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HR transformation: Why you shouldn’t change for change’s sake…

By 17/04/2019April 9th, 2022Human Resources, Technology
HR transformation

As a term, ‘HR Transformation’ is well over 20 years old, first proposed as a revolutionary idea back in the mid-1990s.

Concepts pioneered by Professor David Ulrich, such as HR Business Partners and Shared Services we’re linked to it, and have since set the standard for how HR departments should be structured.

As more powerful technology emerges in HR, big budgets continue to be poured into sizeable HR transformation projects. But do they really work? Or is change delivered more effectively when implemented in a pragmatic, incremental approach?

In this blog post, we’ll look at why ‘big-bang’ HR transformation programmes tend to promise much and deliver little – and why you shouldn’t be transforming your HR department simply for the sake of change.

The drivers for transformation

The motivations behind transformational HR projects can be positive or negative.

It may be that your HR department has ‘hit the wall’, no longer able to cope with the great administrative demands placed upon it. Equally, the drive for change could be borne out of ambition, a determination to become a best-in-class HR department recognised both internally and beyond.

Another key driver, of course, is the promise of financial savings.

Many HR programmes originate from the Finance department, with the holders of the purse strings keen to boost operational efficiency through the automation of core processes, while making savings in HR staff as a result.

In such cases, businesses often miss a trick – viewing automation simply as a means for replacing HR people, rather than an opportunity to release staff into more strategic roles.

It’s just one of the reasons such large-scale transformation programmes are often doomed to fail.

Big bang? Or damp squib?

Whatever the drivers for change, the traditional approach to HR transformation has typically been based around a ‘big bang’, technology-driven programme. Yet historically, many of these vast change programmes have failed to deliver the benefits they promised. Here are some more of the reasons why:

1 A lack of flexibility

In theory, centralisation of data and standardisation of practice can only be a good thing. But as Lucy Adams, HR influencer and author of ‘Disruptive HR’ points out, local HR teams in medium to large-sized organisations need to react quickly to different individual needs – and one-size-fits-all processes don’t allow the flexibility that’s required.

Projects built entirely on operational efficiency may keep the finance department happy, but that’s in stark contrast to the frustration felt by managers and employees whose individual needs aren’t being met.

2 The illusion of ease

Today’s increasingly sophisticated HR software is founded on a basic promise – simplicity. Easy to use, sleek, intuitive platforms that replace old cumbersome systems and make everyone’s life easier.

But simplicity in functionality doesn’t always translate to ease of implementation. The simpler a system’s user interface, the more complex integrations that are likely required behind the scenes.

Transforming every aspect of your HR operation in one go isn’t easy, and large-scale programmes can comfortably take two or three years to complete. The illusion may be one of ease – but the reality is a long and potentially painful process, causing a huge distraction for day-to-day HR.

3 Missing out on immediate gains

With HR transformation projects taking so long, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll miss out on helpful new technologies along the way.

However ideal a new tool or application might seem for the here and now, Finance departments are unlikely to sign off on it when you have a brand new system on the horizon.

4 Resistance to change

HR process and system reform mean nothing if employees don’t buy-in to new ways of working – and that makes adoption a key focus for any transformation programme.

By nature, people are scared and sceptical of big change, so without clear communication to address concerns, even the slickest operation will fail.

Introducing self-service can help engage employees, but it’s no guarantee of adoption. All too often, the processes handed over to managers and employees are themselves unfit for purpose.

Making exercises easier through automation is only helpful if the process itself adds value – otherwise, your workforce won’t thank you for making it their responsibility.

5 Too much technology

Technology is key to delivering a best-in-class HR service, but it’s not the be all and end all of the change. While technology can deliver real value in many ways, it can’t replace the need to put humans at the core of HR.

Many HR transformation projects fall down here, focusing so much on process optimisation that HR staff become process experts rather than human behavioural experts. Arguably, it should be the other way round.

The real value in HR is in the understanding of how human beings think, feel and behave – and it’s those insights that should be used to enhance or optimise organisational processes.

A different approach to change

Despite the money that continues to be poured into HR transformation programmes, the benefits are rarely realised. Vendors over promise and under deliver, while results are typically too inward-looking to bring real value to the business as a whole.

The temptation to initiate substantial change is understandable – particularly if you’re surrounded by competitors driving forward with HR transformation initiatives, or a new in post HR leader looking to make your mark.

However, change for change’s sake should always be resisted.

Indeed, unless you have a very clear vision of how HR transformation can benefit the business holistically, and you know explicitly how to measure success, large transformation projects may be best avoided altogether.

Instead, where the need for improvement is identified, it should be delivered in a more iterative and incremental manner, via granular tweaks that slowly encourage people to change their behaviours.

Similarly, instead of ripping up systems and starting over, organisations should be looking to the HR data sources that already exist within their business, and making step-by-step moves towards a more strategic position.

In summary – Take an incremental approach

HR Transformation has been a key buzzword of the last two decades, but attitudes to change are…well, changing.

More and more organisations are coming to the conclusion that transforming HR on a grand scale is unrealistic, and that smaller, more agile and incremental changes are the way to really get things done.

The reality is your HR department operates in a rapidly changing world of work – so you’re always in a constant state of change and improvement. You could risk derailing everything by creating a separate change programme that may be outdated before it has even been realised.