Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A new hire isn't always the best solution - rethinking organisational resourcing in the age of flux

After 18 months freelancing in digital engagement and innovation consulting, I've been revisiting the recruitment market to see what opportunities are becoming available as the digital transformation environment matures across Australia.

There's definitely some very interesting roles around - more and more of them part-time - but also still a great deal of older thinking about.

I've recently observed friends in public sector processes where organisations have been very definitive about what they wanted "someone with extensive private sector experience in leading digital innovation", "someone with deep-rooted data analytics expertise who can lead a transformational team".

However it seems that in many cases these organisations fall short of hiring what they say they want. In the first example above, a career bureaucrat was hired, in the second a generalist manager with a little change management expertise.

These are only a sampling of some of the decisions I've seen made - where government agencies have defined clearly they need someone prepared to be disruptive, but have settled for someone 'safe'.

I appreciate there's factors behind these decisions and don't doubt that the people hired have been intelligent and well-qualified - but do they match what these public sector organisations need?

This has led me into some deeper thinking around whether current recruitment processes are capable of meeting the needs of organisations during what is a transformational time.

Traditionally most roles have been clearly definable and static for long periods of time, reflecting the organisations they're part of. Business and public sector hierarchies are designed to force order onto chaos and over the last century have generally fallen into two buckets - specialists, who have deep but narrow skillsets, and generalists, with broad but shallower skillsets.

Specialists were required to be experts in a few things, with deep training and experience reinforcing their natural abilities. They have traditionally worked in narrowly defined silos on work that fits within their expertise set - in many ways like the operators on a single station on a manufacturing production line.

Generalists, on the other hand, were there to manage end-to-end delivery of outcomes, taking on a horizontal role to the specialist vertical. These people - the product managers, project managers, COOs and the like, had broader responsibilities but relied on the deep experience of specialists to deliver specific 'packets' of work. Their skills were more managerial - coordinating resources and effort to achieve a desired outcome.

Most organisations still function in this way - it largely works and delivers the outcomes required.

However this approach is best designed for situations where an environment is largely stable - consistent organisational goals. customers, economic conditions, regulation, competition and technology.

When one of these factors change an organisation has to change - adapting to the new reality. Most organisations can cope with this reasonably well, provided that the factor changes from one stable state to another stable state. This could be the replacement of a CEO, Secretary or Minister, the introduction of a new technology such as mobile phones, a recession.

The change causes stress, the organisation may have to restructure or even institute a change program, but the change can and is managed within the overall framework of specialists and generalists.

However what happens when change becomes continuous. When a stable state shifts to a new 'stable' state every week - effectively shifting into an instable, or flux, state.

Suddenly the organisation no longer requires a change program, it has become the change program - with the requirement for all staff to continually adapt and shift their approach, position and activities to keep the organisation stable within flux.

The traditional specialist and generalist roles are now all endlessly mutable and adaptive, and suddenly the old approaches to recruitment begin to fail as the organisation begins to need individuals who are simultaneously generalists and specialists - who can leap between these two states as needed at any time.

Others have written about this as the rise of the fluid organisation. Rather than having hard roles and boundaries, the organisation flows with change, adapting and readapting itself as needed to fill the market space at the time.

In these types of organisations the notion of a job, of employment, is itself mutable. The practical differences between employee, contractor, consultant, partner, outsourced worker, supplier, competitor, largely disappear.

The organisation essentially scoops up the skills and capabilities it requires for a specific outcome, and then those people move elsewhere once the outcome is delivered - within or outside the organisation.

Our regulatory frameworks struggle with these forms of organisations as they depend on a central core 'organisational entity' to be responsible for signing contracts, taking money, representing in courts.

Our management hierarchies struggle, with empires disappearing overnight, peoples' status and responsibilities changing to adapt to the needs of the moment - everyone potentially a senior leader, a specialist, a consultant, at different times for different projects or goals.

Our recruitment practices struggle as well. They tend to align around one potential solution for an organisational challenge - hiring an employee (or at least a contractor) - whereas there may be a range of potential solutions, from retraining, through partnering to automation.

Even where a new hire is the most effective solution, organisations still struggle to hire for the future, often preferring to hire to fill a need today, rather than fully mapping how that need may change in the next few years.

This is having significant impacts on the job market right now. There's been a huge shift towards temporary and part-time roles (both in the public and private sector), which can be partially attributed to the more fluid needs of organisations.

What this situation suggests to me, other than there is an increasing need for new thinking around structuring and managing organisations for continual change, is that recruitment approaches need to be reframed around solving organisational problems with the most appropriate solutions.

Yes some recruiters already do a great job of proactively helping their clients to identify gaps and the skilled resources to fill them, however their solutions to a gap are limited to 'a staff member' or 'a contractor' - where other solutions may be more effective i.e. 'a partner', 'a consultant', 'retraining', 'restructuring', 'automation'.

Unfortunately though, even these proactive recruiters aren't themselves structured to offer solutions other than a person for a role - which suggest to me a role for a new form of 'resourcing advisor' that takes a longer and deeper view of organisational challenges and provides a broader set of solutions to draw on.

But for this type of approach to be effective, organisations need to also rethink their recruiting practices - from budgetary 'buckets' to hiring protocols to the definition of an employee.

They also need to recognise that the recruitment practices they used in the past may not continue to succeed into the future - in fact they may not be terribly effective now, with some studies indicating that almost half of all hiring decisions result in a failure.

As someone who has worked both for extremely hierarchical and extremely flexible organisations (including one that has no employees, contracts all staff and has been successful for nearly 20 years), I can see how difficult it is for organisations glued to, and by, their structures to change.

However ultimately what defines an organisation is the outcomes it achieves for the audiences it serves - its structure, personnel and resourcing practices are all flexible and replaceable tools for achieving its desired goals.

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