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Human-Centered Design in HR: Building Agile Organizations

Building agile organizations requires agile employees and a human-centered design approach to HR.

Today’s economy is fluctuating and the rules are continuously changing. Successful organizations need to focus on adaptability to navigate today’s economy and unlock innovation—but an agile organization requires agile people. Agile individuals balance abstract concepts and pragmatic concerns. More than a role or title, it’s a mindset. Transformational Human Resource teams have an obligation to find and nurture an agile mindset.

Most companies anchor themselves in what they offer customers over their people. It’s understandable, but next-generation companies will look for a brand promise which appeals to customers and talent alike. Too much focus on products, for example, risks making an organization and its people rigid and slow to change. If a company believes that its success is only in optimized manufacturing, then all remaining energy will be about sales and distribution. Innovation may come in the form of slight upgrades or pricing strategies, but it won’t open new markets or deliver something truly new. One of the best examples of this is the U.S auto industry during one of its biggest downturns.

U.S. automakers face many challenges, but chief among them in the last decade was that they were struggling to sell cars—not because they didn’t know how to manufacture cars or how to distribute them, but they struggled to understand which cars people wanted to buy. By anchoring itself to a product, instead of a more human brand promise, the industry was blind to new opportunities.

This rigidity affects employees. In this atmosphere, companies emphasize output and employees emphasize titles. If a person wants a promotion, they need to increase their rote productivity. This mental model is reinforced within the office furniture industry. Manufacturers are making incremental improvements to task chairs that will allow employees to stay seated for longer periods of time (i.e. an “8-hour chair” or a “6-hour chair”). The emphasis on optimization becomes a mantra and limits an organization's ability to adapt. For leading companies, this mantra is beginning to change.

Forward-looking furniture manufacturers are beginning to talk about the whole work environment to improve performance, not just products focused on productivity. Auto manufacturers are talking about transportation, not just quality and Six Sigma manufacturing. A system focused on optimization has limits. A new system is emerging which leverages human-centered design.

Taking a human-centered approach for HR may seem counterintuitive to some organizations. These methods put the user at the center and build systems around them. These methods often lead to greater adoption and effectiveness. While HCD may be more familiar to departments focused on customers, these approaches are finding their way into HR.

Human-centered design for employees can free talent from rigid structures and job functions. Sometimes, traditional titles become a list of rote tasks with little room for expansive thinking. Employees focus on optimizing their own system for accomplishing these tasks. As they progress through their career, employees define and cherish the system they’ve built—it’s what they know and they can sometimes be resistant to change. But they are being valued the wrong way. By placing the person at the center, we can better view their value as the experiences they create and the perspectives they bring, rather than the tasks they complete. The best talent looks for such opportunities. Organizations which value this thinking find new ways to deliver on a more aspirational brand promise.

Recently, Ford announced its Transportation Mobility Cloud initiative, a cloud-based system that would allow software developers to help solve transportation problems in the emerging marketplace of IoT automobiles and devices. City infrastructures hold a promise to make transportation safer, more efficient, and more sustainable. This kind of solution takes Ford away from cars—putting people at the center—and lays the foundation for a more aspirational and relevant brand. It will require employees with an agile mindset. HR is a gatekeeper to talent. As organizations look to become more agile, HR teams can also serve as a guiding light to help find new ways to equip organizations with the right people for success.

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