Anytime you start seeing LinkedIn articles about a “paradigm shift” within corporate America you need to be prepared for platitudes and buzzwords. LinkedIn cannot resist catchphrases, and it’s gotten so bad that people can write entire articles mocking the trendiest terms. Guru is a perennial favorite, and recently we’ve started hearing all about disruptors and game changers. Next year we’re probably in for a session on flearning – failing while learning or learning while failing – either way a useful concept with an annoying name.
One more of these buzzwords, a “paradigm shift” all of its own is People Operations. This is juxtaposed to the traditional Human Resources. HR, seen as the old guard, is vilified as something that seeks the status quo. Rather than using BIG data and new insights, traditional HR just seeks to prevent ethical breaches and maintain the minimum level of employee satisfaction to keep people around. Contrasted with People Operations, which supposedly uses new insights and sources of data to maximize employee effectiveness and build real relationships, HR is ineffective.
The idea of People Ops is traced to Google, where the department is called POPS. It’s no surprise that Google’s culture spawned the marriage of data and HR. Laszlo Bock, SVP of Google’s POPS division stated in his book “Work Rules!” that “At Google, conventional business language wasn’t well-regarded. ‘HR’ would be viewed as administrative and bureaucratic. In contrast, ‘operations’ was viewed by engineers as a credible title, connoting some actual ability to get things done.” Eschewing the bureaucracy and legal back covering of HR led to substantive cultural changes. As a reaction against the traditionally top heavy administrative culture of so many businesses, POPS brought the data in and focused on building real relationships within and throughout the organization.
What’s the Difference?
Greenhouse – a People Operations firm attempting to ride this wave – identifies four major differences between traditional HR and People Ops: (POPS link with chart)
Informing vs. Consulting – Traditional HR is given goals and metrics to meet by upper management and is delegated tasks. Contrast this with the new people teams. Which are brought into high level decision making and offer valuable feedback. This is also reflected in how they interact with other departments and individuals, taking a more consultative role rather than demanding compliance.
Reacting vs. Deliberating – Instead of simply reacting to issues as they come up, be they legal or ethical, People Ops is clued into the organization’s strategy and thinking, offering preemptive solutions and creating programs before problems arise.
Tactics vs. Strategy – Rather than checking boxes off a list given by a manager, people teams engineer incentives and programs that will encourage the behavior the organization’s strategy needs. Being integrated with top level decision making allows for proactive planning, rather than cleaning up messes as they occur.
Narrow Approach vs. Holistic Approach – Typically, HR has a very narrow field of view, seeing only the things that have traditionally been within their purview. POPS seeks to get beyond this and integrate performance management functions with the rest of the organization, understanding how the people inside a business influence each aspect of it.
It should be obvious here that integration is a major part of People Operations. Of course the way in which a company manages its people should be tied into everything else, because everything is tied to people!
Times Are Changing…
This evolving thinking can be seen in other changing practices amongst performance management professionals as well. Consider the recent fate of the annual performance review, long despised by managers and employees alike. This monster finally seems to be on its way out. The knowledge economy is slaying it, as companies hire inexperienced college grads and mold them into skilled advisors, largely through a more informal, personal process that requires flexibility that annual reviews and strict bonus structures can’t allow for.
An article in the Harvard Business Review identifies one of the other major issues with traditional performance management methods – they are backward facing. As companies come to focus more and more on agility and rapid innovation employees are called on to do a wider array of tasks and jump from project to project. Outside obvious issues that transcend any one project, there is less and less reason to focus on the nitty gritty of a specific task that was completed six months ago.
As barriers between managers and employees continue to come down and the workplace become more egalitarian, conversations can happen as they need to. Employees feel freer to question their bosses and seek the feedback they need while managers enjoy better, more open communication with their team members. All of this creates the kind of environment where problems and concerns can be addressed as they happen. The backward looking style of performance management is simply unnecessary in these sorts of companies.
Not Quite Yet…
Of course, opponents of the changes brought on by People Ops type thinking will point to certain issues. Traditional HR is objective and legalistic for a reason, after all. Lawyers advise companies to standardize and document as much as they in order to justify any decisions that are made. This sort of paper trail is more difficult to leave with newer approaches to performance management.
Likewise, a more freeform way of doing things admittedly makes it more difficult to trace rewards and merit pay to actual individual contributions. That’s not to say there’s no way to do so, but it disconnects the action from the reward in some cases, which can cause motivational issues and bickering amongst team members. Some companies feel a strong draw to the old way of doing things for this very reason.
Time to Choose
While there are merits to each system, and traditional HR practices do tend to get unfairly lampooned by People Operations partisans, BIG leans towards the informal approach to performance management. Giving out what is needed as it is needed has produced the best results for our teams, and a flatter hierarchy that makes bosses more approachable and workers more comfortable will always produce better results. Just think back to our first post this year to see how that can have a direct influence on a company’s bottom line.
Regardless of the route a company chooses, its important to remember performance management and HR (or People Operations) is about people, not abstract line items. At the end of the day this is the only way to ensure long term success – not to mention it’s the right thing to do. Call it what you will, but HR and People Ops are about humans and people.