It's More than Just Moving Boxes: The Case for HR Leading Organization Design Efforts
Creating effective organizations is more than just moving boxes on an organization chart. When organizations fail to consider the other aspects of organization design, the strategy most likely will fail. Getting HR practitioners involved early can help ensure people can perform and achieve strategic goals.
The poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by poet John Godfrey Saxe (1872) was based on a fable told in India many years ago. While perhaps not intended to be used as such, the elephant can serve as a metaphor of organization design. When managers decide to change only the organization structure without attending to the rest of the system—infrastructure, technologies, processes, rewards, talent requirements—it is like the blind men and the elephant. But organization designers cannot be like the blind men grabbing one piece of the elephant—tusks, tail, sides, legs, trunk, ears—thinking they understand the whole system. If you address only certain parts of the system without understanding and aligning to others, you’ll wonder why your strategy isn’t working and find yourself restructuring again … and again … and again.
Combining both today’s need for organizations to build a talent pipeline and to build one that is aligned to strategy is a key responsibility of HR and their business partners. HR can step up to lead the discussions, but they must have more than a cursory understanding of organization design and change management. Here’s how some organizations chose to ensure HR practitioners could take a lead in successful organization design.
Restructuring the Organization:
Here We Go Again!
Does this sound familiar? The company’s strategy dictated that it sell all units that were unaligned to its core business. With each sale came an organization structure change, which resulted in an announcement posted on the company intranet to communicate the change to its employees. When the sales of the unaligned businesses were completed, the organization set its sights on acquiring companies that supplemented and complemented its core competencies. After each acquisition was complete, subsequent organization announcements depicting the new structures were communicated with the expectation that everyone take necessary action based on that new information.
The assumption was, of course, that the organization chart itself would communicate necessary information to employees; once they knew to whom they would report, they would know what to do and what changes would be needed to ensure they worked in concert with the organization change. Instead—and especially as the organization frequently restructured— individuals worked just as they had before knowing another redesign would soon be in the works. Unfortunately, “here’s another organization change” became the only response to the announcements. As a result, it was “business as usual” with unclear accountabilities, dropped balls, and conflict over unclear boundaries and responsibilities.
It’s More Than Organization Announcements
Senior managers whose backgrounds include an MBA may be overly confident in their ability to move around the organization chart boxes, often more focused on who goes into the boxes than what boxes are needed to support the strategy. Too often they fail to bring internal stakeholders together and have necessary conversations regarding the impact of the changes and getting views from those closest to the customer. Critically missing from those discussions may be others such as human resources (HR) practitioners who can facilitate the necessary conversations by prompting the questions that address technology systems, infrastructure, management style, communication patterns, skills and competencies, reward systems, and values.
Unfortunately, when leaders equate a change in organization structure with organization design, a lack of appropriate focus produces less than effective results. This happens because:
- They believe the work is done when the boxes are rearranged and don’t allow time for critical supportive work that must be planned for and addressed to ensure the strategy can be achieved.
- HR practitioners are brought in too late to the process and must scurry to align the HR processes to support the change.
- Inadequate resources to help with the change means alignments aren’t addressed or are addressed too late.
However, when HR partners facilitate these conversations, managers can:
- Assess how well aligned the system is to support the new strategy.
- Surface current enablers and obstacles in the system that will support or derail success.
- Determine if the strategy can truly be achieved given the current state of the organization.
- Identify and plan actions needed to ensure strategy can be implemented successfully.
The Role of the HR Business Partner in Leading Organizational Design Change