When I hear my good friend Susan Burns talk about talent I become inspired. She speaks passionately about the disconnect between executive management and talent, about people preparing to jump the corporate ship once the economy reaches better waters. She recognizes the fundamental disconnect between corporate actions and corporate words: people may be every businesses top priority but there is a growing feeling that there is an inability to put meaningful deeds behind those words.
Unfortunately, HR stands in the middle of that conundrum. With “Human” right in the name, there is a growing expectation that the HR department can develop new, insightful and consequential ways to increase talent engagement. But the disengagement does not arise from a lack of enough generalists or a failure to provide enough development opportunities. The disengagement is structural and systemic and can only be solved by rethinking the value and system of HR.
The problem is hard to describe but easy to capture. Simply ask the following question: “Who is accountable for productivity in a company that wins through innovation?” I still haven’t found anyone who can answer that question. For me, it is clear: HR. It is the only logical place that productivity ownership can sit. The CHRO is really the next COO, even if the well-intentioned people who found themselves detoured into HR on the road to their dreams shrink from this characterization.
The HR of truly great thinkers like Ulrich, while being significantly better at helping the organization than the picnic and payroll personnel organizations of days past, is fundamentally ill-equipped to take on this challenge. Engagement is just the latest problem that shows the basic quandary with the modern HR organization: policies don’t prevent risk, reviews don’t increase performance, compensation doesn’t motivate, programs can’t convince people to give their soul to the organization, classes don’t instill creativity and agility doesn’t come from management fiat. Everything assumption that HR uses as its operational foundation is being swept away in the current of momentous change. The function’s inability to turn around a bad engagement situation is a symptom of that problem, not the cause.
Productivity in the Creative Age starts with getting alignment between the purpose of the organization, the purpose of the individual. It continues with identifying and aligning the return requirements of talent, customer and financial investors. It ends with defining waste as work that doesn’t add value to the shareholders, the market and talent simultaneously. When innovation is the only way your organization competes in the global market, we can no longer afford the arbitrarily wasteful belief that an individuals' commitment born of their passion is second to shareholder return. Talent’s commitment is everything: you cannot have business success without personal success.
This new HR is an incredibly difficult job, requiring deep understanding of behavioral economics, finance, system dynamics, investment methodology, business fundamentals, marketing, learning organizations, human psychology and the creative process. There has never been a more difficult job in all of corporate history.
Being adept at eliminating spiritual and economic waste out of business systems will be hard enough in-and-of itself. But developing a new way of thinking and working in the face of HR’s historical inertia and reluctance to change will be a truly Herculean task. For every Netflix manifesto there are thousands of group-think surveys and cheerleader webinars extolling the virtue of optimizing a broken past. Like any Black Swan event, this will work right up to the point that it catastrophically doesn’t, at which point our organizations and our people will be left the poorer for our willful ignorance.
The HR of the future must be about unleashing the human spirit, because only people whose life and work are indistinguishable can possible maximize organizational productivity in the Creative Age. It really is that simple. And that complex.
Into the vortex created by radical and unpredictable change steps people like Susan Burns, whose commitment to change that helps both organizations and individuals goes beyond writing and speaking. Susan is actually determined to be a catalyst in this momentous change. The first step in her revolution is Talent Camp, and I am excited to be a part of it. If Talent Camp proves to be half as inspiring as Susan, it will be time well spent indeed.
Hopefully a thousand Talent Camps will bloom in every corner of the HR ecosystem, with young idealist committing themselves to the idea that there can be no more noble and honorable work than helping people profit from their purpose. And when that day comes, I will thank Susan for her tireless work helping to make that better future a reality.