. They talk, and talk, and talk. They set-up committees to study and discuss ideas and then form committees to manage the committees that oversee the committees. This happens a lot in government, but it also happens in private organizations as well. It is possible to collaborate your organization to the point of extinction, by taking great ideas and subjecting them to so much discussion that no one actually makes a decision on implementing the idea. The decision might get made made, but only after 174 people have contributed to the discussion on the new color of paint in the lobby. In the meantime, countless dollars are spent on wasted productivity.

At some point, collaboration implodes on itself. It begins contradicting the exact purpose of having it in the first place. I am not advocating for zero collaboration; we all need to be challenged by other viewpoints. But organizations do need to understand that talking about ideas is easy; having the chutzpah to make a decision is hard. Leaders that can find ways to collaborate without allowing that collaboration to paralyze the organization will succeed in complex organizations.


Innovation, HR, and Perfectly Defined Job Descriptions

HR departments spend a lot of time forcing people to colour inside the lines, rather than understanding how some colour outside them effectively. Most HR folks can’t fathom why someone would break the parameters of their Job Description. In some cases, they set-up systems to punish those that do. Job Descriptions need to be flexible, to allow for people to use their judgment to respond to the ebbs and flows of our world. But that’s difficult for HR leaders to handle.

I recently met with a senior HR leader of a large international oil company. She had just started in her role and was venting to me about the bizarre structure she inherited. Through the boom years of the mid 2000s, the HR department expanded rapidly in an attempt to keep up with the boom. As it expanded, the specific roles became more and more specialized, to the point of absurdity. Everyone in her department had a neatly defined Job Description. On paper, it was very organized and neat. One person would make sure this form was filled out properly; another would check that form; another would input the form; another would check that the person inputted it properly. It was a 1930s factory assembly line mentality that paid well-educated professionals to perform menial tasks. Not so surprisingly, few people in her department cared about service or innovation; they just did their jobs as defined in their job descriptions.

That week, they had just mapped out their departmental processes, and visualized a dizzying array of steps involved in finding and hiring talent. It was not a single page of paper; it was a roll of paper with 100s of steps they took to hire a person (I’m not sure how long exactly, but her office wasn’t big enough to unroll it). Thankfully, she was ashamed of their processes, and was about to blowup their structure and eliminate many of their pointless processes. She hoped to liberate the talent in the talent management department.

I don’t think anyone in this company intended for their structure to evolve this way. But it did. Her predecessors had taken their eye off of their customers, segmented duties, neatly defined Job Descriptions, and shattered any semblance of innovation from this department by doing so.

Innovators don’t need HR in order to innovate, but they can sure be stifled by HR. HR leaders need to fight the urge to make decisions that only make things easier for HR. Rather, they need to make decisions that make things better for the customer. Innovation is messy. It won’t happen because Job Descriptions are perfectly defined. It will happen only after people feel safe to challenge themselves and others. Where they feel their job is more than filling out TPS reports. Where they feel it’s okay to question and challenge non-essential rules. When HR gets the heck out of the way and worries less about enforcement and more about innovation.

Book Review: Talk, Inc.

Trust is an essential element of leadership, but how exactly do we build that trust as leaders? Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind propose just that in their book, Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders use Conversation to Power their Organizations. It’s one of the best books I have read on “how” to embark on the journey of trust-building in organizations. It doesn’t settle for wordy but useless statements like “leaders should generate trust in their followers”. Rather, it provides numerous examples–from a number of cultures and industries–of what leaders are doing to embrace conversations in their organizations. These authentic conversations help to build the trust needed for organizations to thrive.

The authors present numerous ideas from mostly non-mainstream companies–many of which I hadn’t heard of before. I found this refreshing as they didn’t recycle the same old ideas (do we really ever need another commentary on GE’s work-out program?).. They interviewed leaders of a few Indian companies as well, presenting an intriguing cultural perspective that is important for us to understand as our organizations continue to globalize.

Groysberg and Slind argue that there has been a significant shift in organizations in recent years. Leaders simply cannot delegate communications to professional communicators. They must adopt organizational communication as their responsibility, not someone else’s. This shift has occurred for five main reasons (see page 7):
1. Economic Change – As workplaces become more knowledge-based, organizations must find more sophisticated ways to communicate.
2. Organizational Change – As organizations become flatter, all directions of communication (lateral, bottom-up etc.) are as important as top-down communication.
3. Global Change – Workforces are becoming more culturally diverse, and this is forcing organizations to adapt their communication amidst these cultural dynamics.
4. Generational Change – Millenials are infiltrating leadership positions and are expecting leaders to communicate directly with them.
5. Technological Change – Various technologies (including social media) are allowing direct access to the source, and enabling leaders to communicate in different ways to employees.

I have reached similar conclusions in my own research and still believe HR Leaders need to take on the social aspects of their organization. I believe that corporate communications functions in most organizations will become integrated into HR Departments (if they haven’t already), as organizations learn to understand and value the power of the collective voice of their employees. Talk, Inc. gives us numerous examples of “How” organizations are doing this, and I highly recommend it for any leader pondering a change effort in his/her organization. I also recommend it for any leader taking an a new leadership challenge. This book will give you the tools needed to better understand the intricate social and communication fabric of your organization.

Note: I purchased this book myself and have no affiliation with the authors or the publisher.

Google & HR Analytics

Just read a fascinating article at TLNT entitled How Google is Using people Analytics to Completely Reinvent HR.

