Sumser: HR doesn’t have all the answers—and that’s OK

By: | July 8, 2020 • 4 min read
Emerging Intelligence columnist John Sumser is the principal analyst at HRExaminer. He researches the impact of data, analytics, AI and associated ethical issues on the workplace. John works with vendors and HR departments to identify problems, define solutions and clarify the narrative. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

How fast do things change in your organization? Is the speed consistent, or does it vary wildly? Is the change incremental or do you lurch? Is your answer today the same as it was in late January?

My guess is that you have a sense of the answer but can’t put a number on it. In some companies, change is the result of a well-planned and intentional process. In others, the planning never really seems to take root. There, change feels slow and difficult. In still others, change spikes around unplanned phenomenon. The culture thrives on opportunity and always makes lemonade from lemons.

Related: Strategies for managing work during a pandemic

Every organization, every subset of the organization and every individual in it have their own pace for integrating change. We are not very close to being able to measure the entirety and its constituents. We don’t really have a good theory for how it happens and how it varies.

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If we’ve learned anything in the past six months, it’s that we are not always in control of the rate of change. Things that used to take years happened in days. Control loosened. Goals became more important than methods. Risk analysis took a back seat to getting it done.

And “poof!” We shifted from centralized to distributed work wherever we could. No gradual transitions. No tiptoeing around political landmines. No stakeholder consensus building. Just “poof!”

Every single job in the economy changed. Every single worker encountered a new reality overnight.

It’s tempting to think that we can keep moving at the pace that got us here. The roles and responsibilities have been rearranged. Layoffs are still happening. Pay cuts have begun.

It’s as if we hurriedly packed and moved one night, just before the disaster hit. In my town, everyone has a story about collecting their most important things just before the wildfires came through. Our businesses look like a collection of the things we thought were important before the pandemic hit.

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We are waiting for an all-clear signal that most likely won’t come any time soon. But it’s essential to remember that this is a temporary campsite, not our permanent future. It’s equally important to understand that we are not going back.

Please don’t accept the idea that we are living in the new normal. It’s much more like we are living in an old Winnebago while on an unanticipated road trip. We have a place to sleep, a place to cook and a way to get around. But this is not our new home.

Resist the temptation to believe that we understand the problem. We are still on the road and haven’t yet found out where we are going to settle. Of course, economics matter. But this disruption does not affect all businesses and people equally. Do not blindly accept the idea that we have somehow arrived.

We live in an artificial economy, buoyed by $3 trillion in free money and a Federal Reserve engaged in extreme efforts to keep the economy moving. We simply won’t understand what’s happening and which problems we should solve until we are beyond those manipulations. That may be a while.

Until then, we live in a temporary reality. It’s a fantastic time to experiment and a terrible time to make long-term plans. Businesses love to proceduralize things. That’s the core philosophy of the MBA. But, as we all know, procedures have a tendency to become permanent.

The exhausting thing about this time is that every decision, conclusion, process innovation and proposed innovation needs to be simultaneously executed in a hurry and closely examined for long-term consequences. Settling into a groove makes you vulnerable to the next disruption.

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And, there are going to be more significant disruptions: the next waves of the virus, the election, the post-election timeframe and the changes in government support (PPP and other programs).

For the time being, we must continue to solve the next biggest problem we encounter, being mindful that the solution sets only a limited precedent. It’s time to deeply consider what has changed, what else we should change, what is the right thing to do for people and our organizations, and head in that direction. This, however, is not our home.