When Less is More: Making HR “Go Away”

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We’re all familiar with the issues of cognitive overload in our lives. The relentless onslaught of emails, messages, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and video news is taking more of our time every day. Research shows we now spend up to 6 hours a day checking email, which makes me wonder when we have time do everything else.

In the book “The Attention Merchants,” author Tim Wu describes how advertisers have stolen our attention since the 1800’s, and explains that the science of attracting our animal instincts has been going on for a long time. The “snake oil” market, which was actually a product sold by hucksters around the turn of the century, became the ad industry, and has now led to social media tools which shrewdly take our time in ways we never thought possible.

In our world as HR, business, and learning leaders, we have to think about this problem seriously. None of our new development programs or talent practices will stick if people can’t pay attention. In fact our new High Impact Leadership research actually proved statistically that companies that “reduce cognitive overload” through clarity of decision-making and matrix management far outperform their peers in financial results.

The corporate learning market has been radically impacted by this problem. As I discuss in the SHRM article “The Corporate Learning Market Takes A Turn,” the $4.5 billion Learning Management Systems market is under attack, primarily because these products were built in a time when there weren’t so many learning options. Today we find video learning programs from hundreds of online providers, MOOCs, LinkedIn, and thousands of subject matter experts. Coupled with articles, online books, and blogs, the learning industry itself has become afflicted with “too many things to look at.” This is why curation platforms like Degreed, Pathgather, EdCast, and new tools like Axonify, Grovo, and Fuse threaten to disrupt the space.

Think about a simple idea like “employee communications.” How do you manage it when there is so much to talk about? The days of a simple employee newsletter or simple employee portal are going away (I get at least 20 internal newsletters a week here at Deloitte), becoming replaced by new video communication systems like Guidespark and new platforms like ConnectMe and others to help bring together a curated employee experience.

The word “curation” was probably the word of the year in 2015 or so. Today I think even the concept of curation is out of date: we need machine intelligence and predictive analytics (“people like me will most likely click on X”) to sort this all out. We now read about false news on social media and even companies like Facebook and Google are struggling to figure out how to make relevant content easier to find.

We also need to rethink the concept of HR technology as a “tool” or “application,” and re-imagine it as a “plugin” or “bot.” Many of the hottest new tools for feedback, goal management, and wellness now come to market as plugins to Outlook or Slack, features of a corporate app, or simply “micro-services” we add to other applications. The days of every vendor building a “destination app” are over, we all have too many apps and messaging systems – lets move all the HR “stuff” into our existing environment to save us time.

For us in the leadership, talent, and HR world, we simply have to “do less.” As I discuss in the 2017 HR Technology Disruptions report we just published, now is the time to carefully study every program, website, and app you build – and take away all the clutter you can. This will force you to figure out what is essential and what is noise.

I had a meeting with one of the most successful software companies in the world a few months ago (this company developed mobile apps from some of the world’s biggest brands), and the VP of engineering told us how they succeed. They take a small team, they study user needs carefully, they build the smallest app they can, and then they take 70% of that and shut it off. He is left with the “essence” of what users need, and usually from there they uncover the truly valuable interactions people want, and build up.

As we get ready for the holidays and think about all our plans for the coming year, let’s take some time and figure out how to do less. We need to make HR solutions “go away” and just appear as we need them. We’ll all be a little bit happier if we do.

(Stay tuned for our “Predictions for 2017” coming soon.)

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin writes on the ever-changing landscape of business-driven learning, HR and talent management. His favorite topics include strategic talent management, creating high-impact learning organizations, and how organizations drive business change and competitive advantage through talent strategy and technology.

One thought on “When Less is More: Making HR “Go Away”

  1. Very thought provoking post. Having worked in a large corporation at the beginning of my career, nearly 30 years ago, I can tell you that much has changed in both approach and outcome. But what has remained constant is that people are as busy as ever. Among many changes, the proliferation of speedy technology has streamlined how we receive and send data, which has resulted in much more insular connectivity. The majority of interactions are no longer in-person. I remember when I had my first Apple workstation and colleagues gathered around my desk as we worked on our strategic plan, through the night, creating a well-honed and collaborative document. In 2016, that would be done singularly, at one’s workstation, with collected input (via email). On the upside, we had a highly collaborative plan, which made it rich (we were used to working in close proximity then, since in-person meetings were standard operating procedure then). The biggest change I’ve noticed today is that technology has created efficiency, and that efficiency has served to heighten output expectations, not reduce stress levels. As you pointed out, people spend an average of six hours a day responding to emails, because there’s a built-in presumption that what you receive, you will process. If we change that dynamic or fine tune what makes it to the inbox, I believe that would change the game. Given human nature, that time would be diverted to producing more. On final anecdote — I remember hearing that my great grandmother would have a laundry day. An entire “work” day dedicated to laundry! That would entail spot cleaning clothes, filling a basic with soapy water, running the clothes through the ringer washer (hand feeding through a tight, moving set of “rings” to remove the water). Then again to rinse. With the advent of the modern washer, people were freed to do other tasks. Did it improve the workload? No, since nobody used the newfound time to relax!

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