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Three reflections from Bersin IMPACT 2017

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Peter Haasz

VP of Corporate Development, Culture Amp

Culture Amp was proud to sponsor IMPACT 2017 at the end of May. The annual conference from Bersin by Deloitte explores how HR, learning and talent leaders — or people geeks, as we call them — should respond to new technologies, new definitions of work, and changes in worker expectations.

Julie Rogers and Holly Bossert at Bersin IMPACT.jpg

After fascinating conversations with People leaders at the Culture Amp booth (pictured above with the awesome Holly Bossert and Julie Rogers!) and a bunch of thought-provoking conference sessions, three thoughts lingered in my mind.

1. Designing the employee experience needs to start with listening

The conference — attended by some of the most innovative companies in the world — kicked off with a real-time poll: What people challenges were keeping attendees awake at night?

I expected to hear the same old “getting a seat at the table” and “proving ROI” responses, and was thus pleased by the top response: Designing a productive and compelling employee experience. Not only is this a useful problem to solve in its own right, but if you do design a productive and compelling employee experience, you will get a seat at the table and your ROI will likely be self-evident.

The problem? 80% of companies rate their business as “highly complex” or “complex” for employees, and 40% of employees believe it is impossible to succeed at work and have a balanced family life. Josh Bersin added color to the numbers with the observation that for too many people, work is characterized by a relentless feeling of FOMO. “Did I miss that meeting? Did I miss that decision? Give me a chance to rest.”

It was relieving to note that the relationship between employee experience and long-term relevance in the market (let alone long-term competitive advantage!) has become — at least among IMPACT attendees — so uncontroversial that it’s almost not worth talking about. After all, we all get that the employees we’re speaking about are the same people who create our products, deliver our brand promises and make our business decisions.

Far more interesting then, was what to do about employee experience. What approaches are known to work, and how do we get started? When it came to these practical questions, I noticed four ideas coming up time and again:

1. Recognize that your employees are human

Humans, and by extension the human experience, are complicated and heterogeneous. The whole notion of “employee experience” is an artificial construct. Work is but one facet of life, and even within the confines of that facet, each employee’s relationship with your company has a before, and after, and an everything else. It should come as no surprise, then, that as Bersin himself observed, “In HR we need to stop trying to come up with a set of principles that are the same for everybody.”

2. Ritualize listening and understanding

Having embraced ambiguity, throw away your best practices, checklists and top-down programs. In their place, adopt curiosity, backed by a growth mindset. Celebrate when you identify questions you can’t answer. Seek not just data but genuine understanding (and empathy!) for the moments that matter to your employees, from a candidate’s first interaction with your company, through to when they become a valued alumnus.

3. Create opportunities for involvement at scale

If different people need different things and centralized action doesn’t work, the product of HR needs to be a system within which effective decentralized action can occur. Make the employee experience (both current and aspirational) a conversation throughout your organization. Provide tools for broad involvement and give managers, teams and individuals permission to experiment in local, personalized offerings.

4. Continuous feedback loops are an engine for responsiveness and growth

We heard several war stories of change programs that either failed to deliver, or failed to achieve planned results, usually because the puck had moved by the time the program was complete. The consistent advice was, instead of attempting to boil the ocean, to optimize for flow: collect feedback, understand what it means, act on what you learn, and then do it all again. Each completed cycle builds trust and involvement, making the next cycle even more impactful.

2. Your organization is an organic network of teams, whether you like it or not

Many talks, but most notably that of Atlassian’s Work Futurist Dom Price, centered around changes in what we’re optimizing for in business, and the implications for how we organize the people and the work.

With the growth of the knowledge economy, predictions of mass-automation, trends towards flatter structures, and increasingly dispersed workforces, forward-thinking organizations are shifting focus on to how to remain effective and relevant in an ambiguous and changing world.

This has little to do with efficiency (doing the same thing better and better, usually with fewer resources) and everything to do with your ability to sense and respond quickly and intelligently to things happening in and around your company.

Modern research suggests that teams (as opposed to top-down hierarchies, or individualistic free-for-alls) are the best way for organizations to achieve this outcome, but also confirms that just telling a group of people to go and be a team is insufficient. Complementary skills, diverse perspectives and commitment to a common purpose, goals and approach are table stakes.

The sad thing is, even with these basics in place, most teams don’t have what they need to be successful, as 78% of people in teams don't even trust their own teammates. Price attributes much of the responsibility to legacy systems, practices and models that get in the way of what teams actually need to develop and thrive.

The good news is that Atlassian has pulled together an open source team playbook that combines real time “health monitors” (a lo-fi way for teams to self-assess and self-manage) and “plays” (simple ways in which teams can address identified gaps).

It would be remiss of me to not also mention Culture Amp’s launch (on the last day of the conference, to much applause!) of our own Team Effectiveness diagnostic, which enables users of Culture Amp’s Employee Effectiveness module to collect, understand and act on all the feedback that teams need to be effective. We also released some interesting conclusions from our own research about what makes great teams thrive.

3. The robots are coming

A third major theme was what sophisticated new technologies and large volumes of new data mean, for the world of work generally, and more specifically for the practices of HR and organizational leadership.

Deloitte Principal Michael Gretczko introduced the distinction between “doing digital,” which he said was using technology to do the same thing you’ve always done, and “being digital,” which is using technology to transform what you do.

This distinction reminded me of the famous adage perhaps misattributed to Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Being digital is not just building faster horses — it’s changing the way we move. A tension for organizations and workers arose, Gretczko claimed, because while an increasing proportion of people are being digital in their private lives, most organizations are still only partially doing digital. Organizations should be as digital as the people who work in them, he concluded.

If more organizations “being digital” means allowing their people to be digital at work, I am supportive of Gretczko’s assertion. With this framing, being digital is all about designing systems from the employee’s perspective; moving away from thinking about automating the processes of HR and towards anchoring everything in empathy for the overwhelmed employee. It’s about using technology and data to reduce the disconnect between the freedom, agency and joy many people feel in their private lives but often do not feel at work.

However, when it came to specific examples of “being digital” I must admit I felt some went against this definition, venturing into murky waters.

For example, Diane Gherson, IBM’s CHRO, talked about their continuous listening program, which now extends beyond surveys and into monitoring of their internal messaging platforms. She shared an example of how they rode out an internal crisis by quantifying themes and sentiments of internal communications, in real-time. They knew — almost down to the hour — when their interventions had been successful and moods had swung back in their favor. I can see why this capability is attractive to leaders.

My problem with solutions like this is not based on the obvious privacy concerns. I assume IBM is forthright with employees on who can see their communications and all the different ways in which they use those communications.

But therein lies the problem: You cannot create a new audience and a new use for information without also influencing the way the communicator thinks about that information, too. This will influence what people say, at least at the margins.

In the case of continuous listening, it might be down to my own expectations. Maybe IBMers value having the conversation at scale in a way that is foreign to me. And perhaps new generations entering the workforce having grown up with vastly different experiences of public dialogue will feel differently to me.

But the use of analytics to prescribe individualized decisions across the talent lifecycle? Like who to hire and how much to pay them, and who gets which development opportunities? Don’t get me started. But that’s another blog post.

Did you attend IMPACT? I’d love to hear what you took from it, especially if you disagree with any of my observations above.

Peter Haasz is a People Geek, Product Marketer and Strategy Nerd at Culture Amp, and a bumbling father at home. He values abundance, curiosity and connectedness. You can follow Peter on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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