There’s a great scene in the film ‘Gosford Park’ when Helen Mirren, who plays the housekeeper Mrs Wilson, is describing what makes her great at what she does. It goes like this:
“What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant; I’m better than good, I’m the best; I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”
This pride in delivering great service is something she shares with the traditional HR professional. Knowing what our leaders need (before they know it themselves) and providing it for them with speed, efficiency and aplomb – we have heralded great service as the very essence of great HR. Even though we aim for the title of strategic business partner, it is the quality of the service we provide to the business that often defines our reputation. If we have worked so hard to be best service providers, why do we still seem to fall short of the impact we want and need to have? I believe that this service-mindset can perhaps lay at the heart of the problem.
Does a service-mindset do us no favours?
Great service has a number of characteristics; fast, efficient, accurate, cost-effective – usually underpinned by a streamlined process that can be universally applied. Whilst much of our traditional offering was the delivery of transactional services which need to be uber-efficient and effective, they are now being increasingly delivered through automation, digital technology and even robots.
We have brought these service characteristics to the less transactional aspects of our portfolio too. We roll out one-size-fits-all processes across our organisations to cater for talent management, succession planning, induction, performance management and so on. Having implemented the full suite of HR processes in one of my HRD roles, I remember thinking “my work here is done”. As though having a neat, efficient process for every part of the employee lifecycle was the epitome of HR excellence. Unfortunately, these processes are designed around the needs of the organisation (speed, cost, etc) rather than the impact they have on the individual.
Without wishing to be grandiose about it, I believe HR is at the start of its third phase of evolution. We started out as Personnel, seeing ourselves as providing a service to employees. Then in our second phase, we were told that “you are all Strategic Business Partners now” and we were to serve the needs of our business leaders. This third phase means being responsible for creating the conditions where our people can increase their agility, innovation, productivity and collaboration – the four things that every company, in every sector is striving for. If we are going to create these conditions – then we have to re-think our approach. Instead of homogenised, streamlined and process-heavy services that have not delivered, we need to do things very differently. We need to build our reputation on customised approaches that reflect the very different needs of our people and which are based on how human beings can genuinely be encouraged to adapt and grow. This needs more than a change of process; it requires a very different mindset. One tactic that might help us with this much needed mindset shift is to think “HR products” not “HR services”.
Taking a ‘product-led’ approach to HR
Why could taking a product-led approach to HR work? Well, firstly, when we think about products, we have a different starting point when it comes to their design. Whereas service design is all about the underpinning process, product design is all about the end-user.
Product designers want to ensure that their end products are shaped by the needs and wants of their customers and will be used and loved by them. Leading product designer IDEO have created countless household products, such as the design for the first Apple mouse. Their innovative approach places a big emphasis on being “human-centred” and involves them observing the end user at work or at home, so that they can learn from them. They’ll identify behaviour patterns, pain points, and moments when users find it difficult to do something. Their product designs are built out from these observations. Virgin Trains have used a similar approach in designing their HR products. They spent time observing their staff doing their jobs – think “A Day in the Life” style concept. They were looking for moments of downtime, moments of stress, interactions during the day with colleagues, leaders, customers, how they used their smartphones and so on. They used this end-user information to help design interventions around learning and communications.
Product designers don’t just observe their end-users, they’ll often get them involved in the design process itself. Whilst Deloitte reports that only 10 percent of companies rate themselves as being excellent at user-designed thinking, they also refer to Cisco, IBM, GE, and Airbnb, who are all using their employees to collect ideas about workplace design, benefits, and rewards, and to design new approaches on the back of that. They also mention companies such as Nike, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and Deutsche Telekom, and how they’ve involved their employees to improve their employee experiences. As a result, these companies have redesigned their induction, recruitment, and employee self-service applications.
Segment your ‘market’
Producers of consumer products use sophisticated data to ensure they segment their target markets and develop a range of products to suit different ages, budgets and tastes. We have to move away from our one-size-fits-all approach and start to think about a range of products to suit the needs, wants and preferences of our different employees. We can adapt the marketing practices of segmentation and the use of “personnas” to help us make our offering more relevant and impactful. Starbucks used a marketing style survey to gather greater levels of insights (lifestyle factors, beliefs and attitudes) about the different career development needs of their 140,000 employees. They came up with three major segments which they named “Careerists” (wanting long term career advancement with Starbucks), “Artistes” (locally based and community-minded) and “Skiers” (at Starbucks for the cash to fund skiing – or other – passions). This enabled them to be more targeted and provide more choice to meet these differing needs.
Less is More
Finally, we can learn from perhaps the greatest product designer of all time, Apple, about how ‘less is more’. Apple only have a very small number of products in development at any one time. As a result, they can have a relentless focus on getting them ready for launch, reviewing progress every Monday, without fail. If I’d tried to review everything my team had got on our slate every Monday, we’d have been there till midnight. My three-year plans and countless initiatives from my Divisional HRDs and Centres of Expertise Heads created a smorgasbord of HR stuff. It could have been much more impactful if I’d focused on two or three important new products – ones that would improve our credibility, our responsiveness, and our speed of implementation.
Shifting from a service to a product mindset is much more than changing vocabulary. Providing a great service will only get us so far. If we truly want to impact our end users, we need to create products which are designed around them rather than the organisation. Maybe it’s time we stopped seeing ourselves as service providers and started seeing ourselves as product designers instead?
As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face. In this blog we explore what 'messy' HR looks like in practice.