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A Need for Speed as 'Fast HR' Catches On

October 26, 2010
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Policies and Procedures, Workforce Planning, Featured Article
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Bill Cushard has lost patience with training programs created “the right way.” Cushard, chief learning officer of the Knowland Group, a Salisbury, Maryland-based software firm, says the traditional approach of defining requirements, developing a comprehensive instructional module and then proofreading course materials takes too long in today’s fast-paced business climate. A one-week course can require nearly a year of preparation to meet the profession’s standards, he says.

“Delivery cycles are just forever,” says Cushard, whose 50-person firm serves the hospitality industry. “If you do it ‘the right way,’ it’s practically outdated.” By biting off smaller chunks and focusing on the most important tasks a learner needs to master, Cushard and his team created a weeklong training class in just 2½ months.

Cushard is part of a budding movement to speed up people management to match the pace of the global business world. Among the strongest advocates of the push is Theresa Welbourne, a research professor at the University of Southern California and president and CEO of the consulting firm eePulse. Welbourne coined the term “Fast HR” to capture the idea that companies must accelerate the ways they handle everything from productivity improvement efforts to employee engagement programs to merger integration.

Welbourne says she believes HR should borrow a practice that is popular in the software world: extreme programming. It involves rapid release of software acknowledged to be flawed or incomplete. Developers rely on customer feedback about problems, which are fixed in later iterations. Think Gmail, for instance. Google Inc. kept the e-mail service in beta mode for years while adding features.

Alison Davis, founder and CEO of the consulting firm Davis & Co. in Glen Rock, New Jersey, agrees that HR should move faster. When it comes to communication, HR professionals ought to think in terms of texts and tweets as young workers do, she says. “Millennials feel that communication is a process; it’s something we all contribute to. Baby boomers have this view that it’s like a brochure.”

American Express Co. is among the firms already pressing the HR gas pedal. It had conducted an annual employee survey that typically took two months to process, says Tom Leitko, a vice president in the HR department. That was too glacial given the tumult of the recession. “These opinions were out of date by the time they were reported,” he says.

American Express worked with Welbourne to cut the lag time. For this year’s annual survey at the end of summer, for instance, it set a reporting target of less than a month. Welbourne says the faster pace resulted from a combination of technology, training and consulting so that American Express focused “on the right questions versus all the questions.” The company plans next year to let individual business units do more frequent surveys.

The company also has been accelerating HR in other areas, such as streamlining the way new employees are brought onboard.

But with higher speed come challenges. If you poll employees frequently, you raise expectations that leaders will listen and take action, Leitko says. “The trust bar between management and employees goes up.”

Fast HR also raises professional and legal concerns. Training modules with typos can appear unprofessional, and impromptu, heat-of-the-moment messages can carry liability risks. Welbourne, however, says she believes litigation fears are overblown. “You can go fast and not be stupid,” she says.

Workforce Management, October 2010, p. 4 -- Subscribe Now!

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