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Q&A with Professor Paul Thurman on HR and organisational change

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At the 2019 CoreNet Global Summit in Hong Kong, Professor Paul W. Thurman, professor of management and analytics at Columbia University, discussed the necessity of intelligent risk-taking and applying design thinking to drive positive changes across the organisation and channel innovation towards significant returns and sustainable growth.

He shed deeper insights with Human Resources on how HR practitioners can identify and embrace organisational changes.

How can HR practitioners and managers identify the time to change?
HR practitioners are good leading indicators of key changes in talent pool characteristics in labour markets. They see changes in skill levels, training/certification, and employee needs long before business units/hiring managers may see them.

HR managers can work with business units and line managers to better match labour “supply” and “demand” by helping their business partners recognise these changes and prepare for them.  For example, some of the most successful talent-centric organisations are those that trusted their HR leaders when the millennials began entering the workforce.

By learning about new work habits, job and work-life balance needs, and key success criteria for this new labor force, successful HR leaders were able to change hiring practices and expectations of hiring managers to effectively integrate these new workers into more “traditional” work places and work spaces. 

HR managers who did not embrace these changes ended up not recruiting the best talent and missing out on a new generation of workers — and of worker needs and demands.  Thus, as HR leaders watch key labour market changes and match them properly with internal business needs, companies will continue to prosper no matter the labour market positives and negatives.

What are the main barriers HR practitioners need to be aware of during organisational change, and how can they overcome them?

HR leaders need to be aware of fundamental business changes, trends, and needs as they evolve over time due to regulatory changes, structural market dynamics (especially those created by competition), and improvements in technology and training in the workforce.

Many HR leaders note that without a better understanding of business needs, they cannot find appropriate skillsets and talent to meet ever-changing business needs.  Thus, collaboration and true business partnership with business units are essential.

In addition, HR leaders need to be constantly connected to changing trends in training and technology methods that new (and older) workers are embracing. Remote learning, gamification, and coaching are all somewhat standard — and expected — by today’s workers, young and old. However, without understanding these technologies — and helping business partners adopt them — HR leaders risk being “behind the curve” when it comes to offering and supporting these key new technologies and learning modalities for today’s more educated — and more online and remote — workforce

What are the most common organisational changes in recent years?
More and more organisations are breaking away from old-school notions of how people work and get work done. In the past, workers were organised into departments usually along functional/skill-based lines; e.g., finance, operations, sales, manufacturing, and so on.

Business performance data were usually only known at the highest levels of management, and individual job appraisals were done annually and only by a worker’s direct supervisor. Today, however, more and more firms are developing team-based work strategies that are focused on specific projects and endpoints. Managers assemble cross-functional teams to work on projects of a fixed duration … then the team members rotate back to their “home” functions awaiting assignment to their next projects.

Business performance data is omnipresent — and largely transparent to workers at all level, not just for the C-suite any longer.  

Finally, appraisals and feedback are done frequently — in real-time both formally and informally — so employees get instant input into their performance and how to improve it moving forward.  Offices are wall-less and open-planned, conference rooms are used more for collaborations than presentations, and space designers take great care to give employees everything they need to work smarter, not harder.

In these ways, HR can play a leading role in helping put teams together — and people together both physically and remotely — to work more efficiently and effectively while getting results and feedback in real time. This also allows learning and development staff to also quickly gauge skill gaps and develop targeted training in near real-time settings.

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