Had a great conversation the other night with a friend about making organizations flatter and removing the barriers to people doing great work. It’s easy for me to get pretty excited and idealistic about the shift I see happening in companies and the future of work. I was brought down to earth with the memory of a silly process that stayed in place because it existed but no one knew who was responsible for it.
Several years ago a CFO complained about a form used by his accounting department to track training expenses. It was intended to make sure that employees weren’t going on some sort of training spending spree (does that happen?) by requiring several levels of approval before they were able to attend the training.
The reality was NO ONE filled it out in advance. They only completed it when accounting started calling well after the fact and insisting on it to justify the expenses. Plus, it applied equally to all “training” from attending a lunch at a professional organization to a multiple day program across the country. And, many of the people who had to fill it out had company credit cards and discretionary funds – I suspect they simply got around completing the form by not calling it “training”.
So here was the CFO griping that he had to complete a form that he thought was ridiculous and stupid. Although it was a training form, it never passed through anyone responsible for training so it was a form that only his department used. Think about that again. His department’s form. He thinks it’s stupid. He could kill it on the spot. But rather than risk eliminating it (who would protest?), he complained and let it continue. I’ve no doubt he is still complaining about it today.
Stories like that make me think the organization of the future is just a little bit further away than I want to imagine.
How many things completely inconceivable just 10 years ago, very expensive or difficult even five years back, are ho-hum (yawn) commonplace today?
I bought a new set of pedals for my mountain bike from the UK. A great set of pedals – a brand that’s hard to find in the US – at a competitive price, $10 shipping, eight business days later and they’re waiting for me in the mail.
A quick photo from my phone and I’ve shared my excitement with friends. An hour or two later and I’m interacting and discussing the pedals with people across timezones, countries, and continents. And I’m doing it essentially for free.
Count the inconceivable impossibilities in the two previous paragraphs. Not only is it hard to grasp all the advances that had to come together to make all of that possible, but it’s even more startling how quickly such an impossibilities became just another Thursday night.
Pedals? Who cares? What about work?
This kind of cross-continent coordination, collaboration, and communication is mundane in our private lives, but how much has work kept up?
How many policies do we have that are so out of date they might as well be written on papyrus scrolls?
How much energy is spent blocking technology and ensuring work gets done in a certain way vs embracing how work might be different?
If your job were invented today, would it look the way it does now? How different would your office/workspace be? What technology would you use if you could select it (what technology do you use to get things done in your personal life that you can’t use at work)? Who would you communicate with that you don’t now?
How different would recruiting, hiring, and onboarding employees be if we started from scratch today? How would HR workflow be different?
What policies would immediately be nuked and what would they be replaced with (if at all) if we were told reinvent the business?
How much of an advantage does the lack of legacy give a new business over an established one right now in terms of creating more efficient work?
What are the inconceivable things at work that are completely possible right now? What are we not doing because it was impossible five years ago, but would be cheap and easy to do today?
I (like many folks) have been trying to simplify my life in the new year by getting rid of all the things I no longer need/want/use. It’s not as easy as it sounds because I tend towards being sentimental (remember the summer I got this shirt?) and a bit of a pack rat (you never know when I might fit in that again). I’m in no danger of being on “Hoarders” but probably need to intentionally go through my stuff with a critical eye a bit more often.
I suspect many HR departments function in a similar way. Each year we add a few more programs or processes or policies that make complete sense at the time, but after several years we end up with a mish mash collection of offerings that don’t really go together, support each other, of fit well any more. Sure, they’re still a good thought or worthwhile effort, but they’ve become dated, frayed, or a little too – how to put this delicately? – snug. Yesterday’s fashions move to the back but still stick around. Old policies and documents linger on the intranet. Formerly exciting programs have become a bit moth eaten. We hang onto them because we have them, not because we need them or because they still make sense. Does it make sense to got through our old HR stuff with a critical eye a bit more often?
In my quest for a less crowed closet, I came across a bit of great advice. I wish I could remember who said it, but basically the question we should be asking ourselves when going through our clothes is: Does it look great on me? That sounds obvious, but the question I tend to ask myself is: Might I wear this someday? The intention is similar, but the questions are actually very different. Different questions that yield very different results.
Do we do the same in HR? Should we hold every program, process, and policy under the harsh and ruthless light of: Does this fully support the culture we are creating, help people work better, support better decisions, or truly improve the employee experience? Not “might it”, “could it”, “should it”, or “did it used to”. Does it. Does it do that right now?
Social media is not a problem: it’s a symptom, a foreshadowing. The world of work has changed substantially; we just don’t know it yet. The future-now of work is looking less hierarchical, more democratic, more collaborative. Social media is both an enabler and a product of this change. Earlier this week, Doug Shaw made the brilliant observation: A social media policy in part seeks to support the very hierarchy that social media is dissolving.
The pyramid of control is dying off, replaced by the swirling, shifting ecosystem of influence. The cosmic joke is the more we try to control, the narrower our scope of influence.
We are struggling to find ways to make the future-now make sense in the past-now world of work. Social media is a great example of this. The rules, norms, and etiquette from the days of memos and carbon paper do not mesh well with the easy-all access of the internet. It’s like trying to make the past rules of horses and buggies apply to a new world of automobiles.