The Work Department - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

In the same way that we track computers, software, automobiles and other capital investments, we track people and the ways that the relate to the company.

The Work Department: The New Architecture of Work Part II

Human Resources is the outdated code name for people who happen to be employees. Built on the idea that people are objects to be manipulated, motivated, evaluated, penetrated, insinuated and decorated, the Human Resources Department acts like an inventory system. In the same way that we track computers, software, automobiles and other capital investments, we track people and the ways that the relate to the company.

There is nothing inherently interesting about a list of assets, human or otherwise. While the latest rounds of HR Technology allow us to further grade, pigeonhole and score both the asset and its fit with the job, it’s still fundamental inventory tracking. Human Resource Departments are the keepers of the list of assets. It’s every bit as strategic as the tracking lists of capital equipment.

It wasn’t always so. (And in progressive manufacturing firms, it still isn’t.)

The name is part of the problem. If the department’s job is to manage, maintain, evaluate, improve and dispose of assets, that’s where it’s focus will be: on the assets themselves and not on the work. Owning and managing the list of assets is interesting and important, it is far from strategic.

The very name “Human Resources Department” creates its own ghetto. Every asset management function is inherently divorced from the utility of those assets. Capital asset managers don’t drive the cars, use the computers, make things with the tools or operate the equipment. Similarly, Human Resource Managers don’t actually do the work or select the teams.

In fact, Human Resource Managers don’t really do much of the actual work of the company. It’s not uncommon to hear an HR conference keynote say “If you want to be strategic, become familiar with the business.” As if it were perfectly normal for a company to employ an entire cadre of people who aren’t familiar with the company’s business.

Meanwhile, it’s raining new techniques for the design of work physically, intellectually, geographically and contractually. Technological disruption is burrowing through old ideas like the gopher in Caddyshack. New ways of working and new ways of thinking about work are everywhere.

And yet, no one in the organization is responsible for these tools and techniques. There are a ton of issues that will need to be sorted, sifted and clarified over the coming years. Here are just a few examples:

  • Collaboration, applied judiciously, is a really smart idea. The technology to support it is proliferating faster than the sense with which to use it. Very few organizations will want everyone to collaborate on everything all the time. Defining usage guidelines and dispensing accumulated wisdom is an inherent part of getting it right.
  • Always On Performance reviews are virtually here. The idea that every worker needs or wants real time feedback is a little odd. What will eventually come to be is job specific feedback cycles.
  • Gamify the right thing and get a performance breakthrough. Gamify the wrong thing and wreck your company.
  • Short Messaging for Status is another powerful tool for monitoring, controlling and understanding what’s going on. Current models, which reward technology usage over clear business results will obviously fail. Routinized observation of work through high leverage junctures will be transformative.
  • Agile Methodology has broad application throughout the enterprise. It’s a way of installing automotive assembly line into intellectual work processes. The main drawback to Agile Methods is that they are rudderless and hard to control. Figuring out how to balance top down supervision and bottom-up project management will require case by case monitoring and analysis.

The core idea here is that the various elements of work are in serious flux and no one organization is charged with shepherding in the new era.

That’s why it makes sense to start thinking about the 21st Century replacement for HR as “The Work Department”. While it would continue to manage the various lists of Human Assets and their characteristics, the function would grow to include both organizational performance assessment and the design of work using the new technologies.

The Work Department is interested in optimizing the way that work gets done so that the enterprise is strengthened by the work it does. The Work Department recommends, advises, monitors, catalogs, develops, researches and deploys packages of work design that are focused on a specific task or mission.

The Work Department is a critical element in enterprise design because it unleashes the value of the Human Asset.

The New Architecture of Work Series


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