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Are You Ready for an Agile Future?

An Agile Organization Embraces Change


Agile, nimble, resilient—these words describe the people you want to hire, retain, and develop in the future. They describe the organizational cultures that will thrive in times of intensely competitive, rapidly changing markets, customers, products, delivery systems, and services. They describe you, if you value your career and your contribution to the competitiveness and success of your organization.

An agile or change-ready organization is able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances; it is ready for anything. It can respond instantaneously to changing customer demands. The agile organization innovates rapidly, and immediately tailors products and services to customer needs. It shares information with suppliers and customers in unprecedented ways. The agile organization integrates employees, contractors, customers, and suppliers to share knowledge and skills.

In a health care center, this might mean scheduling same day appointments for all patients who want them. In a manufacturing company, one basic product is shipped ten different ways to match how the customer uses the product when received. In an HR office, a Manpower representative may work at your site to screen, interview, and hire employees. Your employees may enter benefit information and changes directly into a computer terminal that is provided by the company to whom you’ve outsourced benefits management.

In a manufacturing company you might go to a supplier to participate in a kanban (continuous improvement) event to improve the work process that delivers your raw materials. In an insurance company, all independent brokers, who sell your products, might enter and have access to all information in a networked data base. In a bank, every front line employee is cross-trained to do every customer service function including accepting deposits, loan application review, and investments in certificates of deposit.

Human Resources and Agility

Think about this world. Is your organization already on this path? Or, do you need to help nudge it in this direction? Think about the people who will work most successfully in this environment. As an HR professional, how do you ensure that your organization can attract and retain resilient, agile, nimble, adaptive people? Beyond managing change, this article will begin to explore how you can help your current employees develop this capacity. We will take a look at the work environment, organization, and climate that will enable you to contribute the workforce needed for the future.

Richard A. Shafer, Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Center for Leadership in Dynamic Organizations at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, challenged traditional HR organizations and structures in HR Magazine (Vol. 44, No. 11). “This move toward agility will create a new role for the HR function,” he wrote. “In many organizations, existing HR systems are major impediments to creating agile workforces. For the most part, HR systems are designed to reduce variability and to standardize behavior, not to promote flexibility and adaptive behavior.”

He predicts that HR organizations will become smaller. “Hiring criteria and processes will be altered to reflect agile attributes…Job descriptions will be eliminated and compensation systems redesigned to pay relatively more for enterprise-wide results and relatively less for individual outcomes.” As a professional, your job is to create an organization that constantly builds its capacity through building the capacity of the people you employ.

Multiple layers of management that separate people from information, customers, and the ability to make knowledgeable decisions won’t work in your agile future. Neither will people who want to do one job, make limited decisions, take no risks, and pass each challenge to their supervisor. As a manager in the desired environment, every time you make a decision that could be made by the individual who has the knowledge, the proximity to the situation, and the need, you deprive that person of the opportunity to grow. You destroy employee empowerment.

Direction and focus, in this environment, is provided by leaders who drive and communicate the organization’s strategic vision throughout the workplace, daily, incessantly, and consistently. People internalize this vision and perform their work to maximize its attainment.

Furthermore, if you are still focused on meeting customer needs by providing a quality product, on time, that meets requirements, for a price your customer is willing to pay, you are lagging behind the learning curve. According to Daryl R. Conner, CEO of ODR, Inc., in "How to Create a Nimble Organization", published in the National Productivity Review (Autumn, 1998), “the defining moment for customer service will be not when established needs are expressed, but will be when the unexpected requirement materializes over night."

Find out three critical components of the agile organization and how to build agility in you and yours.

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