The reinvention of the people function 

In June of 2020, Satya Nadella said that 2 years of progress in digitalization had been achieved in the first 2 months of the pandemic. The impact on the future of work is far more profound as it is underpinned by not just digitalization or automation but the democratization of work, which is our growing ability to rapidly decouple work from its traditional confines of space, time, and structure. The combination of these two forces has resulted in an exponential acceleration in the world of work. This is a disruption on an unprecedented scale in much the same way the electric car is transforming the mobility sector. In their recently published book, Work Without Jobs, Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau present a new work operating system that they argue is needed to ensure the perpetual reinvention and agility of work so it remains future fit. The four principles underpinning this new work operating system require organizations to think beyond jobs as the primary organizing construct for work and instead focus on current and future tasks, achieve the optimal combinations of humans and automation, consider the full array of options to engage people in work (gigs, assignments, etc.), and allow talent to flow to work versus being limited to fixed roles. However, like the aforementioned electric car, this system will only be as capable as its enabling infrastructure; a point the authors explore in detail.

The people function formerly known as Human Resources has the opportunity to play a pivotal role in enabling organizations to realize the full potential of the new work operating system - but only if every aspect of this new people function is redesigned to focus on a sustainable interaction model unlocking the potential of these principles. This begins with the deconstruction of the delivery model, including the optimal leveraging of automation, and the creation of new roles that are pivotal to enabling the new work operating model.

The deconstruction of the delivery model

A new work operating system demands a reset of how HR and the workforce relate. Most organizations follow decades old management structures and principles. Yes, these structures and principles have been tinkered with over the years but the changes have been marginal. The same applies to the HR Operating Model. The traditional three-pillar model for organizing HR (HR organized into shared services, business partners, and centers of expertise) is still the most commonly used one. 

While this model was revolutionary and effective for its time, in a world of “Work without Jobs,” the HR function needs greater agility and focus than it can provide. In our new work operating system, purpose, agility, and a differentiated workforce experience become the foundations for the work of the people function. In place of the three-pillar model, we propose a four-pillar Target Interaction Model (TIM) that comprises:

  1. An HR Service Portfolio reflecting the strategic needs of the organization
  2. A workforce segmented into internal customer groups reflecting the unique needs of each
  3. Insight into how the service portfolio and the needs of the various workforce segments can be connected through the right interaction model
  4. Execution of these interactions through the optimal combination of talent and technology

This Target Interaction Model (TIM) becomes the catalyst for an effective and sustainable target operating model (TOM) for the people function (not the other way around, as it usually happens). 


Figure 1: Exemplary Target Interaction Model

This TIM might look different from company to company and depending on industry, organizational design, people dependency and purpose. Understanding and designing targeted interactions and their delivery is the first step to creating a sustainable target operating model, in other words: TIM before TOM. Optimized technology/automation and a future-fit people function are essential foundations.  

New roles to deliver on the new work operating model

HR roles, stagnant for decades, are being overhauled. The pandemic brought new ways of working, a stronger focus on the human experience of work, and a different set of expectations towards the people function. Most impacted is the former HR Business Partner (HRBP) role. This traditionally “all encompassing” role is increasingly broken up into two fit-for-purpose roles: 
  • The Leadership Partner Role.
    All organizations strive for good leadership practices but many have struggled to ensure consistent quality and impact through their typically programmatic-focused efforts (e.g. mid-management development programs, etc.). The HRBP typically plays a unique role in supporting leadership development; delivering leadership and workforce support, administrative assistance and sometimes also strategic advice. However, this diversity of activities has led to significant inefficiency and a lack of consistency in how the role is executed. The Leadership Partner is a specialist role which exclusively serves people and project leaders, as work increasingly becomes project-based. The goal is to support them in all aspects of orchestrating work, managing agile teams and coaching and developing talent. The Leadership Partners represent the full HR service portfolio to these leaders and their teams. Absent from this role are any  administrative tasks or strategic capability development to ensure a focus on enabling effective leadership.
  • The People Strategy Advisor.

    This role is usually filled by a seasoned people and workforce strategist who understands the business strategy and its specific workforce implications. People Strategy Advisors serve the boardroom, P&L, and global functional leaders in all aspects of strategic development, seamlessly aligning strategy, work and the workforce. They focus on translating the strategy and its operating implications to how work is designed and how talent is connected to and engaged in the work. Most strategic initiatives are initiated and led by the People Strategy Advisor.  

    Within People Operations, we are seeing the rise of a number of different roles.

  • The Service Experience Designer.
    This role is intended to increase the adoption of services offered by HR by specifically designing them around the unique needs of various workforce segments. Regardless of whether it is the execution of a process, a technology change or the introduction of a new service – they ensure that it is set up in the right way and easy to use by the workforce.  Bosch, the German automotive parts manufacturer, uses former product designers in all of their HR Projects to ensure optimal adoption of various HR services.
  • The Content Coordinator.
    This role ensures consistent communication and listening across all channels – something that has gotten even more important now with the advent of hybrid workforces. Among other things, it helps mitigate the risk of unequal treatment or bias in responses provided to queries by the workforce. The role also ensures consistent governance and quality of all information while ensuring that the right channels are leveraged for  sustainable content communication. Working with the Service Experience Designer, the Content Coordinator helps ensure the optimal adoption of various services by designing and delivering them to meet the specific needs of various specific workforce segments.
  • The Data Scientist.

    This role  is tasked with formulating hypotheses about how the workforce and its performance can be enhanced and then mining, analyze and interpret all the necessary data to validate said hypotheses. As the volume and velocity of workforce data has increased in companies, this role is increasingly pivotal to enhancing the performance of the workforce and their overall experience.

    In addition, the roles in traditional centers of expertise are starting to change as organizations drive a greater distinction between internal customer facing roles and enterprise-wide resources.

  • Talent acquisition experts.
    This is a good example of a customer-facing role. These experts focus exclusively on acquiring talent (something that might have often been part of the remit of HRBPs), directly working with the hiring managers to nurture internal and external talent communities to acquire hard to find talent in an ever-tightening labor market. We think of these roles as being Centers of Competence (COCs) or expert resources with a high degree of proximity to the business.
  • Compensation & Benefits expert.

    These roles, on the other hand, are more focused on establishing the right framework and policies and ensuring their consistent execution. They are also tasked with advising other HR colleagues. It is rather rare that they work directly with people leaders. They are still referred to as Centers of Expertise (COEs).   

    We see HR transforming into a much more nuanced expertise-driven and people serving function. No single operating model can ever work across business models, cultures, or industry nuances as the roles are designed based on the TIM while the distribution and scaling of resources are determined based on the TOM. 

    If we have learned anything from the pandemic and the subsequent “Great Resignation” or “Great Reshuffling,” it is that the human side of the work equation is more pivotal to business performance than ever. But the reset we are experiencing and the new work operating model underpinning it require a fit for purpose people function; one that is radically different. 

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