At the law firm Allen & Overy, the idea of replacing traditional, annual performance appraisals with a technology-enabled continuous feedback system did not come from human resources. It came from a leader within the practice. Wanting something that encouraged more-frequent conversations between associates and partners, the senior lawyer read about what companies like Adobe were doing and then asked his firm to help him create a new approach. When the new system, Compass, was rolled out to all 44 offices, the fact that it was born of a problem identified by internal staff helped accelerate the tool’s adoption across the firm.
In an era of transformative cognitive technologies like AI and machine learning, it’s become obvious that people, practices, and systems must become nimbler too. And because organizational change tends to be driven by those who most acutely feel the pain, it’s often line managers who are the strongest champions for “talent tech”: innovations in how firms hire people, staff projects, evaluate performance, and develop talent.
But as we have observed in our research, consulting work, and partnerships with dozens of Fortune 500 companies and top professional services firms, the transition to new and different ways of managing talent is often filled with challenges and unexpected hurdles. Gaining the most from talent tech, we find, depends on the adopting firm’s ability to confront, and ultimately reinvent, an often outdated system of interlocking processes, behaviors and mindsets. Much like putting a new sofa in the living room makes the rest of the décor look outdated, experimenting with new talent technologies creates an urgency for change in the rest of the organization’s practices.
While the jury is still out on the long-term impact of many of the talent tech experiments we have witnessed, we have observed five core lessons from those firms that seem to be positioning themselves most effectively to reap their benefits:
- Talent tech adoption must be driven by business leaders, not the C-suite or corporate functions.
- HR must be a partner and enabler — but not the owner.
- Fast-iteration methodologies are a prerequisite because talent tech has to be tailored to specific business needs and company context and culture.
- Working with new technologies in new and nimbler ways creates the need for additional innovation in talent practices.
- The job of leaders shifts from mandating a change to fostering a culture of learning and growth.
Across industries and sectors, practitioners and academics seem to agree on one thing: Successfully piloting new technologies requires shifting from a traditional plan-and-implement approach to change to an experiment-and-learn approach. But experiment-and-learn approaches are by definition rife with opportunities for failure, embarrassment, and turf wars. Without parallel work by senior management to shift corporate cultures toward a learning mindset, change will inch along slowly if at all.
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