We (HR Professionals) are definitely very guilty of using “just because” as a rationale for implementing our ideas. We should pay these people more “just because” they deserve to be. We should add this benefit “just because” it would be nice for our employees to have. We should offer this course “just because” we think employees would want it. Very seldom to be provide any rationale or metrics to prove our arguments. I still remember the sheepish looks I got from some of the heads of HR I interviewed for my Doctoral research. When I asked them about HR metrics, most sheepishly relied “yah Tim, we should probably be doing a better job of evaluating what we do…but we don’t…it’s on our list this year though.” It was funny to hear that repeated but I suspect most HR departments are similar.

The problem is, some of the “soft” aspects of our organizations are difficult to quantify. I work in healthcare, and it’s really difficult to measure the performance and ROI of a healthcare professional’s work. That’s not an excuse, it’s just a reality of people industries. Healthcare is not Google, but we can probably learn a lot from Google still.

HR and Teams in Global Organizations

Toby is in HR, which technically means he works for Corporate. So he’s really not a part of our family.
– Michael Scott (“The Office”)

Teams are complicated in domestic environments, and are even more complicated in global organizations when multiple languages and cultures are involved, spread across large distances. Jay Galbraith writes that “the long-term human resources role is to build social capital by creating richly connected interpersonal networks across the organization” (2000, p.119). Is this asking too much? Perhaps. HR often sees itself as the enforcers of the organization; the unbendable glue that protects it from litigation and unscrupulous employees. But shouldn’t HR be a strategic partner in everything the organization does? Galbraith also argues that HR needs to see their role as one of building and valuing personal networks. Galbraith is probably correct, but how does the average employee go about doing this? I have previously written about the “cocktail party” design of organizations that values and incorporates social networking into its design, but an intentional social networking structure still requires training. How do organizations train their employees to navigate this complex web? This is where HR has an open-ended opportunity to provide essential strategic training to employees on how to work and network cross-culturally, and how to work effectively on cross-cultural teams.

HR is a necessary aspect of any large organization, especially global ones. Understanding labour laws and protecting management from management decisions is important, but only if HR is fully integrated into the organization’s strategy. A “silo” methodology of HR will hinder global growth for organizations. An intentionally integrated methodology, that finds and prepares the current and future workforces, will help bolster growth and provide substantial contributions to the organization. This methodology should include a strategic focus on increasing global leadership competencies through travel, teams, training and transfers. HR departments that do this will be perfectly situated to become that strategic global partner in the 21st Century. This focus will also help make HR more a part of the family, and limit the number of “Toby’s” in global organizations.

Galbraith, J.R. (2000). Designing the global corporation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vanderpyl, T.H. (2010, December). Cocktail parties and organizational design in the 21st century. WeLEAD Online Magazine. Download here.

Art of HR – Presentation Notes from HRIA/HRMAL Meeting (Feb 12th)

I presented excerpts of my Doctoral research tonight at the Human Resource Management Association of Lethbridge. For those in attendance, here’s a copy of the slides I used in the presentation. Email me directly if you want more detail or the full copy of my project.

You can download my presentation in .pdf format here.

Now I’m really looking forward to the 2013 HRIA Conference, where I’ll do a longer version of this presentation and present more detail on ‘how’ to carry out some of my recommendations. Feel free to sign-up for my session if you are attending.

Art of HR: Forecasting Talent Trends

What will the workforce look like in ten years? 20th Century HR practices were designed for hierarchical companies in stable markets, and from a limited resources paradigm of view. 21st Century HR Departments must be designed for unstable markets, and from an unlimited resources point of view. Marketplaces have few geographical limits now, and companies require globally minded knowledge workers to capitalize on those markets, wherever they might be. One large organizations I studied in my Doctoral research has offices around the world and they maintain a high-potential list of their top performers. In 2009, 15% of the high-performers on this list spoke a second language or had significant international experience. In 2010, 38% did. In 2011, 51% did. This HR leader expected that number to continue to grow as his organization continued to expand into global markets, and he has adapted their recruitment initiatives to the information he obtains by studying their top performers.

Effective HR departments use all kinds of information to better their organizations. This information gathering is somewhat like intelligence operatives in far-off locations. They gather tidbits of information that when compiled with dozens or hundreds of other tidbits from other operatives, help to prevent catastrophes from happening. I am not advocating for Recruiters to become CIA agents, but they do need to understand their role in gathering information that will help the organization advance its mission. For example, while meeting with a candidate, they might learn that he or she has had ten different Recruiters call her in the past month about working in a different industry. That one tidbit may not tell the Recruiter anything, but if she hears a similar story from a few more candidates, it might be an indication that the industry mentioned is preparing to ramp up staffing for potential expansions. That in turn may mean that industry will begin actively headhunting certain professionals very soon. If this information is confirmed, the organization can then begin planning to head off these headhunters, perhaps by increasing compensation for the sought after professionals or by finding other ways to retain them. Rather than reacting to losing ten hard-to-find professionals, the HR Department can develop specific strategies to prevent losing those ten employees to bidding wars in the first place. The HR Department could also propose over-hiring those professionals now before a bidding war drives the market value of their salaries upwards.

Forecasting talent trends is complex, but it starts with gathering useful intelligence, something Recruiters are in the perfect place to do. I suspect this intelligence gathering, if used effectively, could also help the organization thrive in many other ways as well, as we adapt to the ever-changing environment global around us. And HR leaders who find a way to understand the mass of information around them, organize it, and turn it into something useful for the organization to benefit from…may be the most sought-after HR Professionals in the future.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “The Art of HR”. For my final Doctoral project, I researched how Top Employers provide effective HR services to their organizations. I compiled my results into this book. Please email me directly if you would like a copy.