Research Diary: Lessons From a Global HR Transformation Effort


Welcome to Research Diary, a regular peek inside NLI’s latest industry research project. Since March 2020, our Industry Research team has been interviewing HR professionals about the way they’ve experienced change and transformation efforts in their organizations.

Tackling this mammoth topic is quite timely as humankind is trying to simultaneously keep up with its existing efforts, while also coming to terms with the new reality of pandemic-related disruption.

As such, leaders will need to confront many different questions moving forward, such as how organizations will adapt to changes in their business environment, how they drive and manage major transformation efforts, and the role behavior change plays.

As our team is in the process of learning what change initiatives actually look and feel like, I want to share what I’m hearing at the same time. More than offering smart answers that we don’t (yet) have, I want to distill emerging, interesting themes and questions from our interviews (while still maintaining our interviewees’ complete confidentiality). The goal is to provide you and your teams with food for thought as you work through your own change efforts.

April 30th, 2020

Global companies can encounter challenges if important functions are spread across the globe. This can lead firms to centralize the unit in one location, for the sake of boosting efficiency and driving results.

In one of our recent interviews, we learned that the goal of centralizing a global HR function in this organization was to improve the quality of HR services. This meant behavior change was required on many levels. Members of the HR organization worldwide would be asked to focus their attention on spending the majority of their time improving the employee experience, and thereby drive the business strategy, rather than on improving operational HR processes.

The following questions emerged in our exploration of this change initiative, particularly as it relates to behavior change of the global HR function:

1. How can we build trust when people’s worlds are turned upside down?

Especially when working with HR teams around the world, it can be difficult to align on a common vision and to design a centralized function whose goals are aligned with those of local offices. Moving work to a central location also significantly impacts existing teams and individuals. People ask what this will mean for their jobs, their responsibilities, and their future at the organization. In this case, many face-to-face discussions and brainstorming sessions took place to help people to process and co-create the new reality. After all, large chunks of their existing work were going to disappear and be replaced with new strategies that required new skills and behaviors on many fronts.

As the interview revealed, the ability to establish and maintain trusting, inclusive, and open relationships between the various stakeholders was a critical factor for the success of this multi-year effort.

How would you focus on building trust in times of significant change?

2. How do you ‘connect’ with the people who are supposed to change?

Asking people to do things differently, or better, is a vastly underestimated part of many change processes. In this organization, the goal of enabling significant shifts in mindsets and behaviors requires constant, respectful, and empathetic reminders and reinforcements.

This aspect highlighted the lengthy component of understanding the motivations and expectations of people whose behavior needed to change. In-person, frequent discussions around the Why for the change turned out to be as important as the continued recalibration of the What and the How.

Even though engaging with people who are geographically dispersed can be tough, the creation of a personal connection with key stakeholders proved to be decisive for the success of the transformation effort.

How are you planning to truly connect with those you are asking to change?

3. How do you know your change initiative was a success?

Ironically, several organizations shared with us that their change objectives themselves changed half-way through, creating a moving target.

However, in this case, the clear number-one goal of the change effort was to improve the employee experience. Expected outcomes were determined and assessed pre- and post-transformation via a global employee survey. Simple questions about employees’ experience of how HR processes worked for them, gave valuable information about specific change metrics that needed to shift.

This highlights the relevance of the attempt to determine success metrics before and during the change. Since many metrics are tightly linked to the way people will “do things differently” (meaning better), it may be worth to include existing behavioral benchmarks ahead of time.

What type of metrics will tell you more about the success of your change efforts?

Author: Andrea Derler, PhD

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