How HR Departments Can Defy the Agility Trap

Authored by Michael Hopke, MHO Consulting, Germany

“Oh, dear, another article on agility – I am fed-up with it.” That’s what you may be thinking right now. After all, it has been repeatedly emphasized under various terms and companies and their employees have had to react faster while remaining flexible to changes in order to survive in competition. Now, even the HR department has been caught by the agility trap? This is simply because none of us would acquire a driving licence from a driving instructor who cannot drive a car himself. But when it comes to agility, the HR department seems to be trapped by this very situation: enabling others to do something they can’t do themselves. At least, this is what recent studies show.

The December 2018 study, All-Agile HR, by Kienbaum and the DGFP confirms that the HR function in German companies only has a degree of agility that ranks second out of a total of four levels of agility. With an average value of 2.81, German companies are still novices, as opposed to experts, and still need to grow. Consequently, the above-mentioned whitepaper concludes that HR functions on average present an objective framework to agility and there is still significant potential for improvement with regard to central fields of activities and design.

Only in the area of their own agile competencies does the HR score have a value of 3.4 which illustrates an advanced level. It becomes particularly interesting, however, if you consider the prevailing leadership concepts and behaviors in the HR department today. Transformational leadership, which is generally regarded as particularly effective in terms of agility, is practiced by only a few HR managers. Traditionally, leadership is predominantly task-oriented, and even coaching and mentoring are not always considered the norm.

A comparison with other, more general studies on agility in leadership demonstrate that HR departments are not alone in facing these obstacles. The 2018 HR Report by Hays and IBE argue that these are the 5 biggest obstacles faced by managers in general:

  • Lack of communication (seen as problematic by 50%)
  • Relieving employees of their work-related stresses (41%)
  • Adopting an effective leadership style (39%)
  • Not enough time for management tasks (38%)
  • Lack of management support (30%)

This coincides with our practical experience. Our impression is that agility is currently preached more than practiced especially if you leave the IT industry as well as large companies and look at the classic German medium-sized businesses. But since agility seems to be indispensable, how can the HR function quickly and sustainably assume a credible leadership role?

How the HR Department can get out of the Agility Trap?

To begin with, the theoretical knowledge of how agility works in principle should already be available in the human resources department. However, though knowledge is important, practical implementation is key and this brings us to the not-so-good news: Many initiatives in people development are still failing due to the lack of sustainable anchoring of behavioural changes. Can this work better in HR? Yes. The HR department MUST set the example by demonstrating that it is adopting and developing an agile mindset within the organization! This is the only way it can prove that this is not only an important goal to achieve but that it is a goal that can be achieved within a company. Here are some possible areas of intervention when it comes to your own company-wide transformation.

 Ensuring management’s support

If the HR department and the company are to adopt an agile mindset, this initiative must be given the attention it requires at all levels. Major changes have to be implemented in the long term and there will be some incremental shifts in the way operations are run and processes are conducted. This is why management must be fully behind this initiative so they can lead by example and provide the necessary resources. Actions to be taken may also include realigning corporate strategy and the mission or vision for a company.

Ensuring professionalism

Agility must go hand in hand with professionalism. A level of competence, whether as employees or managers, is required in order to incorporate an agile mindset at the workplace. Professionalism and competence must exist at all levels. Basic communication and leadership skills will aid developing agility at the workplace. In a way agility also means a democratization of leadership knowledge. Initiatives for personnel and management identification should therefore utilize their budgets so that most employees are reached. Expensive management training for just a few employees in no longer justified

Changing behaviours is the key to success

It would be wise for HR professionals to focus more on implementation than on the content for development initiatives. Of course, content is always king. Everyone has been talking about coaching the right way for years. But managers do not practice what is preached, especially in a structured way.

Therefore, attention needs to be given to shifting behaviours. This also means shifting the use of HR resources and especially L&D methodologies. Only core fundamentals that are important should be taught, implemented and then reviewed after an extended period has passed. It is also important to only conduct training when necessary. Self-growth for any employee will always be an ongoing pursuit but continuous training dilutes essentials that are taught. When training must be conducted, focus on the key stakeholders for any department to ensure maximum effectiveness. The best practices can be found in our recent article L&D Provider: From Helpful Resource to Powerful Ally.

Finally: Set a good example!

This applies especially in the area of leadership and management. Nothing is more convincing than a human resources department that exemplifies agility itself. As the Human Resources department show that you have overcome the agility trap and others will follow!

Leave a Comment