Innovative Org Design

Retooling HR to meet the learning demands of tomorrow.

In their 2017 High-Impact Learning Organization Maturity Model report Bersin by Deloitte provide a model that can help HR and L&D teams self-assess how well they are preparing their organizations to meet future needs. Here is an adapted summary of their model:

Even for the best of us, the changes required to get to the Anticipatory/Flow level are daunting. What's more, incremental changes will not cut it anymore.

Shelf life of skills is reducing rapidly:

My hope with this article is to provide you with:

  1. Mental models you can use to grapple with this challenge
  2. A framework that highlights typical gaps, and
  3. Practical steps you can take to get started.

In this post, I focus more specifically on learning, leadership, and culture as opposed to other equally critical levers like performance, wellness, and rewards (topics for another day).

Mental Models

1. Optimize the knowledge funnel.

If you are being tasked to create a learning organization, you are operating under two assumptions:

  • What you know today — as organizations and individuals — is less important than what you can learn.
  • To get to success this capacity to discover and learn needs to be combined with the capacity to act (with scale, efficiency, and optimization).

In his book, The Design of Business, Roger Martin talks about leveraging the Knowledge Funnel as a way to integrate future search and discovery with reliable delivery and optimization. Here is an adaptation of his model:

Note that the arrow says ‘scan customer needs and global trends’ instead of industry trends. Increasingly organizations are facing disruptions from players moving across industries (e.g., Tesla moving to the energy business, Google to the car business) and leveraging capabilities to meet unmet customer needs across verticals. And as products move to services and apps — the barriers to customers switching providers is lower each year.

Organizations that are mastering the tension between exploration and exploitation:

  1. Free up resources and bandwidth by pushing activities and value creation towards algorithms (which are ideally automated).
  2. Reinvest these resources to explore the next mystery or take a fresh look at the evolution of the original mystery they are solving.

I believe learning organizations become adept at using this dynamic at every level:

  • Org Level: The Kindle is a great example of a product that took on the mystery of ‘how the age-old habit of reading books would be disrupted by digital advances’. Few people realize that the Kindle and iPhone were both released in 2007. The Kindle was not a reaction to the smart device revolution. It was a direct result of exploring customer needs that could be met in new and disruptive ways. Since then Amazon has continued to add value to the Kindle based on customer use cases: read it at night, flip pages with a touch, filter out blue light, now read it anywhere on any device.
  • Functional/team level: Last year a management and technology firm based in Chicago brought in an AI, who they affectionately call Rosie from the Jetsons cartoon, to do the manual data entry required during employee onboarding. Katie Binder, their HR Operations Manager, talks about how this frees up the HR staff to focus on people and the start-to-finish experience employees have at the firm. This is a great example of automating defined activities to solve mysteries higher up in the value chain.

    In an example of augmentation, the recruiting team at J&J use a tool from HiredScore called Fetch to get data from the ATS, the candidate-relationship management tool, and other systems. Fetch then compares candidate interests and background with job requirements to provide recruiters with a list of potential candidates. J&J is also using Textio to reduce bias in its hiring process.
  • Individual level: I believe learning organizations will soon start to encourage and enable employees to augment and automate more ‘mature’ (predictable, sequenced) parts of their jobs, and use the freed-up time to solve unmet customer needs. Instead of just focusing on upward or lateral growth for employees, these organizations will focus on depth within a role – challenging staff to reimagine their jobs as they create greater value for their internal/external customers.
    Think admins using a team of smart services (like Clara for schedulingAmazon dash buttons that coworkers can use to replenish items) and investing the eventual bandwidth they gain to acquire new skills – like data analytics, environment scanning, knowledge management, and synthesis – to alleviate the overwhelm crisis their teams and managers face.

2. Think systematically about the value HR is adding and the capabilities and systems backing that up.

Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockland have been studying HR effectiveness and business impact for 30 years now (Recent book and HBR talk). Based on rigorous research and years of combined experience they conclude that the HR department (its activities and systems, and its capacity to offer integrated solutions to the business) is more than the sum of its parts (expertise and competencies of individual HR professionals):

“the value created for stakeholders (employees, line managers, customers, investors, and communities) was 2 to 5 times more by the HR department than by the HR professionals. Upgrading HR professionals matters but upgrading the HR department matters even more.”

