What makes a successful HR transformation?

Two business women in a conversation with others. One is blonde and slightly older, the other has scraped back dark hair.

The work environment is actively and constantly changing. The desire for flexible working arrangements is increasing, employees and candidates continue to take a more active interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and diversity, equality and inclusion (DE&I), and the increasing role of AI and how data is used (and protected) are just some examples. Evolution is happening in real-time and transformation is now just part of the cost of doing business in today’s world.

For companies to survive, managing change needs to become one of their core capabilities. And the function at the pivot point? HR. Not only does HR need to stay ahead of the curve with regards to managing corporate change, but the function needs to adapt and offer value in new ways.

To find out how HR functions can best harness the power of transformation, we sat down with two highly experienced change consultants, Rob Cross and Julie Lewis.

Here’s how to give your HR transformation programme the best chance for success.

Bring in the experts

In today’s business world, sophisticated capabilities in specific disciplines such as data, digital, change management, analytics, and wellbeing are becoming non-negotiable. While some of these are already embedded within the HR function, the depth of experience and expertise required goes beyond that provided by generalists. It’s time to bring in the specialists.

“We’re now seeing organisations bringing in more of the data capabilities that would typically sit in functions like IT or Finance and making them part of HR,” says Julie. “You can buy them in through a service provider or partner or you can have them as an in-house capability – it all depends on the scale and complexity of your organisation and where you want to take it.”

Start from a position of knowledge

Transformation aims to future-proof an organisation, so you need to know where the business wants to be and what it wants to achieve moving forwards. “If you know what’s required in the future, you can lay the foundations now,” says Julie. “This is particularly true with regards to the capability changes you need to make – HR needs to be at the forefront of those discussions in order to justify the spend and get the organisation on side.”

Deep organisational knowledge will also help you tailor the transformation programme. You need to know what you’re delivering and to whom in order to make it both relevant to and usable by the team. “For anything to be adopted into working life, it needs to be seen as more than just the latest change or new mechanism,” says Rob. “You have to show the team that it’s beneficial to them, so engage early, go out and find out where you’ll be landing messages. Managers should be one of your first stops – they’re the ones who need to know what you’re doing and how you can make it work for them and their teams.”

Ensure executive buy-in and ownership

“The best thing you can do is get senior leadership on board,” says Rob. “But often you have to work to get them there. They need to engage with the ideas and trust that the transformation will actually make a positive difference. You’ve got to deliver that confidence in the programme.”

Leadership needs to buy into the vision of the transformation and the services that will be delivered by the HR function in the future. If leadership understands and believes that the changes will positively impact them and their workforce, and help retain and develop talent in the future, the changes will be easier to enact. If possible, executive support should be visible to the entire organisation to further bolster its impact.

Chances of success are even greater if you can secure sponsorship at the executive level. “It could be the CEO or one of the team,” says Julie. “But it needs to be someone inspirational. Someone with authority who can communicate the what, why, who and how of the programme in a compelling and engaging way, and provide clear updates as it progresses.”

Aim for agile decision-making

Things move quickly in a transformation programme so it’s imperative to establish a clear chain of command from the get-go and stay organised. Losing momentum due to confusion or unnecessary decision-making could negatively impact team motivation, not to mention disrupting the programme.

To enable your programme to progress successfully, authority needs to be adequately and clearly delegated from the beginning. This allows leads to actually take the lead, while also establishing when they should yield for decisions that need to be made in a more joined-up fashion (for example, those that impact the wider business or that have interdependencies on other functions). “You need to work it through early on so you can understand where the interdependencies are, where you might need to come together, and where you can allow teams to go off and handle things their own way,” says Julie.

This has the added benefit of removing the temptation for leaders to micromanage the process and unintentionally slow it down. Delegation also demonstrates trust and, in empowering the team, bolsters the change programme as people are more invested.

Get the essentials right

“People, processes, technology – make sure you’ve got those three clear,” says Rob. “Then communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s key. Plan what you want people to do differently, properly engage with them, check they’ve understood and then communicate with them again. If the message gets lost, adjust, correct, and carry on.”

Fundamental skills like communication are worth assessing early in the process in order to offer training; investing the time early will pay dividends later on. “Over the years, one of the biggest and best time investments I’ve made is providing education and toolkits to key players on effective communication, change management and assessing change impact,” says Julie.

Make a communication plan

In addition to working to ensure agility, effectiveness and responsiveness with regards to communication, it is important to plan what you’re going to say and when. The right information shared at the right time can inspire confidence, build trust and help people in the organisation feel secure. However, if handled incorrectly, it can be disruptive, leading people to lose motivation and feel uncertain.

“I often work under an NDA with a few managers to begin with,” says Julie. “That way we can work through the changes in sufficient detail to be effective. This process begins to onboard leaders (which in turn boosts their engagement and maximises their impact) and, when we are ready, we can share the information in a way that gives employees clarity. We also often provide a booklet when we make the wider announcements – something the team can take away with them when they want to refer back to timelines or details.”

Providing certainty as quickly as possible is respectful to those impacted, as well as being generally helpful in terms of organisational stability. “Being able to answer peoples’ questions on the day we break the news is significant,” continues Julie. “It settles the organisation.”

Manage expectations

While creating a detailed plan for a change programme is vital, it’s important to allow for the fact that it will, in itself, probably change. “Being clear on the various scenarios that could play out and continuing to evaluate them as you move through the programme, adjusting as you go, is a useful method of driving more certainty,” says Julie. Signposting the possibilities upfront ultimately allows you to manage the expectations of those involved and build more agility into the process as it progresses.

Stay open

It’s important that change can be challenged. The best transformations take place in a work environment with a culture that embraces open and transparent debate. “Everyone wants to make sure the programme is running in the best possible way,” says Julie. “And the key to that is culture. You might not get it right the first time, and you may need to enact course corrections, but if you’re open and authentic with your team and you stay agile, you’re in a good position.”

Considering an HR transformation? Wondering how to balance the ability to move at pace with effective and engaging communications and change management activities? Speak to the team in our Transformation practice.

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