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Home Blog Agile HR: Pursuing Exciting Opportunities in Human Resource Management

Agile HR: Pursuing Exciting Opportunities in Human Resource Management

August 8, 2023

Contributing Author: Alley Bardon

10 mins read

 Agile is a familiar concept in software development that now promises to transform many other sectors. Its influence is already impossible to overlook in human resources, with research from Gartner suggesting that 63% of HR leaders have already made some effort to adopt various agile principles or techniques. While 78% have yet to adopt a defined approach to implementing agile, it is increasingly evident that this approach will soon be all but ubiquitous in HR and beyond. 

Agile has a way of quickly displacing other methodologies, as seen by its swift replacement of the once-dominant waterfall system for project management. This shift may be hastened by the growing body of research indicating that agile solutions can have a positive impact on HR and on organizations. This is most evident in the findings from McKinsey & Company, which reveal a 20% increase in employee engagement when agile methods are utilized. 

Moving forward, agile will play a central role in how HR departments function. We are amid the widescale adoption of these strategies, but shifting from traditional methods is far from easy. These difficulties are spurred, in part, by the steep learning curve, with many managers and specialists still wondering: what is agile HR and how does it work? 

To take the pain out of this process, we've provided a deep dive into HR agility, including insights into how HR can become agile — and how these changes can spur impressive progress across entire departments and organizations.  

What Is Agile Methodology in HR?

With its origins in software development and project management, the agile methodology involves a concerted effort to divide projects into several phases, which are completed responsively through continuous collaboration. This represents a major shift from the previously dominant waterfall method. Agile's success in project management has catalyzed adoption in many other fields, including human resources. In HR, the primary purpose of agile remains the same: to boost flexibility so that teams are more empowered to drive innovation and improve results. 

There is a great deal of crossover between agile in HR and other takes on the agile methodology, but some key distinctions set agile HR apart. Some of this stems from the foundational purpose of HR: to manage the employee lifecycle in a way that brings greater structure to the organization. This differs considerably from the product or project-based implementation of agile in other fields. 

Perhaps most notable is the current commitment to a version of agile known in the field of HR as "Agile Lite." This involves the basic adoption of core principles that have distinguished HR in software development, but without necessarily maintaining the exact approach or relying on the exact tools associated with tech-oriented agile solutions. 

This is evident in the results from Gartner, which suggest that, while the basic principles underscoring agile resonate with most HR leaders, few are ready to fully adopt it at this point. This is expected to change however, and, as we gain a greater understanding for how HR can become agile, optimized processes will facilitate HR leaders and the employees they support.

Comparing Traditional HR vs. Agile

It's impossible to recognize what agile HR has to offer without also understanding the basis of traditional HR — and human resources management (HRM), in general. HRM brings a strategic, goal-oriented approach to the critical processes that make up the employee lifecycle: recruitment, hiring, and onboarding to begin, plus engagement, assessment, and career management along the way. These processes can be optimized through the application of an agile framework, which places a greater emphasis on teamwork and innovation.  

Structure Versus Innovation

Traditional approaches to HRM have centered around structure, order, and compliance, bringing a long-term, standardized approach to dealing with employees as individuals. Meanwhile, agile solutions strive for continuous learning and improvement — qualities that are always worth pursuing in HRM.

Individual Versus Group Dynamics

Another central change underscoring the shift from traditional to agile HR? A newfound focus on the needs of the group, rather than primarily emphasizing individual pursuits. While this does not mean that individual goals and preferences should be neglected, an agile setup will ensure that individual concerns are balanced against — or built into — the larger group dynamic. 

The needs of the group may take precedence in an agile HR system, but individuals still enjoy greater autonomy as compared to their traditional HR counterparts. Instead of being subject to micromanaging, they work closely with small teams, where they have a greater say in how key tasks or projects are designed and carried out.  

Responding to Versus Anticipating Change

Traditionally, HR initiatives have been triggered by the actions of employees and, while official processes aimed to seamlessly guide these transitions, they were still primarily reactive in nature. For example: under a traditional HR setup, recruitment would occur in response to a recent job vacancy, whereas agile would implement a more dynamic, proactive system for attracting talent on an ongoing basis. There remains a reactive element as new concerns arise, but always within the context of lifelong learning and multipotentiality.  

Roles in Agile HR

The most successful agile teams clearly define the roles of all those involved in key pursuits or projects. Within 'standard' agile initiatives — in essence, those centered around software development or IT project management – common agile roles have included product owners, team lead, stakeholders, and development team members. In agile HR, however, other roles may take precedence. 

In general, agile HR represents a move from top-down, authoritative structures to networks composed of smaller teams, with all enjoying greater autonomy over the specific tasks or projects they take on. Every team member and leader has a powerful role to play within this dynamic system.  

Employees and the HR Team

Every HR initiative involves many moving parts, but employees and the HR professionals who support them are always central. The goal of these agile HR initiatives is to positively influence employee outcomes by seeking more effective approaches to hiring, onboarding, and performance management. By promoting collaboration at all levels, agile encourages a more cohesive and productive environment — qualities that can have a positive impact on every department and every business function.   

