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Dec 2, 2015

At the heart of any successful company or business idea is the ability to understand how the world is changing and then capitalize on that change to sell something desirable.

This is just as true of Uber or Airbnb in recent years as it was when Heinz launched its “Baked Beans” way back in 1901.

Firms with a long history have been both built on a good business idea and employed managers that were able to tweak products or launch new ones that customers found useful as the world changed. So it’s hardly an original piece of advice to suggest that good managers need to be able to “cope with change.”

2 kinds of changes managers are dealing with

But, there are two types of change that managers at big companies are dealing with right now that feel different to all involved; one external, one internal.

First, as they become more global, firms must deal with more competitors in more markets and – in most industries – in an environment where firms can bring new products to market more quickly than before. This means managers often need to make faster decisions than they once did and often without running it up the chain for senior executive assent.

Second, and rather worryingly for large companies, the time taken to make a decision is actually slowing down. Working with and talking to thousands of functional executives in 2015, CEB staff hear some version of the same refrain again and again: “It seems more difficult to get stuff done; we just feel really slow.”

The size and complexity of firms, and the need for managers to collaborate with so many people, has slowed everything down.

A lot of managers think that if they want to speed up decision-making they must be prepared to make worse decisions. In short they must trade “fast” for “right.” But our work has shown that this isn’t necessarily so.

HR’s battle with “fast” and “right”

As this series of posts explores, gummed-up decision-making in an operating environment that requires for faster decisions is causing headaches in all parts of the world’s companies.

Heads of HR and their teams need to find a way to speed-up processes that attract, engage, retain, and develop employees. These employees are being asked to take-on more decision-making responsibility in a more dispersed organizational structure, develop a wider range of skills, and work with a large array of people that they often don’t know, don’t share a common culture, and with whom they have no formal reporting relationship.

All of this leads HR teams to worry that they must trade fast for right to do their jobs effectively.

There are eight (8) areas in particular where HR teams can speed-up decisions without getting them wrong. The previous post looked at four ways to sustainably speed-up hiring and retention processes, and the four below deal with ways to develop employees and help them be more productive.

Four ways HR can speed up decisions

1. Use workforce surveys to implement corporate strategy. Over 90 percent of companies run workforce surveys, but only 20 percent of senior execs at those companies feel that doing so helps improve their firm’s performance. And more than half (60 percent) of employees say action taken since the last survey has not resulted in tangible change.

Barriers to strategy implementation often have to do with employee performance. For example, if a firm competes by producing cut-price products, then it should foster a culture that emphasizes employee capabilities such as efficiency, rule-following, and tight management of customer expectations. But if a firm differentiates itself by offering the highest-quality products, then it should concentrate on capabilities like quality and individual autonomy.

Surveys can tell you how much of the workforce has these capabilities and provide a detailed picture of whether the workforce will support a given strategy. And then survey results can, in turn, be used to understand which bits of the company are most in need of change if you want to implement a new strategy.

2. Teach leaders to act in the interests of the company, not just their individual team, function, or business unit. Senior execs think three-quarters of their business units possess leaders who are ill-equipped to handle the future needs of their company. In response to growing complexity in the workplace, many leaders retreat and focus narrowly on their individual span of control, but this kind of leadership is not enough to provide the kind of business results that the company needs.

This isn’t a traditional problem: two-thirds of leaders are already “effective” or “very effective” at traditional leadership competencies. The problem is that the performance that got leaders to where they are today is not what companies need in the future.

The best leaders and teams are good at managing complexity and activating internal networks to find answers and make decisions more quickly. But only one-in-10 leaders works this way.

To improve corporate performance, HR teams need to redefine the concept of “leadership” to develop employees who are both strong individual performers, and who understand how to make the most of a collective approach.

3. Help HIPOs apply what they learn. High-potential employers (HIPOs) are 91 percent more valuable to the organization than non-HIPOs, but 73 percent of HIPO programs can’t show a solid return on investment, despite the large sums involved. Failing HIPO programs are often the result of ineffective development strategies.

By overemphasizing traditional training approaches to HIPO development, firms focus too heavily on building competencies in isolation and not enough on helping HIPOs apply what they learn to improve performance on the job. In fact, focused and targeted on-the-job development plans can improve employee knowledge and skills by up to 16 percent.

4. Cut out low quality and duplicative learning and development. Every year, nearly 70 percent of the money that companies spend on is likely to be wasted. But improving the quality of the Learning & Development provided will address less than 15 percent of this wasted spend. The rest of the waste comes from poor-quality or duplicative learning and development supplied by the line.

The L&D function should boost the quality of all learning and development, regardless of who creates or provides it. The function should work with all learning suppliers as collaborative “learning franchises” to ensure it has an impact on overall corporate performance.

The payoff is huge. Firms will cut total wasted L&D spending by an average of $6.9 million, and can improve employee performance by as much as 20 percent.