Disruptive HR : Future or Folly?

Posted: November 11, 2014 in Uncategorized



I’ll start with a little warning: use of the word disruptive can cause rolling eyes; tutting out loud and indifferent murmurings.  Or outright indignation.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea see.  It’s not everyone’s ideal way to reshape, ramp up or radicalise a profession which is constantly searching for its sweet spot.

What is it then?  Why even talk about it? Do we need it?

Let’s begin with the term disruptive.  It sits in the majority of modern linguistics with innovation.

Wikipedia says

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.

The term was coined and authored by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in his research into how some industries have survived whilst others struggled or capitulated.  The basic tenet of disruptive innovation is that the market will disrupt you ANYWAY.  We all know the stories of Kodak -v- Fuji and others; Nokia/Blackberry -v- Apple / Samsung and others.  So the theory goes that you disrupt yourself before others/the market will disrupt you.  Essentially, you NEVER get complacent, arrogant or ambivalent to change and adaptation.

So why, and how would HR become a disruptive force?  For itself as a profession and for the businesses it supports/enables.

Let’s start with disruptive HR as a way of adapting and changing the profession.  Most people I know would say HR is in need of something drastic in

  • reinventing itself and in rebuilding its reputation;
  • restoring credibility amongst its peer groups and ultimately
  • boosting its impact as a crucial, enabling element in the world of work.

The why we might need disruptive HR is pretty much a given.  Even if you have a really high performing and award winning HR function, you are probably in a disruptive mindset to not rest on those laurels and to reinvigorate your “offer” at every conceivable opportunity.

How then do we disrupt and create Disruptive HR.

Lucy Adams – ex BBC HR Director has even called her new enterprise Disruptive HR and she blogged on LinkedIn about it.  In it Lucy talks about inherent disruption so here goes.

Increasingly, the HR profession is alive to the fact that we spend too much of our time and energy complying the present and nowhere near enough on preparing our companies for a disrupted world. The pace of change that sees business models obliterated almost overnight, the ability to anticipate the need for change and to respond with ever-increasing speed, the need for different mind-sets, different skills and capabilities and to manage an increasingly disparate, multi-generational, fluid, knowledge based workforce have typically been interesting challenges set by Futurologists at our annual conference. I know from experience than as you get back to your desk having done a 12 hour day crammed with a similar number of operational meetings you know you should be having “big thoughts about the future” but exhaustion and a preoccupation with the now tends to result in the Scarlett O’ Hara response …. “I’ll think about that tomorrow”.  

The smarter organisations are already beginning to build in disruption to their people plans. We are seeing greater investment in predictive people analytics. The criteria for potential talent is changing. There are emerging alternatives to the slow to change, command and control organisation designs. The growing need for a greater sense of purpose is resulting in some placing this at the heart of their employee proposition and closing down the CSR department. We are seeing an almost fanatical desire to get into the mindsets of the Millennials. There is a growing proliferation of digital solutions, social media and Smartphone applications in the HR space.”

That such a prominent figure in the world HR – who has been through a tough time – would want to stand so boldly for something like disruptive is potentially symbolic to us all.

But how do we do it?  Let’s start with ourselves as practitioners and the professional field we’re in.

And there is no 12 point comprehensive plan; no 2×2 grid; no model or flow chart process.

In my mind its a series of questions.

Firstly this one: Am I truly satisfied with the impact I have and the work I do?  If you are fine.  You’re unlikely to want to get disruptive so I’ll not even spend any more time convincing you.

If you’re not satisfied with the impact you have and the work you do welcome to the club.

Second question: What am I or we sleepwalking into that in 15 years time we will look back and go “how did we let that happen?”  Processes; policies; programmes – whatever it may be.  Switch on your orthodoxy challenge and let yourself question the very essence of what’s always been done that way.  If you cannot see the unquestioning charge up the hill with nothing but despairing looks and lame compliance, you’re doing something that isn’t worthwhile enough for people to be bothered about.

Third question: What am I most passionate about and how can I channel my energy in creating something fresher, more dynamic, more responsive, more powerful, more compelling and more impactful?

A lot in that question.  Don’t just trot out Situational Leadership and MBTI if that’s what you’ve always done.  DO use it if it has impact but why not dive straight into Emotional & Social Intelligence and Distributed Leadership?  Do one thing though, one disruption at a time.

