Managing the revolution … through HR

Again, a very good article in HBR on mass collaboration. This one, written by Scott Cook from Intuit, gives me the opportunity to explain why this « user contribution revolution » is a unique opportunity for HR departments to reinvent themselves.

In the article, Scott Cook urges companies to identify and build « user contribution systems » that allow to benefit from the contributions of people outside of corporate boundaries. His examples, now quite well known, are drawn from Hyatt, Procter & Gamble or Honda as well as Google, Amazon or Wikipedia. He understands « user contribution systems » are « methods for aggregating and leveraging people’s contributions or behaviours in ways that are useful to other people ».

My first reaction to the article was to say: isn’t any corporation a « user contribution system » ? I know I am pushing the idea, as Scott Cook states that in a user contribution system the company doesn’t stand between the input (from people) and the output (their contributions, aggregated and leveraged by an ad hoc system).

But still, the corporate model is basically intended to organize people cooperation to deliver a higher value added service or good. True, users (in this case employees) are paid for so doing. Sometimes, as in insurance and particularly mutual insurance, « user contribution systems » seem to be at the heart of the business model. Mutual companies have built systems that profit from the contributions (risk profiles) of their clients to deliver to them a very specific service (protection against the risks of life).

So, what is this « user contribution system » teaching us ? Our own idea here at Bostzone is that we are discovering and professionalizing new collaboration models, new ways of organizing and collaborating. I have seen, as Scott Cook says, how countercultural this « user contribution paradigm is ». If we go deeper, countercultural only means that collaborating anyway else than through known models (hierarchy or projects), seems to challenge beliefs about the role of hierarchy and authority. And rightly so. The new collaboration models will run through other channels than hierarchy. Their funding principles will not be, as they were in the hierarchical model, command and control.

As many have already stated (Lowell Bryan in Mobilizing Minds, for instance), this is a revolution in organization. It started when the matrix model was invented and continued with reengineering, communities of practice or project modes.

This revolution will be harder to drive at the individual level. We can already see employees needing to be at the same time a manager, a member of a community of practice and a project team member. This is difficult in itself. All the more difficult if, most times, any contribution other than the hierarchical one, is not, or not well enough, taken into account.

Why did I say this was an opportunity for HR to reinvent itself ? Well, HR basic process are built to identify, attract and, above all, assess and develop people within a hierarchical organization. Hence the extreme difficulty for many HR functions to devise adapted programs for experts or transversal populations. Most HR systems are based on a « do not hold me accountable for what I can’t control » view of the world. This is particularly true for most annual review processes, that have a difficult time including peer assessment or network assessment anyway else than as a « complement » to line assessment.

HR is invited to reconsider all dimensions of its people development organization:
– Competency or skill frameworks. These are oriented (towards higher hierarchy or higher expertise) and static (evolution is not built within their fabric). It is likely that such systems will not be adapted for employees that will spend their careers switching between collaboration models;
– Development and assessment systems. These have been designed based on hierarchical organizations. They are selective by nature and often result in companies having to choose between two talents (in these scarcity times!). These systems and processes will need to expand and develop new dimensions. I can already see processes that extend beyond corporate boundaries.
– Talent development skills of employees. This is to my mind the most critical aspect of the people development organization of any company. Most of the times, the talent development responsibility has rested with HR and management. It is important that it know becomes a shared and collective responsibility.

Big times ahead for the HR function.

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