Organizational and Business Responsibilities

While agile grants greater autonomy to teams of HR professionals, this approach is only viable if organization and business leaders equip those teams with the resources and support, they need. Leaders must be responsive to the opportunities and concerns brought up by the team, while also remaining mindful of broader concerns such as financial constraints or regulatory compliance. 

Characteristics that Make HR Agile

While agile adoption can be surprisingly nuanced as it applies to HR, a few key characteristics nearly always exist within organizations or departments that truly qualify as agile. These include:  

Emphasis on the Customer

Organizations or teams cannot truly be regarded as agile unless they emphasize the needs and preferences of the customers or clients they serve. This has always been a core tenet of agile and it is what continues to link varying agile initiatives across industries. This remains a priority in agile HR, where all values, processes, and incentives are crafted with customer value in mind. 

With agile HR, strategies that fail to bring discernible value to the customer or client are regarded as disposable. This marks a clear distinction from traditional, in which many processes are maintained regardless of whether they benefit customers in the long run. 

Employee-Focused Values

One of the core tenets of the Agile Manifesto involves focusing on "individuals and interactions over processes and tools." This mindset can also be seen in agile HR, where the employee must feel valued and respected. This begins with developing a tight feedback loop, in which employees are encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas within an environment that facilitates trust and open lines of communication. 

While organizational leaders set the tone through branding efforts and clear communication of mission, vision, and values, employees should feel empowered to live out those values in creative and thought-provoking ways. There should never be any question as to whether employers support HR professionals (and employees in general) in their efforts to improve themselves and their teams.  

Gradual Change Over Time

Agile diverges from traditional HR in that it centers around short-term initiatives that build toward long-term objectives. The big picture remains important, but it is underscored by the acknowledgment that these shifts are more likely to truly take hold if they occur gradually. 

The general concept of agile is built around the idea of incremental, yet impactful changes that begin to snowball through the ongoing process of testing and learning. This iterative flow can produce impressive transformations over time, but always at a rate that HR teams (and the employees they support) can handle. This also ensures that if new initiatives aren't working out, they can be adjusted and improved as needed.

Collective Problem-Solving

Agile's group dynamic allows for uniquely productive teams, which replace individuals as the main work units. These teams take on small cycles and equally small tasks while receiving extensive feedback along the way — and plenty of opportunities to change their approach, if needed. Under an agile approach, problems are most effectively addressed and resolved when collaboration is purposefully built into every process.  

Flexibility in Failure

In the agile world, failure is regarded as both inevitable and as a valuable learning opportunity. This shift in mindset represents one of agile's greatest strengths, as it paves the path for exceptional innovation. While traditional HR often involves a marked avoidance of failure, agile emphasizes the value of failure as something that is not to be avoided, but rather embraced — so long as it takes place in the right context and under the right circumstances.  

How Can HR Become Agile?

Agile implementation must strive to preserve the basic tenets of HRM while also embracing the spirit of innovation and customer-centric service that makes agile solutions so compelling in the tech world. As we've touched on, the field is currently undergoing a slow and steady shift toward agile processes. These typically encompass a few key qualities and initiatives: 

Embrace Employee Feedback

Success in agile relies on regular and meaningful feedback from all sources. This encompasses not only insights from customers or clients, but more importantly in HR, from employees. If properly encouraged, employees are happy to provide valuable feedback on what is going well or not so well with any given initiative. Many employees are inherently enthusiastic about the innovations stemming from agile HR processes, but they are more likely to embrace these changes if they have a say. 

Just as agile relies on a tight feedback loop among HR team members and stakeholders, the employees supported and managed through agile HR must be given opportunities to share their thoughts. HR teams can then take these unique perspectives into account as they improve upon previous iterations.  

Employees That Align with Company Culture

Recruitment and hiring can play a major role in facilitating agile systems. This begins with actively seeking out employees who already align with the overarching culture and are aware of organizational and departmental missions, visions, and values. HR professionals must show a willingness to embrace the innovation-focused mindset of agile operations, although this spirit of innovation must also exist within employees from other departments. 

Leadership That Motivates and Rewards

The agile methodology focuses closely on intrinsic motivation. It's assumed that employees will be far more productive if they are genuinely passionate about their work and eager to make a difference. Leadership can help to cultivate this strong sense of intrinsic motivation not only by hiring employees who align with the overarching company culture, but also, by facilitating strategic performance management systems that blend individual or team-based sources of motivation with large-scale organizational objectives. 

There is still a place for external sources of motivation, of course, and it would be foolish to discount the extrinsic elements that shape top-down business practices: the need to deliver desired results for stakeholders. Still, true agility in HR means shifting away from a reliance on traditional rewards, and, instead, helping employees connect emotionally with the 'why' that guides the entire organization.  

Learn HR Management with Lindenwood Online!

Are you ready to usher in the future of HR? As a Lindenwood University Online student, you can discover and master the cutting-edge concepts that promise to transform this field. We offer excellent online programs for undergraduate and graduate students, including a Bachelor of Arts in Human Resource Management and a Master of Arts in Human Resource Management

These programs will equip you with critical skills that today's employers value and can also be complemented by an agile HR certification. Reach out today to learn more about these exciting opportunities.

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