The Simplification of Work: What is HR’s Role?

In our research during the Human Capital trends 2015 project, we found that while more than 2/3 of the companies we talked with are dealing with “the overwhelmed employee,” a similar number told us that their work environment had become “highly complex” or “complex.”  When we asked companies what they were doing about this, we found that almost one third had some type of simplification program in process.

Work simplification, in  many ways, is a new theme in business.  After talking with many companies about this topic, I’ve discovered that there are several issues taking place, largely driven by the proliferation of systems and technology we now have at work.

Design Thinking. 

The concepts of design thinking are simple – focus a “solution” on the user and his or her problem, as opposed to build an “end to end process” that prevents any bad things from happening.  In HR of course this is kind of a new idea – but we see evidence of it over and over.

  • Performance Management practices that take days to weeks to complete (Deloitte and Adobe have both publicly stated that they spend millions of hours on performance management each year.)
  • Compliance programs that cross every “t” and dot every “i” but don’t necessarily create a culture of compliance; (Deloitte Australia recently proved that compliance “programs” cause non-compliance, when compared to simpler compliance culture programs.)
  • Complex practices for employee assessment and education.  When SAP’s new Chief Learning Officer Jenny Dearborn reviewed the company’s global learning and found more than 70 different training departments (and the company had more than 50 types of onboarding programs). Her job, working with the HR transformation team, was to simplify this dramatically.

All these are “technically elegant” solutions that people simply don’t have time to do – so they begrudingly do the work but don’t engage and don’t learn or gain what they should.

We were involved in the design of a new onboarding company for a big telecommunications company.  They were losing people after the first few months on the job because the entire job was so overwhelming they couldn’t learn what they needed. The complex onboarding and new hire training was overwhelming,  and “too complete” for the people they were hiring.

Through a series of design sessions, we applied “design thinking” to the problem and found that during the first 2-3 months there were only a few things these people really needed to learn.  Then in the next 3-6 months there were other skills and systems to learn; and then in the second year there are more skills.  By dramatically simplifying the program, adding some graphical design and a visual map, and spreading out the program, the company dramatically improved its new hire retention, employee engagement, and of course performance.

Story after story has been written about how companies are throwing away many parts of their performance management process with the same result. Simpler is better.  (Deloitte believes its traditional performance management process is burning close to 2 million hours per year – hence it is being simplified.)

Teaching People How to do Less.  Be the Productivity Consultant.  A “Simplicity Architect”

The second thing I’ve witnessed is a new management focus – not on “achieving goals” but rather “reducing the # of goals” and learning how to “focus.”  We, as high performers, always want to do more to succeed – and faced with a large number of things to do, we will usually try to do as many of them as we can.  What GE managers now do is coach their employees to do less (read about GE’s new learning culture in HBR). Specifically they are now trained (and directed) to help people decide what NOT to do, and empower them to “ignore the meeting” or “skip the conference call” and go spend time with a customer (internal or external).

The exercise of “doing less” should come from above, because it is the leader or manager who can best help us focus – it gives us the freedom to do what we know is important, and reduces clutter in the system. At GE, the simplification strategy is taking engineers and putting them in front of customers;  getting product managers out of the office; reducing the # of meetings;  cutting out conference callse, etc.  It is also making people happier and more productive, and changing the way they are measured.

Jeff Bezos is famous for the “two pizza rule” – any meeting with more than two pizzas for lunch has too many people. You can help people save time by reducing the time in meetings (Intel has published meeting standards on the wall of every meeting room).  Avoid hour-long conference calls (shorten them to 30 minutes). Change meeting lengths to 50 minutes or 20 minutes. Teach people how to strip down PowerPoint presentations. Create new standards for emails (ie. no more than one person on the “to” is one I like to use).  These are all practices we in HR can embrace and promote.

The Seven Sins of Deadly Meetings” by Inc. Magazine

Teach Executives to Reduce Email” published by HBR

New Systems Design.

The third element of simplification is a new way to design our programs and systems.  We used to literally add every feature or function we could to a new computer application or course – only to find that people only use 10% of what we built.  Today the most popular systems we use (YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram) only do one thing – and they work very very hard to strip out things people don’t need.

This is “minimalist” design, something that takes hard work to figure out and often requires experimentation and work with users directly.  In L&D, for example, the concept of a “learning instructional designer” (someone who worries all day about making learning a high fidelity experience” into a “learning experience designer” (someone who builds a highly engaging learning experience).

Today’s hot software companies measure their financial success by “adoption” and “activity” and “engagement” with their software, not just how many people bought it or licensed it.  Similarly we have to do the same thing with internal systems – a beautiful, complete, complex application that people don’t use is just cluttering people’s lives and taking up their time.

Old Traditional HR Systems. vs. Modern Design

HR’s Role

I personally think that HR’s role in business is to be the ombudsman of employee productivity, happiness, and engagement.  We have to be more than compliance experts – we have to be the ones who look at the organization and find ways to strip out time-wasting experiences.  If we don’t do it, who will?  IT?  Operations?  Maybe – but ideally this should be part of HR”s job.  (Read “Why We Do Need HR” and “Why HR is a Force for Good” for more on this topic. One reader called this a new role:  “Simplicity Architect”)

And we in HR can no longer think about “elegant” solutions but rather think about “engaging” solutions – solutions that are easy, fun, and focus on the essentials (not the “edge cases”).

By the way, making things simple is not easy. And “simple” does not mean “simplistic.” I talked with a company a few months ago which had built a 62 level competency model for their engineering and manufacturing team.  When I asked them why they built it, their answer was “because we wanted to help build deeper skills in engineering and manufacturing.” Sure competencies are a critical component to a deep learning program, but did they really need 62 competencies to solve the problem at hand?

Simplicity means looking seriously at a business problem, identifying the essential change or solution people need to make work better, and implementing a solution that focuses on the people.  Design thinking is a lot of common sense, we just have to get out of the mode of building “completeness” into everything we do.

These are all part of our job in HR.

About the Author: Josh Bersin is the founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, a leading research and advisory firm focused on corporate leadership, talent, learning, and the intersection between work and life. Josh is a published author on Forbes, a LinkedIn Influencer, and has appeared on Bloomberg, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal, and speaks at industry conferences and to corporate HR departments around the world. You can contact Josh on twitter at @josh_bersin and follow him at Josh’s personal blog is at

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