In January 2019 I decided to focus on writing about modern HR and people practices. My aim was to dig into companies and leaders who embrace a more contemporary approach to human resources. What are they doing that’s different? How has the leadership profile changed? Is it making a difference?
I interviewed more than 30 people leaders around the world for the series and podcast, which I called 21st Century HR. These were some of the key shifts that differentiate today’s HR from legacy approaches, and what they mean in 2020:
Inclusion over diversity
HR has long been focused on the idea of diversity, but these efforts were often transactional at best. At worst, they were driven by compliance and largely centered around hiring. “We need X of Y demographic in our recruiting pipeline.” This approach missed the mark and minimized progress.
Modern people teams are more focused on inclusion. They understand the bias embedded in terms such as “culture fit” and strive to embed inclusive thinking and practices throughout their people programs—recruiting, pay equity, promotions, training, development. They’ve moved their approach from transactional programs to embedded practices.
Decentralize and empower over command and control
Legacy-oriented HR fixated on getting the proverbial seat at the table. To gain perceived power, they created command and control structures where HR was the conduit through which approvals flowed. Promotions. Bonuses. Policies. In many cases, this came from a place of insecurity. While it created authority, it wasn’t without a cost. Resentment swelled at the complex machinations that slowed decisions and frustrated employees.
Modern HR leaders (and teams) are more secure in the impact they have on the business. They see their role as creating frameworks and enablement programs that allow leaders to lead and employees to thrive. They don’t feel a need to insert themselves into every program and initiative for the sake of power and authority.
Agile reviews over annual reviews
The annual review cycle has long been seen as HR dogma. It’s a relic of the past with no clear correlation to employee performance. It’s based on a construct of long-term employment that no longer exists for many employees. Most companies treat reviews as little more than a “check the box” administrative endeavor, feeding the bureaucratic legacy perception of HR.
Modern people teams don’t run programs for the sake of programs. Their programs need to be anchored in impact to the business. They also understand that a culture of feedback and clarity drives engagement and retention. These HR teams are reimagining performance management and adopting more agile approaches. The frequency varies—quarterly, monthly, even weekly—but the impact is increased clarity and communication.
Analytics and insights over metrics and reporting
HR has always had data. But it’s the way teams interpret and extract insights from that data that separates legacy and modern HR teams.
People analytics is a foundational capability of modern HR. Sixty-nine percent of large organizations now have dedicated people analytics teams. Leading CHRO’s (chief human resources officers) and chief people officers build agile people strategies based on qualitative and quantitive data. Data is essential to their operations.
Policy for the many over policy against the few
Legacy HR approaches are often rooted in compliance. They look at the worst-case scenario of employee behavior and apply the remedy to all employees to safeguard the business.
Modern HR leaders aren’t shirking their compliance responsibilities, but their default assumption is that they’ve hired adults with reasonable judgment who can make good choices. “If it’s not illegal or stupid, it’s our job to say ‘yes,'” Credit Karma chief people officer Colleen McCreary told me on the podcast recently. This mentality illustrates the shift in thinking on HR’s role in supporting the business. If an employee does something wrong, they address that individually.
Open source over black box
One of the single biggest shifts that’s fueling next-generation HR practices is the shift to open-source practices. Legacy HR viewed their processes as secret ingredients under lock and key. This proprietary approach stifled innovation.
Modern HR teams embrace open-source approaches. You’ll often find HR leaders speaking or writing about their work, sharing case studies on their operation (including their failures), and sharing openly in networks such as PeopleTech Partners.
There’s a range of free resources from Google re:Work to HR Open Source full of templates, tools, frameworks, and resources on modern HR practices. This open access to practices and resources is accelerating the shift to modern HR and fueling the next generation of HR leaders.
Business acumen over HR acumen
Employment law? Table stakes. Succession planning? A given. Talent mapping? Fundamental. HR has always had HR acumen. In today’s complex business world, that’s not enough.
Look across HR leadership in sector-leading companies and you’ll HR leaders from a range of nontraditional career paths. Why? The complexity of business today requires an HR leader to possess an intimate grasp of the business, industry, market, and more.
The chief people officer is one of the toughest jobs in the c-suite. They’re expected to understand the financials like a CFO. Grasp product-market fit like a CMO. Gauge the revenue pipeline like a CRO. Be the right hand to the CEO. All while synthesizing that understanding to develop programs and systems that optimize your most volatile resource: your people. It’s a difficult job even with business acumen—and it’s impossible without it.
‘Why isn’t HR here?’ over ‘Why is HR here?’
The key takeaway from these discussions? HR is a spectrum. While the majority of the field is somewhere in the middle, the leading edge of HR is having a transformational impact on business. Though still a subset of the broader HR population, modern people teams are indispensable success enablers for the business. Their impact on the business is magnitudes above their legacy predecessors.