business news in context, analysis with attitude

There was a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal about how traditional human resources functions are changing from a ‘one size fits all” model to what might be called a “one size fits one” model.

“For years, companies used standardized human-resources plans for recruiting and managing workers,” the Journal writes, and “one set of rules dictated everything from the kinds of benefits and rewards the company offered to how employees were trained and evaluated. That approach made things easier for the human-resources department and ensured a degree of efficiency, equality and fairness.

“Now some executives are finding that this model isn't adequate for getting the most out of existing talent or attracting and keeping new people. To be competitive in the marketplace and in the race for talent, companies must understand and address the diverse needs of their work force. In fact, they must treat each employee as a ‘work force of one’.”

Essentially, the argument is that there are four basic strategies that can be engaged in order to achieve the ultimate objective, which is to get the most out of the best people while making sure that their individual needs are recognized and fulfilled.

These strategies include:

Segment The Workforce. There are numerous ways to do this, such as grouping employees according to work styles and temperament, or even by their value to the organization. “A number of employers are designing more unusual segmentation strategies designed to play to individuals' varied needs,” the Journal writes. “One research-and-development group at a technology company created several distinct roles for its engineers based on their personality and interests. The standard role is designed for engineers who prefer to concentrate on one project at a time. But those who don't like that work style have a chance to become ‘parachutists,’ dropping in on projects and solving problems for short periods of time. Meanwhile, those who are good at representing the company's work to outsiders can become ‘ambassadors’.”

Offer Choices. “An alternative way of creating customized employee experiences is to allow employees to choose from a standard set of choices defined by the human-resources department,” according to the Journal. “In recent years, for example, a growing number of employers have provided full-time employees with ‘cafeteria’ benefit plans, which allow people to pick the options they value most.”

Be Flexible Rather Than Rigid. While many employers have created ironclad policies and manuals that are supposed to draw the lines on company policy in thick and immutable fashion, the fact is that many modern employees don’t respond to such dictums. The journal writes, “Many companies are saddled with human resources policies that are so specific that they are no longer relevant. They then become bureaucratic barriers to effective management and undermine performance. Increasingly, companies are creating more general human-resources policies that give workers greater discretion, within clearly defined limits, to apply the policies in ways that suit their unique needs.” Examples of this include allowing department managers greater latitude over their budgets and personnel decisions, or allowing managers to find their own ways to meet company goals (within legal and acceptable limits, of course).

Get Personal. According to the story, “Employee performance can be improved just as much if not more by general management practices that recognize the individual. Managers might offer one-on-one coaching or mentoring, or redefine a job's focus to line up with an employee's strengths.” One great example: “Men's Wearhouse has largely replaced traditional training methods with an apprenticeship model, which the company has found to be far more effective. Store managers are encouraged to demonstrate effective sales approaches and to coach employees to develop a personal style of their own.”
KC's View:
It is sort of ironic to be writing about this approach from China, where it would be my guess that such individual attention to workers rights probably don’t exist. This would seem to be a society that takes work a lot more seriously than workers – next door to the conference hotel, there is a high-rise building being constructed in three shifts, 24-hours-a day, and it looks like many of the workers actually live on the site so there’s none of that annoying commuting or personal time. At least, that’s how it looks.

That’s this world. We all live in a very different world, where such an approach simply isn’t possible. (Though I can think of a few folks who might like to try it if they thought they could get away with it…) And I think that the journal piece is worth picking up and reading in its entirety, because it suggests an approach to people and management that may be foreign to many industry players.

By doing so, I think, we actually might be able to help make the industry palatable to those who might find it an unfriendly work environment.