3 ways HR departments can adopt Agile methodology

Only 29% of employees say HR understands their needs, according to a Gartner survey, so using an Agile strategy can improve organizational outcomes.

Agile concept with young man

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Agile methodology is clearly popular: A July 21 Gartner survey (The Agile HR Function) of 253 human resources (HR) leaders found that 63% of respondents report already using some variation of Agile methods and principles within the HR function. However, 78% of HR leaders admitted to neither having a defined strategy nor being prepared; they don't have outcomes in place to guide how to use Agile strategies.

Across different industries, business leaders are consistently looking for new applications of Agile's project management methodology and not just for its origins in software design, but as a tool to improve organizational outcomes. Seventy-four percent of HR leaders said their organizations are "undergoing a broad 'Agile transformation,'" and almost three-quarters are confident in the importance of implementing Agile in HR to help define priorities and meet goals.

Agile, the report said, should be considered a collection of values that rapidly offer customers relevant products and support.

Key findings of the Gartner report:

  • HR can introduce Agile in two ways: HR projects designed to improve or create new HR solutions or the HR operating models, which represents both formal and informal ways HR gets work done and how it gives the business value.
  • Customers think of Agile as guidelines or values to solve solutions and support customers more than considering Agile a single methodology or tool.
  • Fundamentally, Agile is about the customer and this means, for HR leaders, to center on the employee experience in regards to operations and solutions.
  • HR leaders need to determine which trade-offs Agile requires for the business to gain value. The report cites the example of "managing work dynamically to reprioritize and reallocate resources as needed and granting teams more autonomy in decision making."

The Gartner report reveals the discovery that, "While there is a growing consensus among HR leaders that HR should become more agile, there is an overall uncertainty about how to effectively apply the principles to HR," said Caroline Walsh, vice president Gartner HR practice, in a press release.

It's a challenging time to be an HR leaders who face increasing pressure to cut costs, restore employee productivity, deliver on employee experience, and execute appropriate policies for employees.

Gartner recommends HR leaders consider the following strategies when implementing Agile: 

1. Solve customer problems by creating space for strategic thinkers 

Less than two of every five HR leaders believe their department can appropriately separate transactional and strategic tasks, according to a 2019 Gartner HR Structure survey. They want to focus on the strategic, but the existing processes and operating model do not allow for it, but the application of Agile values requires HR leaders to provide strategic thinkers the space and tools needed to resolve high-impact customer issues as it minimizes or eliminates the need for these employees to work on operational tasks.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the need for all organizations to be able to quickly adjust to the changing circumstances," said Mark Whittle, vice president of advisory for Gartner HR, in a press release. "Adopting Agile methods will enable HR to provide more relevant support and better solutions to the organization at large."

2. Support the installation of an HR model that is proactive and customer-sensing

Few (29%) employees agree that HR has an understanding of expectations and needs. HR business partners do provide strategic support to understand needs as it works with a business,  while gathering employee feedback. 

HR departments use engagement, exit and pulse surveys, and occasionally experimental data scraping to assess customers' needs, but these tactics can be ineffective. The Gartner report suggests that HR leaders need to reevaluate HR structures so they can discover the shafts in customer needs and decide where HR has the most strategic impact. 

3. Manage work as investment portfolio rather than a set agenda

Only one-third of HR leaders are in agreement about projects being paused or stopped if deemed as no longer valuable, the survey reported. Only 34% of HR leaders agree that when there's insufficient support for employees to tackle priority work, resources are allocated. 

HR leaders must manage work processes as an evolving investment portfolio, and not on building an Agile HR function designed on a specific agenda.

A majority (74%) of HR leaders believe the implementation of Agile in HR is essential to achieve key business outcomes and "contribute meaningfully" to the business in the future.

"Progressive HR leaders are seeking new ways to ensure their functions provide value and drive results, and they are considering Agile as a potential solution," Whittle said in a press release. "Incorporating an Agile approach within HR leads to tangible benefits for the organization and helps HR keep up with Agile transformations occurring throughout the rest of the business."

Gartner's recommendations

For HR departments looking to incorporate Agile methodology, Gartner recommends the following: 

  • Don't launch Agile HR transformations by looking to find a single "right" Agile project management methodology.
  • Ensure relevance by grounding HR solutions and workflows in employee experience instead of on HR experience alone.
  • Facilitate frequent reprioritization, and create new or redesign existing processes to allow for collaborative and iterative work.
  • To be certain HR can solve the most persistent problems, ask people with a profound understanding of challenges to help with the problem-solving process. 

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