How can HR Capitalize on Complexity?

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Jun 18, 2010

I have always had been a voracious reader of white papers. Because of the web, we now have access to all the top thought leaders in whatever discipline you are interested in.

Now, if your eyes are glazing over because of all that boring reading, let me give you some inside information. If you found your chosen career and are not keeping up with industry knowledge, ground breaking news, and the direction your discipline is heading, you are headed in the wrong direction.

Last week, I was excited to get the new IBM biennial paper called “Capitalizing on Complexity.” This research has been released every two years since 2004, and it includes interviews with over 1,500 CEO’s in 60 countries and 33 industries.

This year however, IBM included as a separate subset interviews with 3,600 students at major universities. Some 46 percent were pursuing MBA degrees, with another 3 percent in doctoral programs. This is a nice contrast because these are potential future leaders and I was excited to learn more about their thoughts.

This study was based on this question: How has the nature of leadership changed in the new economic environment? It includes insight into how CEOs are responding to the new economic environment that includes a global recession, competitive pressures, and ever-changing technology.

In past years, the CEOs identified coping with change as their major challenge, however in 2010, “complexity” and the ability to manage it was the major concern mentioned by 79 percent of the CEOs. They also said that “creativity” was the most important leadership quality, followed by “reinventing customer leadership” and “building operating dexterity.”

What I found interesting was the disconnect in this study between CEOs and students. Students also chose “complexity” as the major challenge in 2010, but (and this is where it got interesting) they listed “global thinking” as a challenge 43 percent more than CEOs, and “sustainability” 36 percent more.

A quote from one American student captured this difference for me: “My generation has a completely different view and understanding of unbounded, unlimited social connectivity, science and technology and cultural conglomeration that leads to more open, interconnected ambitions.” Yes, students have witnessed all this economic turmoil from the sidelines, but they are completely connected with the social media upheaval, technology and diversity going on as well.

I read this study through the lens of Human Capital Management and thought, “What are the implications for culture, leadership and the people within the organization? How is the strategy behind talent management, leadership modeling, and workforce planning going to adapt to the new realities of the workplace?”

So based on this study, how will HR play a role in the findings? In my mind, it means that going forward, human resources will have to make the greatest transformation since its inception, particularly in these areas:


With social media, a demoralized workforce, and all the other fallout from the current economic and competitive environment playing havoc on the workforce, HR will be required to move to new level of thinking and creativity.

I recently had a discussion with a CIO who adamantly refused to allow the use of any social media at work for his employees, and he stated that HR was on board with that decision. With a workforce that, if not now, will eventually be totally connected to social media, what does that CIO’s decision say about the culture of the company?

There has to be some middle ground. The workforce is changing and HR must be the driver of that change. The entire HR portfolio and the old ways of doing things are going to have to adapt, and HR will need to ask, “What value are our programs bringing to our workforce? Are they perceived as bringing value to them?”

Creative Leadership

The top down model of leadership is gradually becoming outdated. Collaboration will become the new model. To inspire this new generation of worker there must be a connection. Innovation and continuous re-invention are the hallmarks of creativity. The old mantra of always doing it the same way must morph into reexamination and constant evaluation.

Google has a way of leaving their new offerings in “Beta” even after they have gone to market and are being used by millions. Their Google lab feature shows the “customer” what they are working on. This is Google’s version of constant reinvention, and HR professionals everywhere can learn from this since they hold the reins of process in their organizations and have procedures in place to own this reinvention process.

I believe that HR professionals should try this “Beta” process to see where changes can be made in their organizations to adapt to the new realities of the 2010 workplace. Talent management is the big focus in many companies today, and it will become even more important going forward.

This entire process must be looked at from the perspective of the employee life cycle. Think of how marketing and finance has adjusted in this environment. Their old strategies have been turned upside down, and HR must do this as well with the same sense of urgency. Business as usual can no longer work

Reinvent the Customer Relationship

The customer of HR is the employees as well as management. One of the most important characteristics of the new HR leader is a consultancy mindset. There must be a strong linkage, and a cascading of corporate goals, from the boardroom to the mail room.

A problem solver is what organizations will need from HR. The business partner model has tremendous opportunity to lead HR transformation. This relationship should not just be a tactical one, because a focus on just the administrative aspects of human resources, although important, will not allow HR to make this leap. The HR partner must have the capability to become a valued problem solver and not just a person that answers HR questions.

Building Operating Dexterity

I keep running into these questions: “How is HR going to help organizations’ return to solid footing? How is HR preparing employees for new opportunities as the business landscape keeps shifting? What learning and development strategies are in place? Do we have the key talent in place in the areas of growth, and if not, what are the strategies to make sure that our bench is full or overflowing with talent? And, is our talent management framework reflecting reality based on the current business dynamic?”

All these questions will have to be addressed going forward. HR professionals must have had the foresight to take a look at their workforce and begin a planning process to not only review current practices, but also, to look years out based on the current business landscape versus the larger corporate goals.

By deftly navigating this gap – between the current business environment and the larger company goals – you will begin the process of producing a 21st century workforce that is agile as a top athlete, cunning as a focused strategist, and as fierce as jaguar. Are you up to the challenge?