For business leaders, productivity is a much beloved word. But how do you improve productivity in HR? Here are five smart approaches I’ve seen from HR leaders seeking to get more output from their department.
1. Build your capability to use HR technology. It’s obvious that HR tech can improve productivity. What may not be so obvious is that HR should be investing in its capability to use technology effectively. For example understanding the total cost of a technology, mastering the challenges of implementation, and unravelling the riddle of low user adoption. So go out to the trade shows, talk to peers in other companies, and make time for vendor demos. And when you do implement new HR tech don’t just treat it as a job to be done, treat it as a learning opportunity. Finally, when you hire someone into HR look for a person who brings some technology smarts with them. How would you rate your own department’s capability to make the most of technology within existing budgets? What could you do to make it better?
2. Be an HR expert not a HR service provider. HR professionals often have a strong customer service focus: when a leader says they want something HR rushes to oblige. The trouble is leaders often have a poor understanding of talent issues and how best to address them. For example, they may ask for detailed reports with no sense of how much work it takes to create them and little idea how they will use them. If you are just a service provider you do your best to help even if it’s not productive. However, if you see yourself as an expert then you’ll push back and ask, “What are we really trying to solve for?” and “What’s the real issue?” It’s not about being difficult, it’s about making sure your skills and time are put to the most productive use. Do you ever say “Yes” when “No wait, let’s think about this” would be a better answer?
3. Prevent fires. I’m always amazed at how some HR departments get trapped in constant firefighting mode. It can be exhilarating to rush in and deal with a crisis, but it’s not very productive. Let’s be honest, if you are always fighting fires then something is wrong. It’s not necessarily HR’s fault, but it is HR’s responsibility to figure out how to prevent these fires. Some questions to ask: “Did we really need to drop everything, or could the issue have waited?” and “What could have been done in advance so that the crisis wouldn’t have occurred?”
4. Learn to tap external resources instead of wishing for more headcount. We are now living in the era of the Gig Economy. Almost every imaginable type of work, from the most clerical to the most strategic, can be done by free agents. Learning to tap those free agents and use them effectively will multiply your effectiveness. At the risk of being totally biased let me recommend my own book (with Boudreau & Jesuthasan) “Lead the work: Navigating a world beyond employment” and also “Agile Talent” by Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood. Those books will give you the frameworks you need to improve productivity via external talent.
5. Go slow to go fast. When you are crazy-busy someone will probably annoy you with the advice “Go slow to go fast.” I’m going to do the same thing. Going slow really will help you go fast. We can avoid time-consuming mistakes and find clever shortcuts if we adopt the motto, “Think twice, act once.” Rushing rarely results in saved time.
One last tip, if you want to stay motivated then track the progress you make on improving productivity. This doesn’t have to be a highly formal process, just keep a journal noting changes you have made and how they’ve made the department more productive. If you make the effort then you’ll be amazed how much productivity improves over the years; and that uplift in spirit can be important to keep you going through the inevitable challenges of HR life.