Thinking Outside the Payroll

What exactly are the “Human Resources” of an organisation? 

The easy answer is that they are the people who work for a business, charity or public body. But while in the past, for the overwhelming majority of organisations, this term was synonymous with “employee”, these days that’s frequently not the case. And I’m not just talking about trendy hi-tech firms either – the chances are that if you’ve ordered anything for delivery recently, whether online or from a store, it will have been delivered by a self-employed contractor, not an employee of the company. Nor is it uncommon in many organisations to have sub-contracted out ‘ancillary’ services to others (indeed, that’s how I make my living!!)

So why is that an issue for those of us who work in HR? Well, there are lots of reasons:

·         It won’t be enough to know about “employment law” – HR professionals will need to understand the full range of legal relationships that people can have with organisations, and be able to advise on them. The excuse that “x is a freelance, nothing to do with us” won’t wash in future

·         How will we hire and fire in the future? Some of the time-consuming processes that we use to recruit, or dismiss, are not only not necessary but don’t fit with those who are working in a non-traditional way. And given that recruiting consultants or freelancers has been a traditional responsibility of procurement departments or line managers, how do we get involved without creating a turf war?

·         If we have to recruit people differently, do we also need to start rethinking how we develop them? And indeed, exactly who do we need to consider developing?

·         We talk a lot in HR about behaving “ethically”. If we start to use labour as a resource to be taken up and dropped when necessary for our business, how does that square with behaving in an ethical manner?

·         Even if you don’t accept the ethical arguments, there are several clear business reasons why HR will need to change. The whole “psychological contract” between businesses and their workforces will change and our practices will need to as a consequence

·         Things that we devote a lot of time to currently – like the nebulous concept of “employee engagement” – may become pointless; if workers aren’t all employees then chasing after engagement becomes a meaningless exercise.

That’s not to say we need to throw out everything we do in HR. Nor am I suggesting traditional employees will disappear – they will still form the majority of the workforce for the foreseeable future (at least for the remainder of my working life anyway!). But what I am suggesting is that we need to rethink exactly how – and why – we do a lot of things if the profession is to remain relevant in 21st century organisations.

The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Last week I needed a taxi to Lime Street station in Liverpool at 530am, so I tapped an app on my tablet and within 5 minutes a car was outside my front door. Chatting to the driver he told me that he chose the hours he worked and he tended to work 5 in the morning till around 230pm as it allowed him to pick up his children from school. As we pulled up at the station he pressed a smartphone screen on the dashboard to accept his next job from the taxi firm.

Was I using Uber, the “disruptive” firm that is now apparently the world’s largest taxi company? No, simply the same local firm I’ve used for the last 20 years. Their drivers are all self-employed, use their own cars and pay a weekly “settle” to the firm for the work that is pushed their way. Probably the only difference is that the company still operates a small office so that if you are not smartphone savvy you can ring for a taxi.

Which is why when I saw this graphic being tweeted it brought a wry smile to my face.

Graphic

I think we’re meant to think “wow, aren’t these companies radical and different?” But in truth, they aren’t. What they have done is to use technology successfully to minimise costs and to trade more easily across international boundaries, but otherwise they are little different to traditional models.

Let’s look at some of the others. Facebook – “creates no content”. Neither do most cable/satellite TV channels – they are simply media platforms which generate income by selling advertising. Where does Facebook get most of its income? Advertising.

Alibaba – well here’s how it works: you pay them a fee to have a presence on their site and then sell your goods. Sound like a giant fleamarket or car-boot sale? That’s because that’s what it is. Markets don’t hold inventory either.

Airbnb – back in the 90s I used to get a brochure for “Rural Holiday Cottages”. Some were people’s homes they’d let out for a couple of weeks, some were renovated farm buildings, but they were all available to rent for a week or fortnight. Rural Holiday Cottages charged a fee to advertise them but didn’t own a single one. Again, the Airbnb model – they just operate on a global scale

And what’s this to do with HR? Well, if business isn’t really changing – merely incorporating new technology – then the skills, knowledge and practices that HR people should use probably haven’t really changed either. We may need to react faster and jettison some cumbersome procedures (and perhaps even use new technology) but the fundamentals of good people management remain the same.

Whatcha gonna DO about it?

About a year ago, just after CIPD13, I wrote this post suggesting it was time for HR to “seize the day”. This week sees CIPD14 – where are we a year later?

On the positive side, there are lots of great discussions going on about where HR goes in the future – as an example #nzlead and its little brother “Unfurling HR” are continuing to provoke excellent debate and, just as importantly, bringing in a bigger group of HR professionals worldwide

But what I’m not seeing are the concrete examples of what people are doing. Now it may be that I’m missing them (in which case please feel free to provide a few links in the comments below), and I accept I’m just as guilty of “talking a good game” without necessarily providing evidence (watch this space over the coming weeks!). But my concern is that for many employees, the world of work is still mundane, overmanaged and a crap experience and that “HR” are those people who tell you not to do things. The fact that we’re still getting excited by Gary Hamel basically describing what Semco did 20 years ago is pretty telling that things haven’t moved forward that much

So where are the posts that tell me?

  • We’ve redesigned our recruitment processes to attract better people and improve the experience for all candidates
  • We have a really innovative approach to flexible working – here’s how we did it
  • We tried this new way of L&D – it didn’t quite work but here’s what we learned.

I don’t mean the sort of PR puff pieces that – thankfully – seem to be less common in People Management. In the brave new world of social media, I want to be able to say more often to those I interact with: “that’s really interesting – I’d like to try something similar with one of my clients. Can I talk to you about it?” Collaboration, sharing, disruption – all the buzzwords of social media – need to have one outcome for those of us in HR: Doing Good People Stuff (a phrase I’m happy to have socially collaborated from @HR_Gem!)