HR as a function has traditionally mirrored both the form and the structure of the organization it supports – but will agile work change this? As businesses rapidly transform and prioritise the customer journey, the underlying foundations of these organizations must be upgraded to match.

One such company that has moved from a broad market focus to an individualized one is Roche, with whom ChapmanCG recently partnered to co-host a HR leaders’ roundtable discussion in Tokyo, Japan, focusing on the role ‘agile HR’ plays in this new era of business.

The application of agile HR

Before looking at the application of agile HR, it is important to consider the market forces that have necessitated these changes. In Roche’s case, as with other pharmaceutical manufacturers and suppliers, they traditionally catered to the broadest segment of patients with blockbuster drugs. More recently, they were able to focus on specific groups through the application of targeted medicines. The most recent and critical adjustment has been the move to individualized treatments, and this has brought with it the need to overhaul existing organizational systems and a complete re-think of the talent required.

To answer these challenges, Roche has started to deploy ‘agile HR’.

What is agile work and ‘agile HR’?

According to the Harvard Business Review, the concept of agile HR has made its way over from IT, where rapid iteration, cross-functional project teams and active feedback loops have become the norm. HR, in turn, has found huge value in adopting these concepts to deliver a more individualized HR system, both at an organizational and personal level.

Agile HR is often thought of in terms of its impact on performance management and the elimination of annualised performance reviews conducted by a single stakeholder. In its place, after some false starts, have come more frequent appraisals with feedback tendrils from multiple stakeholders.

This move to a dynamic, cross-functional system is at the heart of agile HR but it doesn’t come without its fair share of difficulties. The implementation of agile HR was one of the most hotly contested topics during our roundtable.

Some of the key questions that were examined included:

  • What kind of communication/coaching skills should be provided to managers in this new agile environment?
  • How should organizations support behavior modification of employees at all levels?
  • In an agile HR setting with multiple feedback strands, who should make the final decision on evaluation?

Implementation challenges

In addition to examining the organizational needs that drove Roche’s implementation of agile HR, we looked at similar cases in other multinational organizations and found a large variance in both the application and the impact of agile HR. From drastic shifts for organizations from being product based to solutions-focused and the resultant impact on talent, through to the creation of super short-term sprint projects, the suitability and sustainability of agile HR in Japan still seems very much in its proving stage.

One of the key takeaways and absolute fundamentals to the successful integration of agile HR practices that was widely agreed upon was the need for C-level sponsorship and HR as a pace-setter and culture builder.

A neat summation on the ideal state of agile HR was that it should lead to simplified processes, team performance over individual performance and an emphasis on supporting business success. It should also create a workforce that is comfortable working without boundaries with improved responsiveness to meeting customer’s needs.

A successful implementation of agile HR should see employees valued as much as their customers, with more psychological safety, regardless of the organization type. Another successful implementation would include bringing different teams together that wouldn’t normally have the chance to collaborate. As a counterpoint, increased ambiguity related to performance and the ways in which performance levels are differentiated both remain stubborn questions amongst HR leaders and heads of business.

What is in store for the future of HR?

These existing, or evolving, agile HR trends were identified by the group as hot topics for HR leaders to keep an eye on:

T-Shaped Individuals

T-Shaped Individuals are people with deep knowledge and skills in a particular area of specialization, along with the desire and ability to make connections across disciplines. The horizontal bar of the T symbolizes a breadth of general knowledge and soft skills, and the vertical stem of the T symbolizes the depth of technical hard skills. Essentially, a T-shaped individual is both a niche-topic specialist and a generalist with people skills. This creates requirements for new thinking from HR leaders both from a talent acquisition perspective and from a retention, reward, recognition and development perspective.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It’s extremely useful in tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown. It involves understanding the human needs involved, re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing (be it ideas, processes or products). Understanding these five stages of design thinking will empower anyone to apply the methods in order to solve complex problems that occur around us in our companies or in our teams.

Robotic Process Automation

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) uses software, commonly known as a ‘robot’, to capture and interpret existing IT applications to enable transaction processing, data manipulation and communication across multiple IT systems in back office functions like finance, operations and also, importantly, in HR.

Thank you again to the HR leaders who joined us for this lively discussion.

Agile Work Roche_montage_YSL_2018
ChapmanCG HR Leaders’ Roundtable hosted by Roche in Tokyo, Japan