I Alone

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I alone can’t do it.  Can you? 

After all, it’s hard to have diversity without people. Not even the most adept cost cutters and top-tier value engineers have figured out how to achieve diversity without people.  Not to put it past some to try…but everyone needs someone to help them succeed. 

Adaptive Behaviors

Differences in people and between teams within organizations should be embraced.  Awareness, adaptation, and inclusion are the catalysts through which the raw materials of diversity are set in motion. No amount of stand alone best-in-class attributes will yield an advantage for your company or organization on its own. Someone still has to put it all together. Or at least try.

Adaptive behavior has become a mode of corporate necessity. Survivors at all levels of the organization’s hierarchy continue to exhibit remarkable adaptability. It has become considerably more difficult to navigate within organizational waters. Like never before, survival out in the swirl and white water chop of Corporate America requires not just having the right set of paddles but constantly finding new ways to use them.

This illustrates both the spirit and essence of adaptive behaviors. If individuals can do it, why do many organizations come up short in this area? Maybe organizations do not automatically equal the sum of their parts?

Definitional Subjectivity

Despite attempts to standardize, defining diversity remains a relative and subjective pursuit. Taking a closer look at diversity through a lens that sees beyond the word’s most obvious and traditional definitions is a necessary first step. The main point here is that the definition of diversity most often depends on who is defining it.

For example, Augusta National Golf Club’s diversity for years has been and perhaps still is best defined by its exclusion. With the exception of a few notable inclusions, Augusta has somewhat infamously been able to rest on its status as a private organization as it defines diversity or its lack thereof. Each and every May, TV cameras, spectators, and advertising dollars still flock to these sacred grounds of golf. Membership must have its privileges after all.

In relative obscurity when compared to our Augusta National example, business owners, organizations, and leaders within them also tend to define diversity in their own terms. I guess that’s how they know when they get it right. While they get some help from the legal system and regulatory agencies, diversity that goes beyond the tenets of the U.S. Constitution is definitionally inconsistent and subjective.

Broader Context

There are many aspects to diversity, inclusion and adaptability. And with these aspects come implications for organizational effectiveness and corporate life.  While the Augusta example walks along the cart paths of race, ethnicity, and gender, issues of diversity in organizations are characterized by more subtle and in many cases less fundamental differences.

After all, it’s not enough just to hire people whose presence on the employee rolls allows HR to check off the necessary boxes on EEO reports. Thinking that employing the best and brightest from every walk of life and a variety of different cultures is the end is like thinking that  the world’s finest food ingredients will magically assemble themselves into the perfect meal.

Obviously, it just doesn’t work that way. For as a chef must do in the kitchen, an organization must similarly take proper care and measure to achieve the successful blend of its handpicked ingredients. Without careful attention, the result ends up being something  less than the sum of its parts.

Inability to Blend

It can be argued that most organizations demonstrate an inability to optimize blend. And that failing to do so hurts organizational effectiveness.

Do employees receive the right diversity cues from their organization and its leaders?

Is there organizational acceptance for sharing ideas that may differ from the organization’s conventional wisdom? 

Does the organization stand by as managers consistently fill their teams with people just like them?

Are employees allowed to be themselves?

When enough of the answers to these questions or questions like these turn out to be, “no”, “never”, “not enough”, or “not really” , the resulting environment is almost certain to carry with it a real or perceived political risk associated with engaging in behaviors that can actually strengthen organizational effectiveness.  It is downright ironic from an organizational behavior point of view because the enterprise essentially robs itself of basic connections needed to make its diversity current flow.

Consequently, the collective sum in organizations like these will not add up.

Diversity Disconnects

Some amount of diversity leakage occurs when employees feel that they are not allowed to be themselves when performing their particular work role. If employees do not feel comfortable being themselves at work, the organization loses potential contribution and connectivity. In a classic statistical sense , over-constraining variables results in suboptimization of the output variable.

If the organization does not send a message that it values some amount of constructive differences within its walls, then the individuals within these walls will be unlikely to value differences. They will become less likely to express themselves or interact with those who they perceive might be just a little bit off the corporate mark. Consequently, the connections that trigger the sparks of innovation remain disconnected.

Rolling It Up

Diversity disconnects like this very naturally and effortlessly roll up to departments, business units, and divisions. They parallel organizational structure with uncanny accuracy. If one functional discipline or business unit always dominates, the attributes of others are suppressed. The largest animals in the jungle continue to be fed while others possessing other very useful and adaptive attributes are left to compete for the scraps.

In the animal kingdom, these may include possessing lightning speed, having acute night vision, or being able to fly.  In a corporate sense, these attributes may center around technology, customer service, or market adaptations. If budget dollars and other resources always flow to the department or business unit with the biggest clout or most current success, the environment becomes primed for complacency and stagnation.

Myopic self-imposed barriers become limiting factors for organizational adaptation as the big dogs keep doing the same things and fail to innovate. This becomes extremely dangerous because this is exactly when disruptive market behavior of competitors can go unnoticed. Ostriches with their heads in the sand have trouble seeing what’s coming at them. By the time they look up, it may well be too late.

Benefits of Blend

All this said, it is obviously extremely difficult to run an organization in a way that maximizes diversity through adaptive behaviors at individual, department, business unit, and enterprise levels.  After all, this must be achieved while at the same doing such mundane and existential things as protecting market share and delivering required financial returns. It becomes a full-time job on top of what already is one.

For a corporate culture to even make any movement toward this idyllic amalgamic state, its leaders must nudge it forward. To do so requires some key people at the top holding the belief that the “benefits of blend” outweigh homogenous efficiencies. After all, business does not and should not see itself primarily in terms of a social mission. To be sure, business is a capitalist pursuit, and success is its imperative.

