How HR can incorporate design thinking into people strategies

David Mallon, Bersin by Deloitte’s head of research, talks to HC about disruption and design thinking

How HR can incorporate design thinking into people strategies
We talk to David Mallon, Bersin by Deloitte’s head of research, about design thinking and the challenges in facing disruption.

HR faces a challenge in today’s disruptive environment. Not only must they ensure the organisation’s people are ready to face up to disruption but they must also look at their own processes, structure and ways of delivering service. What are your thoughts?

This is an important question for HR. Does HR want to just play catchup, to be seen as just helping the organisation along, or does HR want to be a source of value or even innovation? The problem is that by and large, HR itself is being just as disrupted as the rest of the organisation.

Employees have come to expect a frictionless experience from HR, similar to what we’ve come to expect from our banks, for instance, or online shopping or any other source of information in our lives. We expect it to just work. We don’t expect there to be a lot of process or fuss about it. We go online and we can do an amazing number of things.

Why is it that when we go to work that all of the similar transactions are actually remarkably hard, especially HR, which is remarkably difficult to work with? So HR has got to solve for that experience; they must solve for making the experience much more digital, just like the way we live the rest of our lives.

This is challenging when, by and large, the HR function itself is populated by people who are stewards by nature. They see their role to protect the organisation, to avoid risk and ensure consistency. All of that is not really needed right now; what’s required is a HR function that is willing to experiment, is willing to listen on the ground and become knowledgeable about what’s going on in that world.

One way HR can transform itself is to incorporate design thinking into people strategies. Can you outline what this means?

There are a number of theories about design thinking out there, but regardless of which of those existing sets of theories you take onboard, there are some common threads. One is the notion of empathy – not empathy in the emotional sense but rather walking in the shoes of the people you serve. In this case, rather than HR looking to solve a problem by creating a top-down process based on consistent step-by-step guidelines, HR instead should embed themselves with the employees to gain intimate knowledge of everything happening in the employees’ world, all the disruption they are facing and what competes for their attention.

Designing with employees in mind, how can you then help them be successful, productive and engaged employees? It’s about having a relentless focus on the people you serve.

Another part of this is experimentation and iteration. A key element of design thinking is that you go into whatever the problem is without thinking that you have the perfect solution.
Instead you should generate many possible solutions, try to test as many that you can, as fast as you can, and then constantly iterate. That process never ends. It’s frankly something that HR is not naturally predisposed to being good at.

Can you provide some examples of how this might work?

On the transactional side of HR there are plenty of great examples. Let’s say you’re an employee and you want to obtain a verification letter in order to buy a house or car, or you want to change your schedule or request leave. Many HR functions are looking to put these transactions into mobile apps, for the simple reason that this is what employees now expect.

It should mirror how they do their banking, for example. It requires thinking about how to make the employee experience so easy that people barely know they are doing HR tasks. HR blends into the woodwork and employees don’t think about it; it’s just there and it works.

But you’re also now seeing it show up in the more substantive things like career conversations. Rather than the HR person being someone you go to when there’s a problem, increasingly HR is someone you go to when you need counsel, when you need to think about where you might grow in the organisation. HR provides guidance as to the paths the company would like you to go on, the tools available to you, and the internal steps you need to take.

Should HR feel threatened by this or is it an opportunity for them to have different sorts of conversations with staff?

I don’t think they should feel threatened at all. The bank example is so appropriate here. Around the world today there are more bank tellers than there have ever been. That’s hard to get your head around when you think about how banking has changed.

However, when you go into a bank branch and sit down at the teller, what they’re doing today verses what they did 10-20 years ago, it’s not even the same job. Being a cashier, exchanging money and so forth has gone away almost entirely. What’s going on in bank branches today is relationship building. They sit down, they want to know more about you, they’re going to recommend other kinds of products and programs and so forth.

That’s essentially exactly what’s happening with HR. The skills required in HR and the kind of skills required in the rest of the business for that matter, are becoming essentially more and more human.

David Mallon recently spoke at the National HR Summit at Luna Park in Sydney.

Related stories:
HR professionals ‘unprepared for the future’

Four tips for dealing with change in the age of disruption

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