Google Wave and HR

by 21 Jul 2009

Google’s new product, Wave, looks set to create waves for HR and organisations, writes David Creelman

Google has revealed a new product called Wave which is intended to replace email. Wave will be available later this year. There’s no question it is a cool product, and I will describe it a bit later on, but here is my ques tion for you: “Does Google Wave has anything to do with HR?”

The answer to the first question hinges on another: “What is HR?” Normally we think in terms of the main departments: recruiting, training, reward and so on. However, over and above all of that, HR is the group that spe cialises in understanding how people work together in organisations. There is no other section of the organisation in which there is a group of people with such a deep under standing of people, jobs and organisational design. When it comes to anything that af fects people working in groups, HR has to be the leader.

Why email and Wave matter

Email ought to have been of great interest to HR. We invest enormous amounts of energy in attracting, retaining and motivating star per formers then sit idly back and watch them spend a third of their day on email. Is this time well spent? What factors make email an ef fective organisational tool? How can we avoid it being a waste of time? HR should be the expert on these topics.

However, it appears that Wave really will have the power to replace traditional email and so that is what we should focus on now. The easiest way to think of Wave is that you open a “page” on which to have a conversa tion with one or more people. Rather than bouncing individual messages back and forth the conversation evolves as each person adds to and edits the page. In many ways it is very much like a wiki – and, again, HR professionals should know what a wiki is and how it can af fect group productivity.

What to do about Wave

If Wave is a success, people in your organisa tion will be spending a great deal of their day working with it as a replacement to email. The goal of HR is to make sure employees are sup ported in learning how to use the tool effectively. I’m not thinking primarily of training of the sort “What button do I push to add someone else to this conversation?” The learning needs to be about how to use the tool to effectively com municate, create ideas and build camaraderie.

How do you use Wave effectively? No one knows. So the goal of HR should be to cre ate a learning environment. For example, it would be a good idea to create a communi ty of practice to help share people’s experi ences with Wave and develop knowledge. Don’t fall into the trap of creating a commu nity only of hard-core enthusiasts and geeks. There need to be average managers and em ployees in the community who will ensure the lessons are relevant to the company as a whole, rather than just IT geeks. There should also be customers invited to participate in the community of practice as well (This idea of in volving customers comes from Dave Ulrich and his group at RBL).

A community of practice isn’t the only way to create a learning environment, but it is a good place to start. And while it’s true that Wave is so new that no one is an expert on how to use it to boost organisational per formance, we do have a lot of experience with email and wikis that will be relevant to Wave.

The role of IT

The IT department is clearly very important in getting the most from tools such as Wave so HR has to let them be seen as taking the lead on this. They are responsible for tech nology and won’t appreciate it if HR seems to be taking over what they see as “their” product. Also, because IT staff tend to be early adopters of this kind of tool they probably know more about how to use it effectively than anyone else – so HR has a lot to learn from them. However, there should not be much of a conflict; IT will appreciate HR’s support in using Wave effectively.

Making it work

The one remaining question is: “Where does HR get the resources to manage this?” For tunately, it doesn’t take much time to organ ise a community of practice; an ambitious HR manager will find a way to fit this into their schedule. At the same time, HR should be gathering some data on how much time em ployees currently spend on email and use that to justify investing effort in learning to use the next generation of collaborative software.

This is fun work to do and is important to the future of HR.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing written research and commentary in human capital management