In mid-spring, we were fortunate and grateful to film an “in-concert” episode of the #HRTechChat video podcast straight from the floor of the Boston stop along the 2023 #isolvedRoadShow. Our guest was one of my very favorite people in human capital management, Geoff Webb, vice president of solution strategy at isolved. It was an interesting conversation. Even more interesting was the impromptu green room time Geoff and I created for ourselves over coffee earlier that day.
It was that conversation, especially, that got us to thinking some pretty deep thoughts. Geoff and I went deep into the paint, as basketball fans might say. And for what you’re about to read, the promised follow-up blog post to convey some of those ideas, we won’t get too close to the basket — but we’ll stay close enough to connect on some key jump shots. How does that sound?
OK, let’s go….
HR Can Evolve and Thrive
For the part of our conversation captured on video, Geoff and I discussed a metaphor found in literature. In Lewis Carroll’s 19th century classic novel Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen shows main character Alice all about running faster and faster and, yet, staying in one place.
In the novel, the meaning of the Red Queen Effect is left implicit. Running faster and faster only to stay in one place applies to all sort of things. Many in HR may know the feeling all too well.
But the Red Queen Effect is also about something deeper: a way to think about evolution. In evolution, it’s the adaptation in response to an increasingly untenable situation that perpetuates species’ survival — against the elements or predators or both — by tweaking their very essence. For example, the adaptation to breathe both underwater and above water made whatever the salamander was before it evolved into a salamander, a salamander. Here’s another: the adaptation to emit a strong, foul odor made whatever the skunk was before it evolved into a skunk, a skunk.
Survival and Thrival
Because we live in polite society, in a civilization far removed from the harsh realities of the elements by a few millennia’ worth of our accumulated knowledge and the technology for it, evolution in anything can be about more than just survival. It can also be about thrival. …which is not a real word. Someone else came up with it a long time ago. I wish I’d known before thinking of it on my own the other day. But this doesn’t matter. Here, for our purposes, the word thrival embodies its self-evident meaning: a noun for thrive to rhyme with the noun for survive.
The state of the art today in technology for HCM is the adaptation that enables not only HR’s survival, but its thrival, too. As with all thrival, however, intentionality is the key. Hard work that is menial or tactical or tedious or administrative — all the same, really, and all about survival — rarely commands respect. It’s not right. It just is. Ultimately, however, HR should adopt this same attitude about their administrative work. Why? The state of the art of technology for HR already does all this stuff. And there is much to do that is much more gratifying and needs doing in HR: the thrival of being the organization’s cultural leader and source of expertise in workforce excellence being chief among them. A supportive hometown crowd cheering on a highly capable team is essential to business, after all.
Now, getting to a state of thrival is not all unicorns and skittles; it doesn’t just happen magically. Most readers will agree that it involves hard, focused work and happens one small step at a time. But this time around it’s more interesting and yields entirely different results.
Imagine HR people doing the work they secretly love and having it mean something to organizational leadership. But there’s a flip side: imagine a “pre-salamander” salamander becoming an amphibian and not realizing it.
Recall that technology is the adaptation HR needs to evolve out of its old essence, an operational one, to take on a new essence, a strategic one. The best technology out there today for HCM automates most of the administrative stuff. What HR can and needs to do is recognize they can evolve out of the Stone Age of HR to leave the Paper-Lithic Era behind and become something entirely new — and embrace this for their survival and thrival.
Evolution Is Revolution
One of the ideas that Geoff brought up over coffee really stuck with me.
In preparation for discussing the Red Queen Effect, I stumbled across a quote uttered by a mildly famous economist from the 1970s, Herbert Stein. By “mildly famous,” I mean that you probably haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t. Even so, he left an imprint on U.S. economic policy.
I digress. Herbert Stein once said, “Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.” And it dawned on me: it’s tough to read this quote and not think about HR people, absent modern technology, trying with all their might to climb a mountain of paperwork, spreadsheets and email day in and day out. It just can’t go on forever, and it won’t.
To me, this concept neatly captures the essence of this idea that unautomated operational HR eventually becomes an untenable scenario and, one way or another, will right itself. HR has the option and opportunity to anticipate the shift, approach it consciously, and achieve both their operational and strategic destinies: survival and thrival.
When I shared Stein’s quote with Geoff, he remarked that it’s an idea several historically famous, even controversial, revolutionaries have also expressed in various ways.
Wow. So, I looked into it. And you know what? If you look closely enough (and if you think about overwhelming administrative work as being akin to “a long train of abuses,” albeit, not perpetrated out of malice, of course), then, lo and behold, the gist of this idea is implicit in the Declaration of Independence — the writing of which is a famous revolutionary act if there ever was one. And let’s go to another end of the spectrum for this quote: “Revolution can never be forecast; it cannot be foretold; it comes of itself. Revolution is brewing and is bound to flare up.” That, too, sure sounds a lot like something that cannot go on eventually stopping.
HR Evolution Needs People Heroes
Most successful revolutions have heroes. I say most successful evolutions have heroes, too — in HR or anywhere else involving humans in our modern day, anyway. This is where people with control over their own destinies come in. You don’t have to agree with any historical revolutions to believe in people. And I believe in isolved’s People Heroes. I love the concept and the actual people who embody it. So do my young daughters, whose People Hero dolls you can see in the thumbnail image for this post.
Every organization whose HR department is getting out from under the heavy weight of administrative work did so because a hero in HR figured out how to get organizational leadership to purchase, implement and deploy technology that made HR’s life better. It was an adaptation that enabled HR’s people to escape the jaws of otherwise insurmountable operational work and focus on the rest of the organization’s people.
HR evolution is really HR revolution. And, ultimately, revolutions are the consequences of a long train of accumulated micro moments that suddenly, in a tipping point, precipitate change few would have envisioned or foreseen. Heroes are there at every step. Similarly, evolution in HR is about those small, adaptive next steps along a journey to a place where HR eventually looks nothing like it used to. It’s the People Heroes who identify and recognize all those small opportunities along the way to get there.
Geoff is no stranger to #HRTechChat, and you can view an earlier appearance of his on the #HRTechChat video podcast here.