The Evolution of Standardization

So my wife has been on a homemade donut kick lately.  That’s right, every weekend I get to sample another dozen donuts.  Those of you who read often know that my constant struggle to stay fit must work really well when there is a new batch of donuts sitting around the house every Saturday morning.  We’ve got the chocolate dipped, the glazed, the orange glazed.  She says she is going to try a custard filled next.  I’ve sampled a quite a few dough recipes so far.  It started pretty poorly.  She tried to source a recipe off of some random website that sounded reasonable.  The dough turned out to be a bit too firm and chewy.  Therefore, the next go was from an authoritative cookbook by a guy who is a famous executive pastry chef and happens to have a cookbook exclusively about donuts.  This went a bit too far, and the dough was possibly too airy.  Not to be too Goldilocks, but my wife then blended the recipes until she found just the right combination of (turns out it was milk content).  She went from kinda random, to expert driven, and finally figured out somewhere in the middle was going to actually work out.

We’ve been experimenting with the idea of standardization for decades, but more so in the last 15 years as our organizations have gotten more global and those global populations have kept increasing.  The evolution started with zero standardization.  it was really step one as global organizations just did whatever they wanted to.  There were shadow HR systems everywhere, country specific processes, and inconsistent delivery to the business.  Local HR organizations provided generally adequate service to the business, but corporate HR organizations couldn’t get simple head counts let alone anything that was actually useful.

Many organizations have moved to the next stage of evolution, the corporate mandate.  Corporate HR organizations tried to make some sense of this mayhem by implementing core HR systems and mandating that all countries around the globe had to have their employees entered into the common HR system.  This did nothing except ensure that country HR double entered employee data but kept their own individual way of processing transactions.  In almost all cases, the shadow systems (usually spreadsheets) still existed.  The problem is that most organizations think that there is a way to make the corporate mandate work, when really this is as much a failure as the mayhem that existed before.

We’ve also gone down the road of “the only modifications to standard processes will be for local compliance needs.”  Basically, we’ve told the local HR organizations that the local practice is not acceptable and we’re not going to cater to them unless there is a law involved.  Personally, I can’t think of much that less engaging.  Some things make sense, like if we’re transferring an employee, it should not be that different across the world.  Especially if transfers are across country borders, we really do want some consistency.  But when we get to things like how managers work with employee performance or the allocation of spot bonuses, there will often be some local flair that could be important.

What I’ve found is that the corporate HR mandate is just as dysfunctional as the mayhem of no standardization.  This is because the corporate mandate does not solution for local needs in any way, or even admit that local needs might be different.  It’s a totally selfish view by corporate HR organizations that the need of central authority, consistency, governance and data override everything else.  If we treated our personal relationships this way, we’d have no friends.  Luckily, we seem to have some sons socially in our personal lives.  Not so much in business though.

Here’s my solution.  At the end of the day, it’s about the business.  We need to let the in-country businesses decide that they can standardize and want to standardize.  This actually means de-standardizing for them.  In some cases, it’s as simple as providing them with the localizations they need (and that we promised them for compliance reasons, but for some reason we never came through on that promise).  In other cases, it’s giving in on the one extra level of approvals they want for the salary increase process.  In simple terms though, you almost never get what you want by mandate, you get it by partnership.

These days, the new HR systems all pretty much come with packaged localizations, so it’s not like the old days when you had to purchase the country pack and install the thing.  I’ll admit I’m not a fan of massive process customizations for every country – this becomes impossible to manage.  I’m really not a fan of anything other than the minor token tweak.  What we’ve found over time however, is giving in on one or two battles that are genuinely important to the local business will leave you from ten other battles that could have happened.  At the end of the day, it’s about finding that middle ground that gets you the desired results for both corporate HR and the local business at the same time.

Strategy without Technology is Stupid

As of about 2003, I don’t think I could live my life without my devices.  Back then it was the blackberry and laptop.  Now it’s my Android phone, iPad and laptop.  If I lose my phone, I’m basically dead in the water – no contact with the outside world… I’m totally cut off.  When I’m waiting for the train, I’m reading my daily dose of news.  When I’m walking between the train and the office, I’m reading the last 5 emails that came in while I was on the train and keeping up to the minute.  When it’s after hours and I don’t know where I’m meeting my friends for dinner, I simply navigate to one of them using Google Latitude.  If you took all my devices away, I’m not sure I can return to 1999.

