The simplification of work: What is HR’s role?

The simplification of work: What is HR's role?

Posted by Josh Bersin on June 30, 2015. Originally published on LinkedIn.

In our research during the Global Human Capital Trends 2015 project, we found that while more than two-thirds 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 is a new theme in business. After talking with many companies about this topic, I’ve discovered that several actions are 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 building an “end-to-end process” that prevents any bad things from happening. In HR, we see evidence of lack of design thinking over and over.

  • Performance Management practices that take days to weeks to complete.
  • 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 begrudgingly 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 program for a big telecommunications company. It was losing people after the first few months on the job because the entire job was so overwhelming, people couldn’t learn what they needed. The complex onboarding and new-hire training was also overwhelming, and “too complete” for the people being hired.

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 were 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 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
The second thing I’ve witnessed is a new management focus—not on “achieving goals” but rather on “reducing the number of goals” and learning how to “focus.” We, as high performers, 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.1 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 simplification strategy is taking engineers and putting them in front of customers; getting product managers out of the office; reducing the number of meetings; cutting out conference calls, etc.

You can help people save time by reducing the time in meetings. 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 presentations. Create new standards for emails (i.e., 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.

Adopting 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 a small percentage of what we built. Today many popular systems (YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram) only do one thing—and they work 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).

In many software companies, success is measured 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.

HR’s role—Be the productivity consultant. A “simplicity architect.”
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. (One reader responding to my previous LinkedIn articles related to this topic called this a new role: “Simplicity Architect.”2)

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 that 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.

Josh Bersin is the founder and a 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

1Krishnamoorthy, Raghu. “GE’s Culture Challenge After Welch and Immelt,” Harvard Business Review, January 25, 2015.
2See “Why We Do Need the HR Department” (LinkedIn, November 18, 2013) and “Why HR is a Force for Good” (LinkedIn, May 24, 2015).

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