As long as an organization is a comfortable tribal size (say, under 150 employees), it’s possible for everyone to know everyone. The distance between the top and the bottom is not great. Job descriptions are not work rules. Departmental lines are fuzzy.
Growth creates the need for policies, procedures and structured governance. It’s not long until the various boundaries between people and sub groups start to get rigid. By the time a company reaches 1,000 people, it’s the big time. It’s no longer possible for everyone to know everyone. Hierarchies are established to navigate the problems caused when most members of the organization are strangers to each other.
One of HR’s central roles is policeman. Someone has to enforce the governance structures required by size. While it would be great to have a world where strangers immediately understood each other’s boundaries, we build our organizations with human beings who have a limit of about 150 connections that they can manage well.
Much of HR’s work is designed to overcome the communications problems demonstrated in the telephone game. Just like any form of copying, the clarity of a message declines each time it is transmitted. (Basic internet protocols are designed to overcome this problem by including additional information so that the message content remains intact.) HR’s job (in interpersonal matters particularly) is to ensure that the organizations rules and boundaries are enforced and reinforced.
Social tools (like Honey, Yammer, Chatter and a host of others) are restructuring the way that communications work inside the company. (Here are the stories about that.) As a result, cultural norms form like crystals around seeds discovered in the social flow. The really interesting thing is that these social tools seem to impact the degree to which the telephone game disrupts communications.
What used to be delivered in a stale memo is now communicated in the flow/context of other data. It turns out that the more personal the data, the more it sticks. The memo was used to reinforce the message of policy; to prevent telephone game-like degradation. Much of that function can now be accomplished socially.
This is a significant unintended consequence of using social media in the organization. It enlarges and extends the span of control without resorting to enforcement or coercion.
So, HR needs to be a good bit smarter about using influence (think of peer pressure, not Klout) to move ideas through the organization. The interesting question here is whether or not social media creates too much homogeneity. The fact remains that social media reduces the work required from HR.
Meanwhile, the other departments in the company are getting hungry to use social data about employees as a way of getting things done. HR seems like the logical receptacle for the organization’s data on its people, doesn’t it? Since forever, individual departments have only been able to know a lot about the people within their boundaries. Today, they can easily discover things about the rest of the organization through social channels.
While you could be forgiven for forecasting a chaotic reality in which HR never stepped up to this responsibility, that future isn’t very likely. The forces that drive the requirements for HR in the first place haven’t been voided. HR’s opportunity horizon has expanded.
Here are some of things the rest of the organization would like to know about the workforce:
- Which employees are also customers? Which are not? Why
- Which employees are also investors? Which are not? Why?
- Which employees are stakeholders in the community (from elected to volunteer leadership)?
- Which employees would be good for beta testing programs? Who has already done this and what were the topics?
- Which employees would be good for focus groups? Who has already done this and what were the topics?
- What do we need to know about the people on the other department’s softball team?
- Which employees might be useful (by virtue of education, experience or avocation) in times of talent shortage?
- Which employees have connections that might be useful in a particular sales process?
- Which employees have connections that should be converted to leads?
- Is there something about our department that is causing communications problems? (see how our beliefs and values line up with another department)
And, that’s just the beginning. As more data about employees becomes available, there will need to be a central repository for the information and useful ways to sift through it.
In the very near term, HR will become a net publisher of data to other departments. By helping the organization know as much as it can about employee likes, dislikes, affiliations, hobbies, connections and other interests, HR will be able to step up to its mission of finding the best utilization of people.
Re-Engineering HR: Five Threads of Technology
John Sumser is the founder, principal author and editor-in-chief of the HRExaminer Online Magazine. John explores the people, technology, ideas and careers of senior leaders in Human Resources and Human Capital. John is the also principal of Two Color Hat where he routinely advises Human Resources, Recruiting Departments and Talent Management teams with product analysis, market segmentation, positioning, strategy and branding guidance.