Here’s my pitch when I do an introduction to a new client, “I’m an expert in all things HR Service Delivery, but focus on HR technology.”  There was a time when this made sense.  I’m not sure it works anymore.  The point is that when we talk about HR Service Delivery, most of our services are now delivered through a technology.  We worry less and less over HR coordinator/generalist types who shepherd processes through for managers, and shared services people who make sure that calls get answered or paper gets entered.

Let’s face the facts about HR Service Delivery strategy.  Our employees and managers don’t actually want to talk to us anymore.  They are used to booking their own travel, entering their own time and expenses, looking up budgets in the financial systems.  Their personal lives are all about going to and their iPhones.  If their lives revolved around getting stuff for themselves instead of asking us to help them with a promotion, they would be much happier.

So why do we end up helping these managers so much?  Mostly it’s because more than half of the companies we work for have technologies that suck.  Yep, I said it… your HRT sucks.  If you really looked into your strategy (which probably has a lot to do with engaging employees/managers, making HR more effective/efficient, delivering better information… you’d quickly figure out that your HRT is actually the roadblock.  Put in something that is so easy to use that managers don’t have to ask you how to do something, and you’ll have happier employees who use the tools and get things done.

I’ve spent a lot of time guiding clients to their strategies, and also looking at the strategies that other consultants put together.  We all do the same things, we figure out where the business is and how we align HR to it, and then we figure out how to place technology to meet those HR and talent requirements.  It’s all a bit top down though.  What we need is a bottoms up approach that goes hand in hand with what we’ve been doing all along.  Figure out what the business needs from technology, but also what our employees want.  If we meld this together, we’ll find out that the technologies we deploy are more aligned with everything we need.

For 2013, it might be time to update my tagline.  “I’m an HR Technology specialist who is great at applying it to HR Service Delivery.”



Every now and then I think I have a thought that is pure genius. This is not one of them. Instead, every now and then I have a thought that simply entertains me for longer than it should. This is definitely one of those.

I have not yet figured out the appropriate pronunciation for this. It might either be HR-ass, or harass. Either way, the thought popped up in my head while pondering the wonders of HR outsourcing. I mean, if we think about HRO, all we are really talking about is HR as a service, right? You subscribe to a service whether it is payroll or benefits outsourcing, or technology and call centers. You expect that the vendor will keep up with best practices, update their technologies as needed, have the right staffing ratios as your organization grows (or not), and maintain all the service levels you have negotiated. It really does sound like HR as a Service to me. It is unfortunate that HRO organizations have not adopted the acronym however.

We talk about it as HR service delivery after all, so why do we call the relationship HR outsourcing? Sure we have outsourced the delivery of parts of the service chain to someone else, but at the end of the day, it really does not matter if the service is internally or externally delivered. It’s simply a component of HR services that our employees and managers expect to get from us. What matters most to us is that the employees get the best experience possible in a scalable and cost effective solutions. (ok, so they really don’t care about the last 2). I mean, let’s think about the value proposition that HRO gives us. They can scale better, they can add technology with more agility, and and they are supposed to be rurally good at executing their core.

So next time you have a HR transformation project that includes HRO, I dare you. No, I double dare you. Brand your project HRaaS. (come on, I at least got a chuckle out of you, right? I really prefer not to laugh alone.)

Absurdity (Parental Advisory)

I love San Francisco.  It’s a great city to live in, with lots of food, plenty to do, and great places to ride a bike.  It also happens to be quite the interesting place for all sorts of reasons.  I could point to the Golden Gate Park, numerous museums, beautiful hills and neighborhoods – but I’m not.  Instead, I’m going to talk about naked people.  You see, SF happens to be a place where it’s legal to be naked, basically anywhere in the city.  My neighborhood bus stop is affectionate known as the “buff stop” and of course what would we do without the Barebucks (Starbucks) a couple blocks away.  This might be one level of absurdity, but to each their own.  The second level of absurdity is this:  San Francisco actually felt the need last year to pass a law stating that the naked people could not sit on public surfaces without a towel between them and the thing they happen to be sitting on.  When all of this happened, my first response was, “people let their skin come in contact with random foreign objects in public city spaces?”  Yeah, I’m the guy that washes his hands at least 20 times a day.  The point being that you’d think there are some things you just don’t need to tell people.

