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Why HR Needs To Go Open Source

The field of HR is regularly said to be on its deathbed. Can embracing much more transparency revive it?

Why HR Needs To Go Open Source

[Photo: StockWithMe/iStock]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

When Celinda Appleby was hired at Oracle as the head of global recruitment marketing, she didn't have a predecessor to look to for guidance. The role had just been created, and she was tasked with building a global employer brand team from the ground up. Appleby began to poke around for resources to help her do that, and ultimately landed upon HR Open Source (HROS), a network that I cofounded.

HROS offers a library of free case studies contributed by other human resources professionals, and in it Appleby found one contributed by the social media company Hootsuite, which had made its own framework public. And when she had questions about modeling Oracle's employer brand program on Hootsuite's, Appleby turned to HROS's Facebook group, where over 2,300 HR and recruiting professionals in more than 50 countries regularly weigh in with their ideas and experiences.

Since rolling out Oracle's global employer brand program, Appleby has since contributed two case studies of her own to the HROS community, drawing on that experience. Having helped set up the platform, I obviously believe in open-sourcing HR issues, but I'm hardly alone. Buffer, for instance, is famously committed to laying bare its HR and management challenges and encouraging conversation around them. And you don't have to look far to find proof of concept in other fields, where sharing "institutional knowledge" means going outside your own institution.

Talk Is Cheap, And It Pays Off

That's something software developers have understood for decades, and there's little doubt that the "open-source" approach to writing code has contributed to some of the biggest, fastest technological advances we've seen in our lifetimes.

In HR roles, though, practitioners are still used to playing it close to the chest, and it's holding everyone back. Every couple of years, there's an article or two issuing HR's death certificate, variously claiming that the profession has failed to curb employee turnover, solve retrenched diversity and inclusion issues, or lower the pressures brought on by an increasingly multigenerational workforce. And maybe that's true. But what's certain is that there's more to be gained than lost when HR practitioners compare notes and collaborate.

Wondering how your competitor designs, implements, and measures ROI for a certain recruiting initiative? Why not go ahead and ask? Unlike the race to corner a market, for instance, HR challenges rarely amount to zero-sum games. Sure, the talent market may be tight, and competition for certain in-demand roles even tighter, but in most cases, when your competitor makes a more thoughtful hire who's likely to stick around longer, it doesn't automatically lower your chances of doing the same.

At least that's the theory we set out to test with HROS when I cofounded the platform in 2015 with Ambrosia Vertesi, Duo Security’s VP people, first as a pilot program with Hootsuite and shortly thereafter as a standalone, public initiative. From the start we've asked users to lay out the "how" of their efforts in a prescriptive level of detail, plus dish on their failures and pitfalls so others can avoid repeating them. So far, HR professionals from major companies like Cisco, Virgin Media, Dell, GoDaddy, and others have all proved willing to do so.

This creates a sense of community—and a collective intellect—that minimizes inflated fears of losing a competitive edge. Beyond the case studies and curated resources, HROS users trade ideas, knowledge, and expertise in real time through the organization's Facebook group. What's more, they save their companies money in the process. Practitioners don't hesitate to ask questions about issues their employers might otherwise hire consultants to solve, or pay fees for access to research reports and training materials.

The Hot-Button Issues Open-Sourcing Can Solve

Open-sourcing HR can fundamentally change the way practitioners work. In some cases an HR rep is struggling to make a case to a skeptical boss to do something new or different. Being able to point to a case study as proof that it's doable can be indispensable. In other fields, finding quantifiable evidence to back up a proposed approach is easy and routine. In HR, it isn't. But if those in the field don't get comfortable with offering one another tangible, comparable examples—free of charge—innovation will continue to trudge along, and we can expect to keep hearing that HR is on its last leg.

This is especially true in some of the most pressing issues, like diversity, where transparency can make such a big difference. Over the past few years, a handful of leading tech companies have been diligent about releasing demographic data and sharing their approaches to improving the diversity of their workforces. In recent months, their progress has slowed, and certain companies have slackened their pace sharing updates with the public, ostensibly to give themselves time to retool. But with a completely open-source approach, neither big strides nor setbacks would require their own announcements—it would all be out on the table.

Even for companies that aren't comfortable going that far yet, greater transparency can still prove useful. Leela Srinivasan is chief marketing officer at Lever, a recruiting software company, which had been experimenting with ways to use its employer branding campaign to appeal to more diverse candidates. "A lot of companies have a fatalistic attitude toward the topic," says Srinivasan, believing, "'It's the talent pool, what can we do?'" By answering HROS's call for detailed case studies on diversity efforts, Lever felt challenged to quantify what it was already doing and see how it stacked up.

Otherwise, she says, "we wouldn't have gone back to find that 74% of women who joined our company during that period were influenced by employee blogging and storytelling. We wouldn't have stopped to reflect on the fact that we had doubled the percentage of women on our sales team, all while growing the team."

For Srinavasan, getting into the habit of discussing failures around issues like this—something that other companies still approach squeamishly—was the biggest upside. "Without that prodding" from the community, she says, "most practitioners would gloss over the failures, but often that's where the richest learnings occur."

Defying The Ghosts Of HR's Past

To be sure, there are plenty in the HR world who aren't ready to embrace this kind of openness, and probably won't be anytime soon. The "war for talent" mind-set dictates that practices should be siloed and guarded as competitive advantages. Despite some encouraging signs of interest in greater collaboration, many still believe that keeping their recruiting and staffing strategies under wraps is the key to their success.

They're probably mistaken. The history of HR is largely one of closed practices, and seasoned practitioners came up through an environment where ideas like "radical transparency" set off alarm bells. But if that's got us anywhere, it's to a world where the interest in greater openness has never been higher. Many HR professionals can already see how past norms no longer accord with their field's biggest challenges right now. And they recognize that, just like in so many other fields, collaboration and resource sharing isn't just useful, it's the only way real, sustainable innovation comes about.

Google has its own version of open-source with its re:Work initiative, and the company's recruiters are often pretty vocal about what they're looking for and why. Facebook recently opened up its internal unconscious bias training program to the public. We'll have to wait to see how each of these shifts play out, of course, but the direction they're all pointing in is unmistakable. The future is open, and it's already here.


Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify Talent, a recruiting and branding agency that helps companies like Hootsuite, NPR, and SpaceX reimagine the intersection of culture, talent, and brand. He's also the cofounder of the HR Open Source initiative. Connect with Lars on Twitter @Lars.

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