How HR can lead agile teamwork to drive digital transformation

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By Phil Wainewright, diginomica

A new style of teamwork is emerging as organizations embark on their digital transformation journeys. In my view it’s fundamental to a successful outcome. It’s therefore appropriate that Slack co-founder Cal Henderson will be one of the main stage speakers at UNLEASH London in a few weeks’ time. Not only because Slack is one of the platforms enabling this new digital teamwork, but also because HR should be taking a lead in helping it take hold across an organization.

All too often, the HR team are just passengers on the digital collaboration train. A typical example comes from digital challenger bank Monzo, whose CTO Meri Williams told me about their use of Slack at the collaboration vendor’s first London conference a few months back.

It’s not unusual to find this type of teamwork in a digital startup, since agile software development teams have been pioneers of this style of working. At companies like Monzo, this pattern of very open collaboration in small, multi-disciplinary teams becomes the default right across the organization. The Slack messaging platform enables rapid decision-making for everything from product development to hiring decisions, Williams told me:

“In the past, you had to wait for a meeting where everybody was available and everybody to be okay with it. [Using Slack] if someone says, ‘I propose we do this,’ and you have ten thumbs-up and one ‘I’ve got a question’ and nobody’s saying no, you can deal with the question in the moment. Give it 24 hours, everybody sees it, and then you’re good to go.”

The fintech startup has almost completely replaced email with Slack, which acts as the primary system of record for decisions and actions. Onboarding of new hires takes place in Slack, using automated workflow co-ordinated by an intelligent agent, and other HR processes are in line for automation.

It’s rare to find HR taking a lead in establishing this form of teamwork, but one outstanding exception comes from German engineering giant Bosch, whose Senior Vice President of Global HR, Rosa Lee, spoke about their experience at last October’s UNLEASH conference in Amsterdam. She explained how the Bosch power tools division swept away a seven-layer hierarchy to create a flat matrix of 54 small teams made up of five to eleven people each. These cross-functional teams are either ‘purpose teams’ that look after specific product sets or ‘excellence teams’ dedicated to a specific competence.

To support these teams, Bosch set up an HR Lab function to create new user-centric HR products for processes such as team staffing and onboarding, individual development and team target setting. For example, traditional annual performance reviews with a manager were scrapped and replaced with a team-based process called Individual Development Dialogue (IDD). This puts the individual employee at the center of the process, Lee explains:

“The benefit of the IDD is, it’s not a manager deciding what kind of development he wants to give to me. I as an employee drive my own development dialog.

“So it’s not a once-per-year, manager-driven appraisal. It’s not an assessment. [It’s] about feedback on my contribution to the team goals.”

This move towards flatter, cross-functional team structures is much better suited to the rapid change and instant responsiveness that businesses have to deliver in today’s digital economy. It’s no surprise that many are turning to these new digital teamwork patterns in search of innovative solutions to their business challenges. But as diginomica contributor Cath Everett recently pointed out, the move towards flatter hierarchies is not without its pitfalls, citing research by the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin. As Professor Gianluca Carnabuci explains:

“Since hierarchy is deeply engrained in people’s cognitive representation of leadership, employees are likely to experience hierarchy-free organizations as thoroughly destabilizing.”

All the more reason, therefore, to ensure HR gets involved early to bring its people management skills to bear on the roll-out of these new teamwork patterns. It’s no secret that digital transformation is highly disruptive – new technology has a profound impact on existing business structures and work processes. Digital collaboration in particular requires new skills and habits that are unfamiliar to all of us. HR professionals should be ready to take a lead in promulgating these new ways of working and help make a success of digital transformation. I’ll be expanding on this theme in my session at UNLEASH London in a few weeks’ time – I hope you’ll be able to join me there.

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