Fourth question: What’s the most obtuse, left-field and way out piece of research or case study I can research and use within HR?

I have this phrase; why benchmark when you can stretchmark?  Why go look at other HR functions and see a shinier, more revved up version of yourself?  Why not go look at how IT works on iterative development?  Why not spend time with Marketing in how they do their analytics?  Why not understanding how crowdsourcing really works with your policy/research team?  Infuse HR with other business practices and stop orbiting the same planets looking for better landing platforms.

Fifth and final question: What can I give others in my professional field?

HR is only as effective as its least most effective participant.  So it’s incumbent on us all to give to others and improve their way of “doing” HR.  Whatever you find works, share it.  Whatever you believe in that helped you, share it.

Downsides?  Well it’s not much use to disrupt if you then take your eye of the balls people need you to juggle for them and go on some innovation fancy-free jaunt leaving your payroll, pensions and recruitment in tatters.

People who “know best” will look at you like some wild maverick renegade out to destroy not disrupt.  People will doubt your professional credibility because you are rejecting or hacking everything they know to be true.  You will be marginalised if you’re doing this well.  And you will be rightly be a lost prophet in the wilderness if you’re doing this badly.

True disruption isn’t easy.  Safe disruption isn’t disruption – it’s continuous improvement or lean or restructuring.

OK we’re disrupting HR and it’s having results.  Great – next?

Well my view is you keep disrupting yourself but you can use this new found understanding and approach to help others in your business disrupt with you and for themselves.

How does R&D find it’s new people?  Usual university trawls or job boards?

Why not disrupt that and open up some research challenges for a community of activists from anywhere to use some open source technology and create hacks, ideas and new products?  From this field of activists could be your next hire in research or product design.

Developing leaders is something we’re always up to.  Why not work with the existing team to create a partnership with a charity where you will loan out 5 of your most willing future leaders, pay them but know they will be getting vital entrepreneurial, business leadership skills whilst you provide them with fantastic mentors and NOT pay the business school £40k per head and hope for the best?

There are no bounds and no rulebook to Disruptive thinking in HR.  Only your own.

The alternative?  Mediocre HR.  Underwhelming HR.  Flatlining HR.

Call it a middle-class rebellion; call it a fad; call it hyped use of a word many don’t really understand.

You know when you’re disruptive. Positive deviance.  Productive rebellion.  Purposeful activism.


Or sleepwalk into the next corporate reshuffle and find yourselves in the call centre oblivion of the new satanic mills of work.

  1. UisgeBhanter says:

    Reblogged this on lizardvanilla and commented:
    Very good words from Perry Timms

  2. Gareth Jones says:

    Great post Perry. My advice to anyone reading this, for what it’s worth, is to def focus on question 4. Look outside your function and industry. No one saw first direct coming yet it was conceived and launched by little old midland bank, a more parochial bank you couldn’t meet. Yet they blew banking wide open. Research the markets that have radically failed or changed and who survived and why. Look for patterns. Look for simplicity amongst the garbage of complexity.

    Get on the phone and call Netflix, valve, semco or any of the others out there that appear to be doing radical or “impossible” things from a people perspective. Go on, do it! Stop saying “it won’t happen here”. Don’t ask for permission. Get on the blower. Ask to visit. Take time out. Then blow your leadership team away by telling them you just spent yesterday with the CEO of xyz company and they set their own salaries/have no policies/have no hierarchy/some other mind blowing strategy that seems impossible. I bet you that those folk will tell you it’s not hard, you just have to believe. And have the courage to question what you are currently doing.

    Many many disruptive new businesses have been created by people who bought principles from other unrelated industries into their own, or by people from outside the industry who could see opportunities where incumbents couldn’t. You could do the same in HR. Don’t think of 10 reasons why you can’t. Think instead of 1 reason why you can.

    • perrytimms says:

      And the list grows longer. And many others are appearing but some don’t like to shout about it. So don’t let all the thought leaders grab the fun stuff; get out there practitioner to practitioner and learn FROM and WITH each other.

      Thanks Gareth.

  3. hrpotential says:

    “Why benchmark when you can stretchmark”, I’m definitely going to be using that one!

  4. This ought to be on the CPD website. I empathise with HR rebels.

  5. perrytimms says:

    Thanks Dave. I will ask CIPD to post it. Nice idea.

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