This doesn’t always hold true.  We’ve all heard of companies where the COE wants to approve every new hire that comes through the door.  We in HR know that the CEO adds no value to this, and that after 2 weeks the CEO has stopped to even bother looking at whoever it is s/he is approving.  We’ve all heard of companies where VP’s need to approve every compensation increase, again knowing that there is very little value being added except during the major exceptions.  Once again, I’m not sure if it’s more absurd for a VP to approve an increase of even one penny, or for HR not to have been a bit more persuasive against it.

It seems to me that all manner of obvious things happen in our organizations – but in this case, we’re doing things that we obviously should not.  And we shouldn’t have to create policy to prevent this absurdity, but often the absurdity will happen if we don’t.  The problem is that our organizations seem to like creating waste – wasted time and effort.  In the case of the CEO, it is also the diagnosis of a far more serious problem:  s/he does not trust HR/TA to get the right candidates, nor does s/he trust the manager to hire the right person at the right price.  We in HR are sometimes put in no-win situations.  Telling the CEO not to approve hires is both something we should not have to do (why is the CEO even thinking about it), but it also can put us in the light of not being serious about cost controls if we’re not careful.  Regardless of all that, these are conversations we need to have if we want to be true partners at the executive level.

For the record, I don’t hang out at Barebucks or the Buff Stop.

Also, hoping you realize how long it took me to find an image for this post.  :-p


Rules of the Other Road

The other road?  What other road?  The skinny 2-wheeled road of course.  Here is the idea:  for a cyclist to be safe when you are cruising down the road at 30 miles per hour, a guy 2 inches to your left, right, back and front, there are a couple basic things to keep in mind.

  1. Don’t hit the brakes.  At 30 miles per hour and a guy 2 inches behind you (true tailgating), hitting the brakes means that you’re going to have a very sore butt and back from impact.  When you do hit the brakes, usually it’s accompanied by some rather foul language that reverberates all the way back through the pack.
  2. Ride in a straight line (a.k.a. follow your line).  Don’t swerve, don’t move right or left unexpectedly.  I usually even check under my arm to make sure nobody is within striking distance before I “change my line.”
  3. Ride efficiently.  You can always see the guys to avoid riding close to.  They are the ones that are pedaling with their legs, arms, torso, and everything else.  Perfect efficiency is a relaxed and still upper body while your lower body does all the work.

I tell you all of this for one reason only.  HR is a finely orchestrated bicycle dance.  We can work together and radically increase our speed by drafting.  Or we can bring all of us down together as well (this latter option is often quite painful).  We often don’t realize the integration we have with each other – that we are only a small cog in the HR process.  If we look at things end to end, it’s quite a bit more complex.

A quick snapshot reveals that how compensation constructs jobs can make life really easy or hard for recruiting.  The quality of the recruiters’ work makes life easy/hard for HRSS (shared services) when the person is hired.  HRSS makes life easy/hard for payroll and benefits based on the accuracy of the data entry.

The thing is that we understand who is downstream from our piece of the puzzle, but I’m not sure we always care enough.  When the recruiter is told to slam someone into the hire process, HRSS is often left to pick up the pieces.  We sometimes don’t even know what all the ramifications are for months.  The problem is that we (in this example recruiting) did something unexpected, and forced an action on someone else.  At the end of the day, we probably caused more problems by deviating from our expected course than we solved by rushing someone into the organization.

I’m not saying it’s always bad to deviate.  Sometimes it’s necessary.  When I hit the brakes at speed, it usually comes with a simultaneous shout, “SLOWING!”  When I change the line I’m riding, I usually check under my arm (think of this as checking your bicycle blind spot) and quickly flick a wrist so everyone knows I’m moving over.  The point is, unexpected deviations are bad.  Planned and coordinated deviations when really necessary can prevent a log of angst.


Rules of the Road

Every time I go to another country, I’m amazed at how tame driving in the US actually is.  People here obey lane laws, there is a fairly strict code of right of way (even if half the drivers don’t truly understand it), and for the most part people are patient.  For those of you unbelievers, think about it this way: even though most of us roll through stops signs, if there is a 4 way stop, we’ll wait our turn.  Compare this to driving in other countries, whether in Thailand, India, Mexico, ah hell, let’s throw Rome in there for kicks.  Compared to the good ‘ol US of A, it’s utter mayhem out there.

