Reinventing HR To Thrive In The ‘Never Normal’

The pandemic has shown it’s not enough to slap technology onto the challenges of HR, hoping that will fix it.

Werner Du Plessis 6D Dhofab Cq8 Unsplash

So what does the future of HR look like? And what kind of HR might we expect in a ‘Phoenix,’ a company that can transform and reinvent itself and come out stronger?

I wrote a book, exactly 10 years ago with the title ‘The New Normal.’ I described the transition where digital used to be ‘special,’ and how it would become ‘normal.’ That’s pretty much what we all witnessed in the last decade, personally and professionally. Today I can’t stand the term ‘New Normal’ anymore, since it has become massively overused, and dreadfully hollowed out.

Hysteresis: Never going back to Normal

The term I use more and more now is the ‘Never Normal.’ It would be naive to think that after COVID, we all snap back into the ‘old’ normal, where everything would go back to what it used to be. There is no old normal anymore, the old normal is dead.

Julian Birkinshaw, professor at London Business School uses the term ‘hysteresis,’ borrowed from physics. Magnetism is a great example, where if you remove the magnetic field applied to a piece of iron, the iron remains at least partially magnetized. Hysteresis means that the impact of a change on a system cannot just be reversed by taking away the force you applied in the first place. In other words, the New Normal minus COVID is not the Old Normal.

That means we will have to build companies that are resilient and can adapt to constant change, that not just know how to bounce back from adversities, but can actually ‘bounce forward’ and can thrive in a world of volatility and perpetual change. We will have to build organizations that can thrive in this ‘Never Normal.’

And we won’t be able to do it with technology alone.

Technology is just a part of the solution

Mind you, technology will be a big part of the solution. One thing that has become evidently clear during the last pandemic is how aged some of our instruments are.

We’ve come a long way, that’s for sure. Imagine that we would have suffered lockdown and WFH two decades ago, when we were all still dialing into our modems, and logging on to the fancy new concept of ‘web pages’ with pictures loading line by line, slowly materializing onto our CRT monitors. It wouldn’t have worked today.

Thanks to the new normal, we were able to get most of our work done remotely, and companies could still function in a world where digital was our only option. But we shouldn’t think that by slapping Microsoft Teams onto every laptop, enabling Zoom, or giving everyone a better webcam or microphone that we’ve done the job. Quite the opposite.

The pandemic has shown us that many of the constructs we have in work today are getting incredibly aged. We have massive amounts of data and information that could guide us to help improve how people work, learn and collaborate. But we haven’t even scratched the surface in most cases.

HR needs to keep up

If you look at marketing departments, and compare it to HR, I would estimate they have a 10 year lead on skills, instruments, and tools.

A decade ago, we witnessed the transformation of marketing departments to really start to use data to understand consumer behavior, to better use information to serve markets better, and we witnessed a complete make-over of the marketing function, with new skills, roles, and technologies.

HR will need to drastically accelerate to keep up. Today I see time and time again that HR departments often use the most outdated and ancient technological instruments in the entire firm. That will have to change if we want to see Phoenixes in HR for the Never Normal.

Reinventing our instruments

But, technology won’t solve everything. The old joke goes as follows: “What is the future of HR? It’s a giant computer, a massively intelligent AI, combined with a human and a dog. Why the dog you ask ? The task of the dog is to bark to keep the human operators from touching the machine, if they would like to change anything.”

If we want to build a Phoenix in HR, we will have to do the complete opposite. Yes, we will have to reinvent our instruments, gear up on technology, and have HR systems fit for the 21st century. But, we will have to focus on the human element more than ever. As the pandemic has shown, it’s not enough to slap technology onto the problem, hoping that will fix it.

The Never Normal will be the place where digital truly becomes human, where we will revalue the human premium, and put the individual at the very core of our future. That will the the true recipe for an HR Phoenix.

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