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HR and the agile workplace: Interview with Dr Jerry Gule

Interviews
Learning Agility

HR and the agile workplace: Interview with Dr Jerry Gule

Dr Jerry Gule, CEO of the Institute of People Management and executive coach, gives his view of Learning Agility and the HR challenges of 2020 and beyond…

How are the current HR challenges different from previous years?

For the first time, HR practitioners have to deal with intergenerational issues as different generations are occupying space in the workplace. The well-entrenched Baby Boomers who, for all intents and purposes, set up modern organisational structures and leadership styles are now on their way out. New practices are crashing into what were once revered corridors of power.  Some companies are not ready for these changes. The result is that these new generational employees may just up and go if they find the culture is not suitable for them.

HR fits into this by puzzle by:

  • Having to fix archaic company cultures, sometimes in the face of resistance from company leaders and managers.
  • Preparing on-boarding programmes based on antiquated systems that the new-era employees may find boring. However, in the face of reduced budgets, HR may lack the professionals and modern resources necessary to modernise its practices.
  • Having to do more with less. The overall reductions seen in staff complements means that employees across the board find themselves stretched, stressed and burning out in larger numbers than before. The onus is on HR to fix this; however, HR is also inadequately supported, both financially and otherwise.
  • Monitoring the constant changes in the nature of work and being able to find suitably qualified candidates to meet these challenges. Whilst previously the debate centred around finding skilled and experienced talent, the game has changed. HR has to work with leaders and managers to find people who are willing to learn and unlearn skills as jobs change.  HR is also faced with the huge challenge of assisting employees in transitioning from non-tech to high tech and AI (artificial intelligence) assisted workspaces.

Organisations in South Africa are undergoing a lot of changes in terms of digitisation, new technologies and shifting job roles. How do you feel HR can support these changes?

The digital era is bringing unprecedented changes in how things work.  It is predicted that in less than 20 years, there is going to be a far closer link between humans and machines.  In fact, many organisations and people think that it would be better to work with machines than humans, as machines do not complain and do not go on strike.  But will smart machines not “unionise” and perpetrate strikes too? (Just kidding, but again you never know, it is said that some of the advanced machines are capable of learning and developing a language of their own!).

The future will require high levels of collaboration.  Therefore, to expect HR to continue its traditional role of spearheading change management whilst everyone else sits back is no longer feasible.  The whole paradigm has to shift: in preparing for the future, the burden must not be put on HR alone. The digital strategy of an organisation must permeate the very fibre of the company, involving employees at all levels and proactively driving change.

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“The key thing to realise is that learning, in general, is a non-stop activity. Hence organisations need to be learning entities”
Dr Jerry Gule

Why do you think Learning Agility is important – in general, and especially for HR?

The key thing to realise is that learning, in general, is a non-stop activity. Hence organisations need to be learning entities. When we say “a learning organisation”, in effect we are saying that the people in the organisation must be open to continuous learning and development.  So Learning Agility is crucial for superior organisational performance and results.

An organisation that does not learn from its past performance and make improvements is more likely to be relegated to the bottom leagues. Continuing to use the analogy of “leagues” a soccer example may be apt here.  Say for instance a big brand soccer team loses a game and has another big game scheduled the following weekend.  If that team fails to use the intervening period to reflect on what went wrong and learn from it, it is more likely to face another hammering.  For the players to perform better they need to get feedback from their coach, take that to heart and practice, practice and practice so they can perform better in the next game. They must have Learning Agility as they only have a short term to unlearn their previous strategy and relearn a different approach before the next game.

Learning Agility refers to the ability to learn from experiences in preparation for future experiences. Learning agility is about self-knowledge, knowing and accepting your strengths, and dealing with robust feedback from others about your performance with a view to do better in the future.

The importance of Learning Agility for HR

Learning Agility is especially important for HR because of the sheer plethora of situations and interactions that a typical HR professional has in a day.  For HR to increasingly handle these situations and interactions in an ever-improving way, HR needs to learn new strategies from each encounter. Furthermore, the role of HR also centres around helping others to learn more for better performance in a fast-paced environment.

Lastly, HR is responsible for bringing talent into an organisation and by applying the principles of Learning Agility, HR would stand a good chance of managing the talent pipeline effectively and efficiently.  These principles would assist HR in carefully hiring employees who are well suited to the new roles and requirements of the organisation

Could you reflect on the impact of Learning Agility in the context of talent management?

Talent management is about resourcing an organisation with the right people in the right positions and at the right time.  It covers the entire spectrum from entry to exit with an emphasis on making sure that the talent is effectively engaged throughout their career in the organisation. This means roles or jobs must be well designed and mapped so as to deploy people correctly based on their strengths, abilities and the nature of the role. This calls for an ability to know the makeup of the talent that is being placed across the organisation in terms of their natural inclinations and ways of working.

In talent management, the drive is to make sure that an organisation has talent that is open to learning, prepared for their next big role and able to deliver the required results.

What steps should HR take to become more agile in the workplace?

For HR to become more learning agile there are a few actions that can be taken:

  • Understand the mandate of HR in every project – lack of clarity on what needs to be done can result in time wastage and a lot of exasperation for all concerned. Getting the brief right always helps to eliminate “rework” or working at a tangent.
  • Adopt a learning-focused style – the days of “policing over the enterprise” are gone as things change. Whilst HR has to ensure due process and proper governance, it must do so with the understanding that it is about co-creation with clients and stakeholders.  It is about partnering with those who are being served to make sure that the right and innovative business solutions, with a dose of HR insight, are being put on the table rather than being perceived as stumbling blocks to be avoided.
  • Have regular and shorter meetings with internal clients – things tend to go awry when there is poor communication between the customer and the supplier. In the context of the enterprise HR is the supplier of services to line management and employees.  When there is no regular contact and communication between the client and the supplier, misunderstanding is guaranteed.  HR need to seek out their clients and make sure to “get customer feedback” so that they can hit the bulls-eye when they render services.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”
Alvin Tofller - The Futurist

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