Take for example the simple act of staying in your own lane.  In many countries, if you have 2 motorcycles or scooters hanging about, they are going to squeeze into the tightest spot possible.  There is a good chance they are not going to stop at signs and lights, but just roll through if there is any opportunity at all.  What ends up happening is the minor road anarchy that occurs means everyone is on the lookout, weaving, and dodging everyone else.

I’m absolutely convinced that a disciplined approach to driving actually yields not only more speed, but also less effort and increases in safety.  If you stay in your lane, perhaps you can’t squeeze 50 motor vehicles into a space the size of a dime, but you can be far less worried about what is going on around you.  Therefore, the elimination of risking killing those around you means significantly less stress (effort), far fewer accidents that will cause a full stoppage, and of course, the overall speed of the road increases from 30 miles per hour to 60.

The same goes for business process (y’all knew this as coming).  Mayhem causes stress, more risk for full stoppages, and actually slows things down.  Many of you will react with, “But we don’t have mayhem in our organization, we’re just not as disciplined.”  I’m here to deliver the bad news – that’s mayhem folks.

My first ever manager after college used to tell me the same 2 things over and over again:

  1. There is right and there is wrong, and there is a lot less grey than we thing there is.
  2. If it’s really right, it’s actually right 100% of the time without deviations.  Stick to your guns.

Ok, I might not be as sold on the idea that there is very little grey, but I certainly think we make exceptions far too often.  We allow our business partners to sway our processes, to have one-off reports, to feel like we have to be at their full service, beck and call.  We forget that the COE half seriously states that people are the most important asset in the organization.  We allow for “The Business” to make us feel that maximizing our processes around people and talent will get us that one huge sale.  But we forget that enforcing the discipline of our HR practices will yield larger long term results than just that one sale.

Mayhem is bad.  It one of those truths that is fundamental to our universe unless you are a physicist (when chaos is a cool thing).  But being disciplined is hard – to do what we know to be right, not deviate, and grow our HR practices takes true leadership and purpose.


The Lowest Common Denominator

I’ve been trying to sell people on the Google Android operating system for smart phones lately.  I’m not sure that it’s really about the Android versus the iPhone for me – more likely it’s the fact that I’m a long time Verizon user and won’t leave – since Apple is not currently available to me, I get the Android.  However, the user and market perceptions of the iPhone versus Android seem to be a significant difference in philosophy.  This is odd since both companies are basically known for ease of use (each in its own way).  Google is well known for the “single field search engine page finds all”, and Apple is well known for the “single dial does all” iPod.  But in the world of phones, Apple still caters to usability, and Google seems to cater to people who want more advanced ability to customize their environment.  Either way, until this latest departure, both organizations seemed content to treat all of their end users as idiots – and it worked.  They were able to bundle incredible functionality in a single element.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on demos of core HR platforms, a variety of talent management and learning systems.  It occurred to me that each category of software seemed to have varying differences of usability between their different types.  While my thinking is in no way complete since I have not actually seen that many vendors of late, I’m wondering if indeed there might be something to the following usability argument.

Core HR platforms have in general  catered to just the HR user community.  In effect, these are generally specialists and power users of HR systems.  Next in line, talent management systems rolled out HR technology to employee and manager populations, but most of the major interactions in the first couple of waves of TM were manager based.  These technologies really stewarded managers through employee, compensation and succession review processes.  Lastly, learning systems seem to be the most employee focused.  Managers have proportionally less interaction (compared to TM) while employees actively look up courses, participate in learning, and manage their transcripts.

My theory is that learning systems will tend to evolve the fastest when it comes to highly usable systems (again, assuming that legacy systems can adapt quickly, or newer platforms will already be there).  Basically, the more end users you have, the less room for error you have when it comes to creating simple transactions.  Lets say for learning, you have at least 5 times as many end users as with most core talent processes.  (I realize that many of you will want to tell me that employees participate in reviews and talent profiles, but come on, I think we can all admit that most TM processes are really focused on the manager in today’s world).  Similarly, core HR has about 20 times fewer users than TM and 100 times fewer users than learning.

Basically, what I’m saying is that we all complain about the usability of some systems.  Some vendors are burdened by legacy technology that they simply can’t get out of.  but other vendors who seem to be more capable of advancing usability have not.  My theory is that when we talk about core HR, vendors simply have not had to make systems significantly more usable.

