by Ben Whitter
The never-ending debate about the future of Human Resources took another major twist as Airbnb, a company valued at $25.5 billion dollars based in the shared economy space, recently announced that they are redefining their HR function in terms of what it is and what it does with the appointment of a new Global Head of Employee Experience to oversee and connect everything to do with their “workplace as an experience” vision, which is central to their culture and customer-centric approach.
You know better than I that debate is not new within HR as a profession. It seems like one epic rap battle between those on one side, those on another, and then there are the observers in the middle who are simply waiting for a seminal moment or announcement on who won and then they can quickly go about implementing the next model immediately once they have attended the relevant conference or workshop. Others though, don’t wait. They get on with creating a brand of HR suited to and built within their business and context, and it makes a huge difference to business performance.
This is also reflected across the business World with HR being elevated to the top table within some organisations, the CEO’s No2 in some cases, whilst at the same time, other companies are busy downgrading HR to an administration function with organisational development in its own right taking the strategic spot or being fused with HR in some fashion. Training and L&D also come into play in what is a mixed bag of approaches. The range of titles, services and functions vary but it is all chipping away at the same challenge. The desire then, presented by Ram Charan, in his proposal on splitting HR and the subsequent response by Josh Bersin indicates partially what’s been playing out in the profession for way too long- although both colleagues present good and valid points within their respective articles.
In People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO, Ram Charan returned with Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Co., and Dennis Carey of Korn/Ferry International to present a view that sets out to re-evaluate the Chief HR role and there continues to be fierce resistance to established models of HR, which does add some weight to the argument that HR needs a re-brand and a renewed focus.
Quite frankly, the debate has tended to be a circular argument in that it just keeps going round and around, and what’s more interesting is the extent to which it has and continues to be driven from within the profession, which has only made the very real gripes against HR stronger. Does this suggest an identity crisis within HR? Perhaps, but perhaps the field is also getting restless as our many practitioners and colleagues know they are ready to play more instrumental roles within organisations in what is quickly becoming a more meaningful economy.
The best people and HR leaders I know have been labeled maverick at one time or another because they build something that goes against the norm, they challenge the status quo, and they see beyond the perceived limitations of their function and therefore extend well beyond it. They bring meaning to the workplace and it runs through everything that affects people. The other thing they do get is a clear mandate from the top to create the best employee experience possible, which is a big advantage as people like Laszlo Bock (VP, People Operations, Google), Libby Sartain (Former Yahoo/Southwest Airlines, VP People) and others like Airbnb’s Mark Levy would vouch for.
I’m an optimist, but I’m certainly not alone in thinking HR and organisations are on the verge of a major moment in their history together. In fact, it's happening already.
As a timely example, Mark Levy’s new role of Chief Employee Experience Officer at Airbnb combines traditional HR functions of recruiting and talent development with marketing, real estate, facilities, social responsibility, and communications. That’s quite a platform, but that’s not the HR success story here.
What is clear is that this move quite visibly positions the employee experience as critical to the business, not HR. This is absolutely right, in my view, and gives practitioners the confidence and belief to know that HR is no longer a support function within the business, because the employee experience, to a large extent, is the business. I can see the repercussions now in how we develop, grow, and accredit HR people within our profession. It is the employee experience that is the clear winner, and as a HR guy, I like what this says about the future workplace once other sectors start catching up, and they will.
There is no question that the transition from HR thinking to Employee Experience thinking will be a challenge for companies to get to grips with as many other organisations are joining the race to re-focus their HR efforts on the employee experience. Instead of asking why, I think the bigger question is why it is taking so long for employers to act on the basic truth that it is employees who deliver the value to customers and keep them coming back for more.
But not every company sees it that way, and not every company has a CEO like Brian Chesky, Larry Page, Jeff Weiner, Mark Parker, Charles C.Butt, Scott Scherr, or Mark Zuckerberg. All of whom are currently enjoying through-the-roof 2015 approval ratings alongside top employer rankings largely delivered by their people-centric approaches and wholehearted support of creating leading, forward-thinking and progressive workplaces. That people thing…they take it very seriously, because in this economy they both want and have to. It is critical to their success.
There's a whole host of others named, ranked, and rated by Glassdoor on their CEO performance, and you may be surprised that these are companies that could be operating in your market, doing what you do, but in a very different way. It's not all about the tech firms and employee experience is not all about perks, which is a reoccurring theme when citing great workplaces and their impact on productivity and performance.
It’s actually about creating meaningful experiences within work and meaningful organisations.
That being said, how easy would it be for you to follow Airbnb and co in creating a function dedicated to the employee experience that brings together multiple functions (or silos if they are starting to hinder collective progress), which all play a major organisational role and get them all aligned and driving your business forward?
If you're at the top of the pile, easy, right? If you're a HR practitioner or a middle manager, potentially not so easy as you'll need to work your ideas up and across the chain, a process that could take a short or long period of time depending on your particular circumstances. Focusing on the employee experience appears to be common sense, but as many out there will tell you, it isn’t commonly applied, and if it were, there are always inevitable challenges within the status quo.
Is it easy to re-focus HR on the whole employee experience?
Maybe. Maybe not, but for the HR profession and organisations in general, the journey is going to be well worth it.