Simplify: The Decluttering of Human Resources

clut2I recently read a wonderful article in The Economist entitled Decluttering the Company and it reminded me of the tremendously important job we have to simplify business at all levels.

Well we in HR and L&D have something to learn here. In this article I’d like to talk about simplification: what we might want to call the Decluttering of Human Resources.

Our Problem: HR Teams Build Processes

Human resources teams have a tough job. We are supposed to support line leaders and put in place programs and tools to help better hire, train, manage, and reward people. It all sounds so simple to non-HR people, but in reality it’s dauntingly complex.

For example:

  • How do we handle the 200+ candidates who apply for a given position and give them a positive experience while we quickly filter them out for managers to interview?  What should our website and application process look like to make it easy?
  • How do we design a performance management process that makes it easy for managers to evaluate and coach people but is fair, meaningful, and incorporates all aspects of an employee’s work?
  • How do we deliver a training program that is both fun, engaging, and instructionally sound? And how do we keep up with the hundreds of training needs everyone keeps asking for?
  • How do we implement an employee communications program that gets people engaged, encourages feedback, and is both fun and non-intrusive?
  • How do we build or buy HR software that is actually fun and easy to use?

If you think any of these things is easy, I challenge you to take a job in HR.

The typical problem-solving approach we have in HR is to diagnose the problem in detail, get a team of stakeholders involved, and then spend a few days (or weeks) designing a process that will solve the problem.

Ultimately this “process” requires some type of competency model, job design, assessment, content, or other underlying intellectual property. And many times this comes from a consultant, who is often paid by the hour (so they make more money by adding complexity).

What we often end up with is a solution like this.

A Typical Job Framework


Fig 1:  Typical HR Job Framework

This an example of a professional services company’s job framework. As you can see, the team not only defined every role, but they designed competencies, specializations, proficiency levels, areas of responsibility, and even job descriptions. Lots and lots of detail.

Why design such a complex framework?  The company can now design development paths, career ladders, and assessments that help people define what job they are in today and where they want to go next. All very valuable.

But how long will it last? And how well can the company maintain it during growth, acquisitions, or reorganizations? This is a lot of complexity to maintain – which is why fewer than 1/4 of the companies we talk with have anything like this in place.

A large manufacturer I just met with (more than 150,000 employees) is embarking on a similar project across their manufacturing and engineering teams. They developed more than 50 competencies for their engineers and are now interviewing subject matter experts to further refine the competencies. When I was there they asked “how would you suggest we assess people against these competencies?” My answer: its a big job and you’re going to have to test the high performers to understand what capabilities they have. Perhaps we can simplify it a bit? And that started another long conversation..

When we talk with companies about these kind of projects I always ask myself: is this complexity worth the effort?  Are we gaining incremental value with each additional piece? What if we had only 10 competencies or maybe only 5?

In the majority of cases the “perfect answer” with lots of complexity just won’t scale. This kind of complexity takes a lot of effort to maintain, it isn’t malleable as the business changes, and when its developers go away others have a hard time evolving it.

So the best answer is not to do away with such rigor, but rather to do everything in our power to eliminate complexity. “Declutter” so to speak.


How Can We HR Programs More Simple?

If we agree these problems are complex, what can we do to make the solutions more simple?

First, remember that “simplicity” does not mean “simplistic.” In order to make things simple, you must first understand how complex they really are, and from their boil it down to its essence.

Let me give you an example from my own personal experience. Much of the value Bersin has brought to HR over the years has been our frameworks and maturity models. These models, which are one page visual descriptions of most HR practices, are built after years of research and lots of debate. We always tell our analysts that in order to deliver great research, it must be clear, simple, and profound.

How do we do accomplish this?  We ask our analysts to do what I call “falling off a cliff.”

The “cliff” is shown below. In the beginning, at the left, you think you understand a topic. You start reading, writing, and talking with people. Then after a few months of research, you suddenly realize that “wow, I don’t know anything about this at all!” It’s far more complex than I realized!

That is what I call “falling off the cliff.” You suddenly become highly respectful of the domain and dig in to learn more. As our model shows here (this is from 2009), if you “stick with it” you eventually learn so much that you develop a deep level of perspective about the domain, and all the complexity starts to make sense. That is when you sit down, think about the problem, and start to simplify.

And it is this last step, the “simplify” step, that adds the most value.

Bersin Research Process

Fig 2 : Bersin Research Process

In the research business, this process often takes 1-2 years or more.. but once you reach that level of understanding, you then have the perspective to simplify. You now understand what you can “strip out” to make the research itself simple, easy to understand, meaningful, and profound.

In all areas of HR our goal is not to “deliver simple solutions” but rather to “simplify what is actually a complex problem.” So from my experience your job is to first deeply understand the domain, and then strip out parts of your solution that are just not that important. These extra steps or features may be interesting or provide some value, but ultimately the create complexity, slow adoption, and make maintenance difficult.

 An Example:  Simplifying Learning & Development

Here’s a simple example. Many L&D organizations have hundreds to thousands of courses they offer to employees. Our research and analytics team shows that in most cases 10% of these courses get 90% or more of all the activity and value. But the other courses are there “just in case” someone needs them.