Burnt to a Crisp

I have a friend who happens to have a particular way of ordering steaks. This is interesting for a number of reasons. First, I’m not sure how many Indian guys order steaks. Perhaps Gautam can shed some light on this for me. (I think my friend lives in Goa if that makes a difference). Second however, he orders steak in a way that just kills me every time. “I’d like it well done, really well done, like… burnt to a crisp well done.” I don’t really understand this. I mean, if you’ve cooked it this much, you’ve cooked any texture and flavor out of this thing. Why bother ordering a $40 piece of meat if you’re just going to kill it for the second and third time?

We do the same thing in HR technology. Not necessarily overcooking things, but definitely going overboard. We tend to look at the HR technology world in extremes. We’re either 100% vanilla, or we allow customization to the point of burden and we can’t support the application anymore. We like to support either lean HR processes that are sustainable and scalable, but we forget the impact on our end user customers, or we support those end user customers to such a degree that the view on sustainability and scalability is forgotten except in philosophical terms.

Unfortunately, our HR technology utilization in these terms is not usually driven by ourselves. Most often, we have a corporate philosophy that says we should take care of our customers at all costs (or take care of efficiency at all cost). We often are held hostage by those philosophies, but then 5 years down the road, we’re bought into them as well, and tell vendors and external consultants that we can’t possibly change.

In almost every consulting engagement, I do what I call a set of “sliders.” A display of extremes, and where the current state and future state lies within these extremes. In almost all cases, organizations don’t sit on either end of the extremes, but in a happy medium somewhere towards the middle. For example, in my “face to face contact vs. self service” slider, most organizations weigh in on the side of wanting to have more self service than face to face contact with their employees. However, at the same time, even HR technologists who answer my surveys intuitively know that there is a balance to be served, and that the answer is not all the way to one end of the bar, but a mix of approaches that combines both types of interaction. What is more telling, is that non HR technologists also get it, but know they have an equally hard time being centrists in practice. As I’ve built a few years of these “sliders” my experience is that organizations want to be in the middle, but the historic philosophical approach is usually an extreme, and that is a hard past to get away from.

At the end of the day, we often implement what we are most comfortable with, in a manner that continues to make us comfortable. We realize that our HR technology approach is deeply influenced by how the rest of the HR organization interacts with the enterprise, but we should also understand that we an equal or larger influencer on how HR services are delivered to the organization. I think as HR technology organizations go, we should try to start exercising some of this influence, rather than sitting back and “taking it.”

For me, I order my steaks a perfect medium. (sometimes a medium rare).

HRO is not Dead

HRO has seemed dead for at least a couple of years now.  A couple years ago it was almost all I was writing about, and there were mega deals to be had every other month.  All consultants were talking about to their clients was deciding if they should outsource or not.  At the time, HRO was really the domain of the Fortune 100, maybe the Fortune 250, those who had the financial ability to spend that type of money on mega HRO.  Unfortunately for the HRO industry, outsourcing HR was not necessarily as easy as ITO or FAO.  The people factor sitting in the background was actually a factor that should have been sitting in the foreground, and large outsourcers who were used to technology or financial transactions were not as able to translate their business into HR.

We’ve lost track of HRO, but it’s really not that dead.  The fact is that while the mega HRO deals were going on, we figured out what works and what doesn’t.  What works are the things that always did.  Outsourcing technology, payroll and benefits.  But we’ve always outsourced that stuff.  I think the one new area that is starting to get outsourced is RPO.  We’re seeing more outsourcing in the sourcing area of recruiting.  As usual though, we’ve learned that it’s the transactional areas that are perhaps less strategic.   For payroll, wage and hour policy is still usually held internally, although the outsourcers are really the experts on compliance.  Benefits design is pretty much in-house, and the transactions are easily outsourced, and for recruiting, sourcing can be removed but the decision making is left for the hiring managers.

In the last wave of HRO, we started to see organizations start to outsource stuff like talent.  I’m not quite sure how this worked beyond technology, but apparently people were doing it.  As the economy comes back in 2010, I think I’m expecting transaction outsourcing to come back in a major way.  Organizations will be coming out of cost containment and looking to spend on implementations that allow them to capture more cost savings that they could not spend the money implementing in 2009.

For more on BPO and a couple comments reflecting my own here, see Phil Fersht’s blog here.