By Elliot H. Clark
At the HRO Today Forum North America, we had some excellent sessions on the topic of the corporate agility and its impact on HR programming and performance management. What does agility mean for culture? How does it impact company performance and what should be the expected result? But the whole time these questions were discussed, something was bothering me. It took until the last day until I figured out why I was troubled.
The whole thing is nonsense.
Let me put this in context. When my former company Kenexa was growing rapidly and about to go public, I was attending a conference in NYC and I was cornered by an analyst for an investment bank. Pat Walravens was actually a very talented investment analyst, but he asked me a question out of “ye old book of business questions.” It was the one about what keeps me up at night. Rather than give an immediate answer about the neighbor’s barky dog or my stepson’s affinity for metal music and his late-night hours, I became a bit reflective. I responded that the entire team at Kenexa was proud of our high-growth rate and high profitability, and what scared me the most was the day when we would stop making quick decisions. I was worried about the day when a big decision required gathering a group in a boardroom for structured meetings.
I now recognise that the way we operated at nearly 2,000 employees was nimble or, as it may be described today, agile. Whilst certainly not a huge company, Kenexa operated the same way philosophically at 2,000 employees as it did at 100 employees.
I am not going to bore everyone with one more definition of agile beyond saying that it is a reaction to the movement 30 years ago for planning and then strategic planning—as though some planning was not as good as other planning. As if spending months on a planning effort to discover it was not strategic was anything other than foolishness. Now the agility movement is getting rid of the centralised planning process and supposedly returning innovation and product control to the team level. Umm, I have a question: Why did it ever leave?
That is the essential problem in the purest formative of “essence.” Agility is about getting back to someplace. It is about regaining the entrepreneurial spirit organizations should have never lost. To be clear, I am not arguing that companies that have become bloated and bureaucratically ponderous machines should not jump on the agile bandwagon. Point of fact, they should. However, being agile is not about them suddenly becoming really cool. It’s an outright admission that they are really not cool at all.
This connects with one of my deeply held maxims of business. (I am not saying I am such an expert that readers should hang on my next words, but just that I have an opinion and a magazine so that I can share.) Small companies die really fast. Cash flow, lost contracts, and key employee defections can all kill a small business in a short period of time. Big companies die really slowly. It’s a painful process of gradual and accelerating contraction.
Yes, times change, products sunset, but small companies innovate and stay ahead of the times. Big companies stagnate, resting on enormous laurels while waiting for something to happen. Agility should be, in its purest form, about being ahead of the times—not slightly behind them. The best example in modern business is probably Kodak, which missed the digital revolution whereas companies like Canon and Nikon did not. Now cell phone convergence is putting the pressure on all camera makers and it’s the time to figure out what’s next before next is in the rear view mirror.
For HR, it is important to think about this from both a culture management and talent acquisition perspective. Who you hire and how you deploy them is vastly different if you need to move fast, innovate, and have self-reliant, independent employees rather than cogs in a giant human wheel.
Suffice it to say that if your CEO asks what you think about agility, you should respond that once you get there, the key is to never lose it again. This requires the ability to be agile on the path to a new culture, a new structure, and a different way of operating. Remember Thomas Wolfe wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), because getting back to something you have lost is so much harder than never leaving in the first place.