Agile HR - It's complicated.

If Agile HR and I had a relationships on Facebook it would be "It's complicated."

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Hello internet pals 👋,

Today we're talking agile and agility. Not the dog-version where you let your dog run around an obstacle course, but agile HR.

Nowadays, it's almost impossible to open up LinkedIn without seeing someone mentioning agile HR in one way or another. And so it has been for quite a while. Everyone should be agile. Work agile. But where does the term stem from? And what does it mean? And why is it complicated?

We’ll come back to that.

First, let’s travel back in time.

Let’s dive in.

(I was this close having “Every time you talk about agile HR a kitten dies” as a title for this piece but that would have been more of a clickbait. I’ll actually try to be reasonable here.)

The iterative software development process is almost as old as software development itself. But when IT development rose to prominence during the 1990s, so did several different methods for deploying code, and thus programs, faster. In 2001, seventeen programmers wrote the agile manifesto, which is regarded as the start of the agile movement. It sparked a counter-movement to a lot of older, less agile ways of deploying code. The agile manifesto website still looks like it was created in 2001, which is part of the branding and is in line with the manifesto.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

It has since risen to prominence and is now regarded by most organizations as the way to do software development. Sure, companies are still doing things waterfall-style, but they are more or less seen as modern as the fax machine.

Most organizations are either working agile or are transforming themselves to be working more agile. We can discuss the extent of whether they then actually work agile or not, but more or less, everyone is at least aspiring to be agile.

As with all new (shiny) things, people will try to adapt the current hype to whatever area they are working within. This newsletter is a prime example of that, borrowing the slightly hyped term full-stack and applying it to HR.

And that's what the early movers and shakers of agile HR did as well; they borrowed and slapped on the label agile in front of HR to differentiate.
But how coined the term? I’ve dug deep in the realms of interwebz, trying to find the origin.

Looking at Twitter, the first mention of "agile HR" that I could find is from February 2009.

Also, in 2009, HR Florida had a pre-conference workshop with Robert K Prescott dedicated to Agile HR.

And in 2010 it was pointed out that Agile HR might be the next management fad.

Oh boy did he call that early.

Twitter's first mention of the hashtag #agilehr happens 20th of June, 2011, and is from (my old co-worker) Peter Antman.

All-in-all, it’s tricky to define who “invented” agile HR, at least based on tweets.
So let’s look a the broader web.

The blog, founded by Carl Blomberg, first saw daylight in October 2011. Josh Bersin mentions it in his 2012 Forbes article. Well, not specifically, but he talks fondly of companies working in an agile way and HR adapting to that.

Most likely there were many different people involved in coining the term. Co-creating it in an agile way.

Agile has constantly revolved around focusing on people. Thus it's not hard to see why so many connected it to HR or the people function as we are called these days.

Summarizing all of this, we can conclude that the term agile HR picked up speed on the interwebz around 201, rose to prominence in 2013 and has ever since been a trend.

What is agile HR?

Much like the original agile framework, there's a manifesto:

We are uncovering better ways of developing an engaging workplace culture by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

Collaborative networks over hierarchical structures

Transparency over secrecy

Adaptability over prescriptiveness

Inspiration and engagement over management and retention

Intrinsic motivation over extrinsic rewards

Ambition over obligation

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

There are also principles.

Support people to engage, grow and be happy in their workplace.

Encourage people to welcome change and adapt when needed.**

Help to build and support networks of empowered, self-organizing, and collaborative teams.

Nourish and support the people's and team's motivation and capabilities, help them build the environment they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Facilitate and nurture personal growth to harness employees’ different strengths and talents.

In essence, based on the above, agile HR is less about enforcing control and more about facilitating and fostering the organization.

The paper, Agile for HR; Fine in practice but will it work in theory?, John McMackin and Margaret Heffernan describe Agile HR as:

As an operational strategy, Agile HR seeks to minimise waste and optimise the flow of value to its customers by organising the HR function in multidisciplinary, empowered teams, that continuously align with changing business needs by sensing and adapting through open communication while operating in short cycles. Agile principles are reflected in all aspects of the HR operation including structures, roles, processes, and tools as well as skills and behaviours of HR management and HR employees.

I can highly recommend the paper, I think that’s one of the best and most objective reads on agile HR out there. And in all honesty, it’s hard to find objective views on agile HR because almost everything written about the subject is written by someone with a vested interest in the space.

This also makes the space hard to define itself, when there are multiple people contributing to what they think agile HR is, the definition depends on who’s describing it.

But one common denominator is that the employees are seen as customers, the customers know what they want and we should try to be centric around what the customer wants and need, including them in the process.

Sounds all good and dandy, right? What’s the issue then?

Because what's mentioned above is, in my view, not agile HR.

It's HR.

Or, to be more precise, it's parts of HR.

If every organization worked like a charm, had no conflict, and had no issues, I would be the first to praise it.

Really, it seems like a beautiful place.

The problem is that I have yet to experience or even hear about a workplace that has no issues and where everything works out like, I guess, the agile HR evangelists intended it to.

But the reality is that organizations tend to be complex and dynamic creatures. And while I agree on many things in the above lists, it also lacks a lot of things, such as sometimes we need to exit employees. It's not precisely engaging, growing, and having someone be happy at their current workplace when you tell them they are being walked out of the office in twenty minutes.

It's like putting a list together of all the fun things with HR but ignoring the downsides that are also a crucial and essential part of our job—setting up this ideal world without knowing or taking responsibility for the reality organization’s face.

Secondly, in my experience, everything mentioned above is something you learn if you pursue a degree in HR today.

I understand that the HR function looked different when the term caught traction and that there still were a lot of HR departments that were more about processes than focusing on the employee. But as recalled in the "HR-in-the-board-room" post, HR rose to prominence around the same time as agile HR due to Netflix, Google, and others leading the way. And I would say that those influences have been vastly more important than any trend, agile HR included.

I understand (and celebrate!) that agile HR has been something to hold onto for a lot of HR departments. Something concrete to change to. Something different and better than old boring HR processes.

The ability to form a concept around agile HR has been successful in that sense; it has acted as a change agent for old legacy HR departments.

But walk into any start-up/scale-up and ask about their agile HR processes, and they'll have a hard time differentiate agile HR from HR. For most forward-leaning companies, there's HR (or people or whatever we call ourselves these days), and HR. Sometimes agile and sometimes not at all agile.

Thirdly, one of my strongest objections towards the manifesto and agile HR is that they focus too much on the employee.

Don't get me wrong on this one; HR should be employee-centric, but we always need to manage and have two thoughts in our minds simultaneously as we are employer representatives. And sometimes, those two interests don't conjure. When put on the line, we always need to take the employer's perspective. It's almost worth a separate article, but I think this is the most common mistake people make about HR, that we are an employee representative. We are not. The union is.

Our job is to help the employer make great, sound, and marvelous decisions around their people. As mentioned above, in 98% of the cases, what's best for the people in an organization is also the best outcome for the employer. But when it's not - we take the employer side.

If I were to make a wish for the future, it would be that we'd stop having a problematic relationship. This doesn’t mean we should stop talking about agile HR as a whole, but to see it for what it is.

Long-term, sustainable HR work simply requires more.

Being agile is an excellent tool in a toolbox, but we have to acknowledge that it's one tool out of our many HR tools.

And just like a carpenter doesn't use the hammer for everything, we shouldn't use agile HR for all situations.