HR needs to tear up the rulebook to foster innovation

27 Sep 2017 By Steve Collins

Specialist consultants should be deployed more strategically to develop new ideas and train employees, writes Steve Collins

HR directors are supporting an extraordinary amount of change at the moment. From finding people with the right business acumen for business transformation projects through to improving digital skills and regulatory training demands, they have their work cut out.

And that’s before the full impact of Brexit becomes clear. Surveys from the Federation of Small Businesses suggest that directors expect to slow their growth and hire fewer people, but are grappling with the skills gap that will emerge. Leaders are faced with the dilemma of a recruitment freeze just when they need to invest in the skills and innovation that will move their organisation forwards. Adherence to a rigid headcount and hierarchy therefore seems flawed.

So why not turn it on its head – especially if you consider that the way we work is changing? The gig economy has come of age, catapulted by individuals’ desire for a better work-life balance. There is now a vast community of self-employed experts who are willing to work fewer hours, or intensively on a project, in return for flexibility.

Surely the uncertainty of Brexit is the opportunity HR directors need to radically change the way they design organisational structures and deploy skill. In short, they need to become more agile. IT has already broken free and done it. I see no reason that HR can’t create an organisation that is agile as a whole.

But where to start? The big consultancy firms have a model of sorts – people on benches waiting for work – but that’s not fit for today’s challenges. These people are salaried even when idle and no one can afford to employ someone who isn’t actually producing results. It’s time to look at hybrid models, where consultants wait on the sidelines ready to take on a project, but have the flexibility to pursue projects with other companies while they wait. These people could also act as a valuable training resource and innovation hub, so that they not only deliver projects but also help improve skills and incubate ideas within the organisation, without hurting any of the business-as-usual tasks.

For instance, you could employ a specialist for a finite period of time – someone who knows all about how a certain customer database technology works and how it should be set up to run social media marketing campaigns, for example – and pair them with an employee who is a novice, but understands the company’s procedures, the market dynamics and customer service models, and is willing to learn from that specialist.

Now you have an expert creating another database marketing specialist, one who can take on full-time responsibility at a fraction of the cost. Plus the training budget has a greater return on investment because the project delivers results at a faster pace than traditional training models.

I also mentioned incubation. Dare I say it, Christmas is coming and retail businesses will have plenty of ideas on how to make their brand stand out, from new ways of using social media to making customer sales journeys more slick. But often there isn’t the time, budget, headcount or skills to test ideas, so they languish. Instead, you could outsource the ideas to someone who is an expert in testing approaches and understands what will and won’t work. They will be able to achieve more in less time, draw upon their experience of working on similar projects, and help determine which bets the company should place, well in time for Christmas.

That’s another key point: business is cyclical. Brands that have teams running the marketing for seasonal trading or sponsorship assets, like the Ryder Cup or Formula 1, will have peaks and troughs. A hybrid model manages capacity and makes skills available when and where you need them.

Granted, hybrid is not a model that can be switched on overnight, but it is one that can be used to plug skills gaps and keep innovation going.

Brexit calls for some lateral thinking, and self-employed experts are keen to use their knowledge and make a real, positive difference. After all, their income and work-life balance depends on it – and, frankly, so could the futures of many British companies in the coming years.

Steve Collins is commercial director at CVM People

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