Making Companies and Human Resources Agile

Making Companies and Human Resources Agile


by Marco Sampietro and Lorenzo Diaferia, Dept. of Management and Technology, Bocconi
Translated by Alex Foti

It's called Agile and is a systematic approach to Human Resources (HR) that supports organizations in responding to change in the business environment, as well as fostering market adaptation and helping  the company meet customer needs. Given that there is no doubt that the economy has become less predictable, the Agile approach is increasingly part of the evolutionary strategies of many companies.

Agile suggests operating through iterations in order to deliver valuable results to customers, so that they can provide additional elements for completing and improving output. According to this logic, customer presence is fundamental, to provide quick and truthful feedback, which in turn can be used as inputs for work cycles. Another important aspect is the centrality of the work team as actor generating tangible market results, and which needs to be adequately supported so that it can carry out its activities in the best way possible.

The Agile approach has spread rapidly through IT projects but has gradually expanded into other types of projects and complex processes. With its diffusion, however, it was soon understood that the various frameworks that are the basis of its functioning represent only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, its organizational impact turned out to be higher than many thought. In order to better manage such impact, support from the HR department becomes fundamental. The HR function can in fact remain almost passive spectators of Agile’s implementation, when it is implemented occasionally or on a very small subset of the company workforce, but it quickly becomes driver of change when Agile is adopted more widely.

We conducted a research study by interviewing over 230 professionals to understand how HR can support digital transformation. What emerged is that Agile impacts on all the areas of HR management: recruiting, learning & development and performance evaluation. More specifically, 36 practices of Agile HR were surveyed and analyzed. To cite some examples, the centrality of the work team combined with its proximity to customers suggests that HR should leave maximum freedom to team members in defining their own training paths as well as directly involve the members of work teams in personnel recruitment and, with a view to improvement and adaptation, to provide almost continuous feedback on the performance of collaborators.

The data show a very heterogeneous level of adoption of Agile HR practices among the types of organizations analyzed, while consensus appears to be greater concerning the acknoweldged centrality of such practices. For example, over 76% of respondents consider it essential that organizations invest in refining the coaching skills of their managers, a result consistent with the fact that their role is strongly impacted by Agile, given that they are required to focus less on coordination activities and more on human capital development. The study also suggests that for HR departments to invest in Agile is a sensible move with interesting returns. In fact, a greater presence of Agile HR practices is associated with a positive assessment coming from employees regarding the HR's ability to support the business.

If the importance of human resource management in Agile is therefore not in question, many challenges remain. In fact, while on the one hand HR must support business transition, on the other it is also directly affected by corporate change. Not surprisingly, 46% of HR professionals consider the lack of direct experience in working with lean approaches the main hindrance to their ability to support company transformation.

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