Basically, HR transformation, like anything else, is achieved by systemic solutions and teams not stars.

3. Think systematically about the organization.

The insight about teams being more effective than individuals applies to organizations too. Studies show that the mindset that is obsessed with stars and individual performance comes at a heavy price.

In an HBR article titled Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It, the authors provide this key insight:

“This widely embraced development model (that assumes that organizations are an aggregate of individuals) doesn’t acknowledge that organizations are systems of interacting elements: Roles, responsibilities, and relationships are defined by organizational structure, processes, leadership styles, people’s professional and cultural backgrounds, and HR policies and practices. And it doesn’t recognize that all those elements together drive organizational behavior and performance. If the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behavior change—indeed, it will set people up to fail.”

by Deloitte Human Capital

Forward thinking organizations are shifting their internal focus from training towards creating the conditions that empower teams to rapidly align, learn, adapt and deliver customer value.

A framework

If you’re striving for a shift to a learning mindset, chances are your HR team does the fundamentals well: they bring in great talent, are on top of compliance and do effective risk management, are at least in the process of getting an engagement strategy together, revamping performance management, and offer workshop style training offerings.

But the task of building adaptability at a systemic level isn’t a problem or fire you can go attack. The work begins with adding new capabilities within the HR department, optimizing the learning journey employee’s take with a long-term view, and pushing levers of culture change.

I offer the following framework to emphasize the capabilities organizations are typically lacking as opposed to an exhaustive checklist. You can explore an interactive version here.

If you could only focus on 3 things:

1. Culture & Leadership

Make no mistakes – it all starts with leaders who create safe feedback channels and are willing to take accountability for the impact of their leadership styles.

According to research conducted by the Hay group up to 70% of a team’s climate (think of it as felt culture) is determined by the leader’s style. Climate in turn can determine up to 30% of organizational performance. Of the 6 leadership styles:

    (telling, coercive/abrasive/passive aggressive behavior) and
    Pacesetting (trying to do the work, focusing on the how instead of the what, pushing to others to meet a unique internal standard instead of enabling outcomes) have the most negative impact on climate.
    (helping others discover answers by themselves) had the most positive impact; with
    Democratic (creating room for staff input and participatory decision making),
    Affiliative (providing connection and belonging) and
    Authoritative (proving a vision for success) following suite.

The ripple effect of each leader’s individual style and how they work together as a team are felt in everything an organization does or doesn’t do. It can either eat-up and consume all the energy in a system or generate energy that delivers unexpected returns.

Make sure you have mechanisms to get leaders ongoing feedback; that you are helping them become better coaches; and in turn empowering them to do the same for their teams.

2. Add Design, Data, and Digital capabilities to the HR team.

Patrick Coolen, who manages HR Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning at ABN Amro Bank, wrote a fantastic article on how they are blending analytics and design thinking to:

  1. Improve employee experience.
  2. Create insights for the business.
  3. And deliver innovative people practices.

I would add that HR also needs to have the capability to integrate and develop technology-based solutions that meet employees where they are at.

I recommend ‘T’ shaped expertise at the HR-functional level:

  • Add specialists in Design Thinking/Experience Mapping; Data Design, Blending, and Predictive Analytics; and Digital Development and Deployment.
  • Make sure everyone on the HR team has increased awareness of these skills and become adept and leveraging these in their own domains.

3. Move to ‘learning in the flow of work’

Dani Johnson, who headed the learning & career research at Deloitte, often makes this astute observation: work is learning, and learning is work. The trouble started years ago when we divorced learning and put it in a box we call training. And we have been trying to undo this ever since.

Increasingly the job of learning and HR professionals is to deeply understand how work flows through the organization and the career stages staff experience through their various roles. The next step is to design solutions that reduce barriers and create enablers for both work-progress and career-engagement at each step.

The outcomes look a lot like engineering customer experience: simple, intuitive solutions for employees and managers; increased complexity (blending design, data, expertise, and technology) behind the scenes.

Start now

One of the things I love about Design Thinking is the ability to wrangle a big, giant, undefined challenge by breaking it down into very specific manageable chunks. I typically see clients take the following paths towards change (see below).

Ultimately you need a place to start, and the approach you take needs to be customized to the level of urgency and sponsorship for change that you have.


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