Years ago we looked at this problem and developed a simple model (much of this is attributed to Tom Hilgart, one of my early mentors) we called the Training Investment Model. What we found, after talking with hundreds of companies, was that if you look at all the training programs you deliver, there are a few that are both “strategic in value” and “custom to you.” These programs, which we put in the “upper right” of this quadrant, are worth spending a lot of money on.

Learning Investment Model

Fig 3:  Bersin & Associates Learning Investment Model

So to simplify your L&D operations, you first analyze your entire course library, and find which courses are in that top 10%. These programs, which go in the upper right of the quadrant, probably justify as much as 40% of your total spending. The other courses, which fit into the other three quadrants of the model, are far less strategic. They should be outsourced, purchased in e-learning format, or simply eliminated. Yes some employees will look for them and may have to buy them elsewhere, but the simplicity will help people better find just what they need. You do not need 7,000 courses in your course catalog.

Remember: by giving people focus, they know what courses to take, where to spend time, and where to focus their energy.

Simplify Performance Management, Leadership, and Other Programs

We often make things too complex in HR. I cannot tell you how many 300+ page books I’ve read about coaching, training, leadership, or recruiting. They’re fascinating and highly educational, but they tend to make everything seem complex.

Our job is to learn these disciplines, but then implement simplified, easy to understand solutions. That is hard to do.

  • Do you really need 15 competencies to evaluate people against? I bet you could do with five.
  • Do you need a leadership model with 20 elements in two dimensions?  You could probably simplify it to 5-7.
  • Do you need at 10 page form for performance appraisal? How about getting it down to two.
  • Do you need a 5 page interview guide for new candidates? Work harder and get it down to one.

Software engineers go through months of testing to figure out which buttons and slider bars to remove from applications to make them easy to use. They don’t create a “simplistic” system they “simplify” through research. And this is what HR has to do.

HR software vendors have been focused on simplicity lately. What used to be tabs of functionality with hundreds of pull down menus is now slowly turning into Facebook-like user experiences. While consumer websites seem simple, behind the scenes engineers are testing hundreds of options to figure out what to leave out!

Everywhere I go HR teams tell me their programs are often too complex, hard to maintain, and difficult to roll out. Remember that employees in most companies are busy. If you can give them a 3-step process to complete a form, take a course, or do a performance review they will be much happier (and more focused) than if you give them 9 steps or 7 steps with multiple options.

Let’s declutter HR. Carefully remove complexity. Add a step at the end of the process to “remove half of what we just designed.” Test what is really needed. And make our companies more productive and our HR programs better, more widely adopted, and more vital to organizational success.

8 Responses

  1. Megan Rene Burkett says:

    Josh, I read many of your articles and deeply appreciate your insight and expertise. Thank you for sharing! I work with primarily small to medium companies and the greater challenge lies in equipping them with an understanding of the value of HR and talent management and its direct impact on business objectives and P&L. Working with a national HR tech organization and focusing on the Midwest region provides a amazing opportunity for me to raise awareness but I am concerned about how this lack of knowledge impacts small to medium sized businesses. Have there been studies regarding this subject?

    • Josh Bersin says:

      Hi Megan, not enough has been done for mid-market companies. We’re launching a high level free MOOC course next week on Udemy which may help a little bit. Would you like to talk more about how I may be able to help your organization or mid-market companies in general?

      • Megan Rene Burkett says:

        Josh, thank you for the quick response. With more than 2/3 of job creation coming from small to mid-size businesses and the continual growth of startups it is certainly an area in need of attention. I would love to check out the Udemy MOOC and have a follow up conversation to learn more about the future of this market from your perspective. Best way to connect?

  2. Amy says:

    A great solution to track competencies, skills and talent in your organization is – try the private beta for free.

  3. Eduardo says:

    Greetings Josh. You raise the question: “How do we implement an employee communications program that gets people engaged, encourages feedback, and is both fun and non-intrusive?”

    In response, please let me know if we can go through this intuitive+interactive platform. I’ve set it up based on your employee engagement papers, formerly published:

  4. Alex Howland says:

    Thanks Josh. How do we simplify talent analytic initiatives for HR personnel? It seems like HR data is collected and often stored in silos (recruitment, selection/assessment, performance mgt, engagement, turnover, etc.). Understanding how selection processes predict to performance outcomes seems daunting from a data management perspective, never mind from making sure there is someone (or a team) to analyze the data once cleaned. Is there software out there that currently exists to help break these data-silos down, conduct predictive analytics, and provide results in an “easy to understand” format?

    • Josh Bersin says:

      Hi Alex, this is the holy grail for all the new analytics modules being launched by Workday, SAP, Oracle, CornerstoneOnDemand, Ultimate Software, and other talent management providers. I’d say they’re all getting closer every day, but there is no “gorilla” in the market yet, and nobody has done this well from a third party standpoint. I’d recommend you look at Visier as a best of breed non-ERP analytics company that can bring all this data together and add a lot of value-add analytics and even some predictive modeling.

      • Alex Howland says:

        Josh, thanks for sharing Visier, as I had not heard of them. They look promising. I would agree that the other big players haven’t really figured it out yet. It will be interesting to see if one of these companies becomes the “gorilla” or if it will be a new player who is agile enough and innovative enough to figure it out. There is certainly opportunity.