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  • Matthew Mugan

HR is dead, long live the employee experience

Stop focusing on humans as resources and start benefiting from the strategic possibilities of people

I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s the end of HR as we know it.

You’ll remember the old clichés,

“People are our most important asset.”

“HR should have a seat at the table.”

Well we looked into it, and sorry, but no they aren’t and no it shouldn’t. It’s time to rethink the clichés. HR is dead and the era of employee experience is upon us.

A colleague of mine plays rope-a-dope at conference audiences using that ‘people as an asset’ bit. The game involves picking the odd one out of a bunch of balance sheet items and an organisation’s staff. The punchline goes that while the balance sheet items are assets, the people are something different, they are investors. That would mean some sort of investor relations role for HR, then, which we’ll come back to. First though, we should recognise that organisational terminology around people has become unfit for purpose.

People as an asset; to be bought and sold. Human capital; another way of saying people are assets. Human resources; passive, unthinking, unfeeling things to be utilised and exploited.

The language around HR just doesn’t feel right for the contemporary world of work. As relationships between employees and employers have changed, the semantics have fallen out of sync. This has happened before, just ask Dirty Harry what he thinks of ‘personnel’.

One thing that defines the contemporary world of work above all others is flexibility. Flexibility to work different hours, in different places, at different times, with different organisations, and above all the flexibility to choose. Freedom to frequently change the terms of employment, and to change employer, puts employees in the role of customers. So, the organisational approach to people shifts from the management of resources to the cultivation of satisfied customers.

Showing Impact

Before we get too far into EX though, let’s finish off HR once and for all. The seat at the table request has been going out of style over the last few years, thankfully. Nothing diminished the people function more than its leaders tapping on the window of ‘the business’ pleading to be allowed in. While some mourned the humble status of the function, knowing all the while how important people were to business success, the smart leaders were busy showing impact.

Willis Towers Watson investigated the link between superior employee experiences and predictable financial performance. They found that a group of 30 organisations with a superior measured employee experience were outperforming their competitors in revenue growth, gross profit margin, return on equity and return on assets. This is P&L validation for those who follow Richard Branson’s school of thought that leading with a great employee experience will feed customers and the bottom line.

It will transform more than the internal dynamic within organisations. The time is near at hand when investors will use measures of employee experience to identify value in potential acquisitions. Can you imagine a scenario where dollars are being knocked off valuations by weak experience results? Willis Towers Watson’s research in this area shows the same group of employers outperforming the S&P and Dow Jones indices by 300% on capital invested.

If old HR was Oliver asking for more, employee experience professionals are Billy Beane in Moneyball. They have found a different way of identifying and increasing value in organisations, of making the people function a genuine player driving direct and measurable financial impact. To paraphrase the John Henry line that film: “anybody who's not tearing their team down right now and rebuilding it using their model, they're dinosaurs.”

The Changing Face of HR

Further hints at HR’s impending demise can be gleaned from glancing into the future of work crystal ball. The Future of Jobs Survey published by the World Economic Forum in 2018 is doing the rounds and terrifying people across many professions. The automation of job content which it predicts stands to transform the HR function, with a hollowing out of current roles based on administration (shifting from 28% automated to 55% automated by 2022), information processing (47% to 62%) and looking for relevant information (36% to 55%).

Within HR, that’s going to mean a reduction in job content around working with employment contracts, payroll, benefits administration, performance management documentation, process and policy writing, routine query management and so on. The resource management, oiling the gears of the human machine, is being eroded by people management systems and self-service platforms. What’s left is the opportunity to place greater emphasis on the road less automated, around reasoning and decision making, coordinating, developing, advising, communicating and interacting. The skills which will remain in-demand within the profession are those which support a customer-centric approach, an employee-centric view of people management.

There have been foreshocks of this seismic change, in areas like employer brand, employee value proposition (EVP) and employee engagement, and there are those who make the argument that employee experience is a synonym of engagement, but clumping these things together misses a couple of key elements of what makes employee experience so powerful.

Employee experience is about the whole lifecycle and all of the touchpoints within it. It’s about the journey, not an employee’s state of mind at a particular time. Are you always struggling with productivity after getting through the Nairobi traffic? Employee experience is about that. Did you find the onboarding process really helped you hit the ground running? It’s about that too.

It offers more scope for measurement, in more ways, to bring together a holistic view of how experience is impacting performance. While we get a window at a point in time if we ask the right survey questions, combining those surveys with data from work tools, or smart desks even, and relating all of that to a journey from the employee’s perspective, allows us to crack the code of how to make things work better.

The delivery of the employee experience comes down to a few key areas. There’s some design thinking involved, creating hypotheses and examining data to build up a picture of what your talent looks like to create personas. Personas are key because everything subsequently centres on them. From personas, we move to journey maps across the lifecycle. The lifecycle roughly goes:

  • Awareness

  • Recruitment

  • Onboarding

  • Performance

  • Development

  • Exit

  • Alumni

And the maps should reflect what your personas are: aiming to achieve, thinking, feeling, doing, interacting with and using across parts of this framework. There’s also an opportunity to focus on ‘magic moments’, like salary reviews, first days on the job, birthdays and work anniversaries, where heightened emotions and expectations create the opportunity for delight or disappointment.

While designing employee experiences, it’s also important to have a view of the areas which matter to talent. Things like reward, diversity, leadership, communication, development and purpose. Designing a great employee experience is about crafting a value proposition using these elements, and then ensuring it is being effectively delivered and measured across the experience.

Employee-centric Models

Employee experience is booming globally. Since 2017, searches for the term on Google have doubled, with peak interest being right now and rising. In Africa, search volume for the term is negligible, suggesting that those embracing the approach now are well ahead of the curve. There’s a massive opportunity here for the business community across the continent.

It’s widely recognised that global people approaches shouldn’t be copied and pasted into African markets, and employee experience precludes this because it focuses on specific talent on specific journeys. It forces practitioners to think about what works where they are. It’s also inexpensive, because you don’t have to start by buying expensive tech, you just start by putting your people’s experience at the core of what you do and how you do it.

And that is something we need to do. With all the employee engagement surveys criss-crossing the continent, it was a jolting moment at a Talent Agenda Series conference recently when a leader pointed out that while everyone was focusing on engagement within their businesses, they were doing nothing about the people in their supply chains, or their contract staff employed through third parties. How sustainable are our major employers, and the economies they support, if this type of oversight is lurking beneath the surface?

We also heard stories about companies going above and beyond to support staff in times of personal distress. But as one insurance CEO noted, why are we having to rely on exceptional good news stories, instead of systematically designing things like low insurance penetration out of our experiences?

The opportunity to unlock the potential of an employee-centric model, with predictable financial impact, using skills with longevity in the 4th industrial revolution can be a rising tide in Africa, allowing businesses to provide more jobs, more sustainable jobs and more fulfilling jobs.

HR is dead; long live the employee experience.


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