Audacious imagination: how HR can transform organisational culture

4 minute read

Pulling from sources as diverse as Motown to the film Everything Everywhere All at Once Perry Timms argues HR needs to evolve into a role that not only manages and supports employees but also dynamically adapts to ongoing changes while maintaining a strong focus on human-centric values. Siân Harrington examines his key insights

Sian Harrington

FIlm poster for with words everything everywhere all at once HR

In 2024 we have more problems and challenges in the HR profession than we've ever seen before, says Perry Timms, founder of PTHR and regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the UK. In fact, he argues, HR as a discipline has become permeable and stretched. “Don’t know what to do with this complicated business issue? HR, you have it,” he notes. 

This is leading to a state of overwhelm, says Timms, likening HR to the chaotic, fast-paced environment depicted in the film Everything Everywhere All at Once which deals with the experience of being overwhelmed by the apparently endless list of things that demand our energy and attention.

HR professionals today face a wide range of challenges, from managing remote workforces to integrating advanced technologies like artificial intelligence. This environment requires a new level of agility and resilience. As Timms points out, there's "busy," and then there's "hyper busy." The latter has become the new norm, demanding that HR professionals not only keep pace with change but anticipate and lead it.

Of course, overwhelm is the enemy of a positive organisational culture. When HR professionals are overwhelmed it can create a ripple effect throughout the organisation. A stressed and overburdened HR team may struggle to maintain a positive and supportive organisational culture. Overwhelm can cause HR to shift its focus from strategic, people-centric initiatives to merely keeping up with day-to-day tasks. And when HR is overwhelmed there's less capacity for creative thinking and strategic planning. This stifles the ability to foster a culture of innovation and adaptability within the organisation, which Timms advocates. 

So how can HR navigate the complexities of the modern workplace? The People Space picks out eight of Timms’ key insights:

Motown: Connecting culture and performance

Timms sees an evocative parallel between Motown music and organisational culture. Just as Motown revolutionised the music industry in the 1960s with its unique blend of performance and productivity, so too can HR revolutionise workplaces by fostering a vibrant, inclusive culture. The essence of Motown lies in its ability to bring out the best in its artists, creating timeless music that resonates across generations. Similarly, organisations that prioritise culture can unlock the full potential of their employees, driving innovation and performance.

Leveraging artificial intelligence without losing the human touch

One of the most significant challenges and opportunities facing HR today is the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). AI can streamline processes, produce insightful data and even create visual representations of complex concepts. However, Timms cautions against over-reliance on AI, emphasising that human creativity and imagination remain irreplaceable. AI should be seen as an augmentation of human capabilities, not a replacement. The true value lies in integrating AI in ways that enhance human-centric practices, ensuring that technology serves to elevate, not diminish, the human element in work. “Organisations don't need more replication. They need more imagination. Now, where does imagination come from? Wonderful, sparking human beings. That's where it comes from. Because if you ask AI to show you something imaginative, guess what? It won't do, because it's programmed with data that already exists. That by definition is not imaginative, it's tabulation,” says Timms

From hierarchies to teams and rules to culture

Timms references the work of global HR analyst Josh Bersin, highlighting the need for a fundamental shift in organisational structures and priorities. Moving from rigid hierarchies to flexible, team-based structures allows for greater agility and responsiveness. Similarly, shifting the focus from strict rules to a culture-driven approach can foster a more engaging and dynamic work environment. This transition is essential for organisations aiming to thrive in today's fast-paced and ever-changing landscape.

Human capital and good jobs: A new performance equation

Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends Report, as discussed by Timms, advocates for a new equation in human performance. This approach integrates the value for workers, organisations and society, highlighting the importance of good jobs and human sustainability. Treating contingent and gig workers with the same respect as full-time employees is crucial. Organisations must recognise that every worker, regardless of their employment status, contributes to the overall performance and culture.

Moving beyond the mono-culture

It's time to stop pursuing the illusion of a monoculture within organisations. When companies declare, "this is our culture," they often present an idealised, aggregated version. In reality, true culture is what you overhear in the canteen, what you observe in the depot, and what you sense when people gather for a cup of tea, says Timms. This authentic culture is varied, dynamic and multifaceted. So,  instead of striving for a single, unified culture, we should embrace a "culture of cultures." Different departments and teams have unique ways of operating and interacting. For instance, your tech team might prefer a different working environment compared to your finance team, each with distinct preferences and rhythms. HR needs to shift from merely managing employment to orchestrating work. This shift recognises the diverse and rich tapestry of organisational culture, allowing us to respect and harness the unique contributions of each subculture. 

Audacious imagination: the new AI

Timms introduces the concept of "audacious imagination," urging organisations to cultivate a culture of innovation and creativity. This involves embracing continuous improvement through S-curves, which allow organisations to adapt and pivot as needed. Begin with small, manageable changes and set milestones for reviewing and pivoting before current initiatives become obsolete. By fostering a culture that values imagination and bold thinking, HR can lead the way in creating dynamic, future-ready workplaces.

Embracing automation and regenerative practices

Looking ahead, Timms envisions a future where automation plays a significant role in enhancing productivity and economic growth. However, he stresses the importance of balancing automation with regenerative practices that prioritise the wellbeing of the planet and society. This holistic approach ensures that technological advancements do not come at the expense of environmental sustainability and social equity. 

HR 3.0: A new model 

To navigate the complexities of the modern workplace, Timms proposes a model for HR 3.0, which emphasises being deliberate, diversified and dynamic, with a focus on intersectionality rather than working in vertical silos. HR should adopt a product management mindset, treating HR services and policies as products designed to meet employee needs and enhance their experience, says Timms. It should also leverage people science to inform decisions and influence leadership, ensuring decisions are based on solid evidence and understanding of human behaviour. Organisational design should focus on deliberate strategies that add value and future-proof the organisation, and HR should lead efforts in environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives.

Timms shows how HR professionals can draw inspiration from places as diverse as the revolutionary spirit of Motown to the evidence-based research from respected analysts to help them face the new frontier of work with confidence and creativity. 

The future of HR lies in its ability to adapt, innovate and foster a culture that brings out the best in people, ensuring that organisations not only survive but thrive in the face of constant change. As he says: “Stop doing everything everywhere all at once. Create capacity, build capabilities, get that human/machine teaming right and you will start to see the natural consequence of building more pioneering and adaptable organisations.”

Published 12 June 2024
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