In the end, this really is what we’ve been talking about here all along – corporate success achieved through organizational effectiveness. Diversity is not an end state. What’s important is getting the benefits of blend. I alone can’t do it. Can you? 

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Even HR

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Short-term pressure for financial results is intense. Companies turn to outsourcing as they try even harder to hit their numbers.  All company functions and departments have fallen under increased scrutiny – even HR.

First Friend

A recent WSJ article (“Companies Say No to Having an HR Department”) highlights this point by providing a few examples of where centralized Human Resources departments have been eliminated (link). Part of the article’s appeal no doubt lies in implied irony and the fact that the mere mention of HR has broad appeal to anyone who has ever had a job.

In most cases, HR is the first line of contact for a job candidate.  In this sense, HR at least temporarily becomes the face of the company. Once a new employee is hired, HR maintains a daily presence in the employee’s life by shepherding the on boarding and orientation. Be it benefits enrollment, relocation assistance, or clarification of work rules and policies, most employees quickly come to view HR as their first friend in a new neighborhood.

Outsourcing Candidate

The varied nature of HR activities makes it a very interesting candidate for outsourcing. Under the outsourceable category, there exists a transactional piece of HR that can be serviced via self-service employee portals. Employees get used to, and may actually in many cases prefer, having their benefits and other employee data impersonally reside somewhere out “in the cloud”. So far so good, but this was the easy part. The rest of the picture is not as clear. In fact, far from it.

One of the justifications cited in the article for outsourcing HR is the concept of moving HR responsibility closer to the action by decentralizing it geographically and organizationally to become an increasingly on site activity performed by departmental managers and supervisors. In my view, this flies in the face of the primary value-adds of an effective HR organization. These are consistency and structure.  As organizations grow, consistency and structure become obvious imperatives to support operations and protect the company.

Putting functions like compensation, hiring and firing, organizational development, performance appraisals, regulatory compliance, and benefits administration into the hands of line management pretty much guarantees that things very quickly turn into amateur hour with little hope for consistency and structure.  It becomes a very hard to control free for all, Wild West-like, swashbuckling, Darwinesque and Dilbert-like compilation of HR practices that can put the company and its assets at risk when placed in the wrong hands.

So, the answer to today’s question as to whether I think companies should outsource, eliminate, or decentralize their HR departments is a resounding no.  Good HR people add value and help businesses.  I have seen it first hand, so I know it’s true!

Bread and Butter

Now here’s where employees who view HR in a certain way walk right into a good old-fashioned haymaker about to be thrown by yours truly.  While appearing to be right-handed and thrown from over the top, this punch really comes from some down and dirty, out in the streets, Golden Gloves corporate experiences with HR.

“Some workers say they feel the absence of an in-house HR staff acutely, especially when it comes to bread-and-butter HR responsibilities such as mediating employee disputes and resolving pay problems.”

Bread and butter – really? Well, no – not really. In fact, stop and get a hold of yourself if you agree with that statement.

Because HR is that first friend, many employees mistakenly believe that the primary function of an HR department is to help them.  While this may be part of the service HR provides to employees who look to HR for such support, it is not from my experience the primary reason HR exists.  What many employees fail to realize is that a large part of what HR is there to do is to protect the company, its owners, and its assets.  It is certainly not the only thing HR does; however, it is arguably one of the most important.

Protectors & Informers

A great example of HR as protector can be seen by those expecting HR to prevent bullying and legal harassment.  HR is likely to address injurious behavior targeting a member of protected class because this constitutes illegal harassment.  By addressing it, HR protects the company from lawsuits, fines, and potentially costly settlements.  Absent HR perception of a legal or regulatory threat, a lot of questionable behavior goes unaddressed. Phone it in – it’s just real life in the trenches.

Enter HR as informer. Assuming confidentiality while venting to or kibitzing with HR can be risky business because at some point your information and views may be interpreted by HR as constituting part of its protective duty.  While not necessarily recognized at the time by HR or employee to have much significance, sometimes these conversations later become increasingly relevant in HR’s view of its duty to protect.

Yes, when I finally write my first best-selling business book, all major corporate functions and their associated heroes, villains, triumphs, and tragedies will be there with us -even HR.

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He’s Out!

291px-Charlie_ManuelStarting a new job is almost always better than leaving one – especially when it isn’t your choice to leave.  It’s easy to say good-bye to a jerk but a lot harder when the departed is beloved like Phillies now ex-manager Charlie Manuel.

“I never quit nothing and I didn’t resign,” says Charlie after recently being dismissed as Phillies’ field boss. Gone after bringing a championship-starved city its first World Series in 28 years back in 2008, Charlie paid the price for his team’s lack of success in the 2013 season.   It’s the classic case of the “what have you done for me lately?” and “someone needs to take the blame for this (not me!)” script playing out once again. 

Despite key injuries and the increasingly inept ways of his boss, Charlie moves on out the door, leaving behind the latest in a series of Phillies teams that truly adored him as their skipper.  Charlie was seen as a consistently positive presence who brought out the best in his players.

True enough, we are all paid to win at some level.  So with losing almost always comes consequence.  Yet it is when organizational separation occurs that we see true colors. Sports talk radio switchboards quickly lit up in eager discussion as to whether the Phillies organization handled Charlie’s dismissal appropriately. One thing that experience tells us for sure is that some organizations are incredibly bad at letting people go while others do a much better job with it.  Seldom does any organization get it completely right, but some are better than others. I think the Phillies probably fall somewhere in the middle on this one.

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