Ranger4 DevOps Blog

Scaling Agile and Making Friends Part 2: HR & Technology

Posted by Philippa Hale on Tue, Nov 12, 2019 @ 15:11 PM

This is Part 2 in a blog series exploring how technology communities can improve how they engage with other business functions, collaborate, build trust, create and secure the future of their organisation together. In Part 1 I set the scene. The focus here, in Part 2, is on HR and Technology.  

I am a linguist by background so I notice the specific words people choose to express their interests, needs, frustrations and vision. 

One thing I am very aware of - and really keen for everyone in organisations to think about - is how people in different departments are using the language of agile ways of working, but are not actually joined up. This is key to any scaling of desired ways of working. The old 'silo' thinking, stereotypes, even prejudices, are still there. They are often shockingly strong among people who spend their days deeply focused within their department and their specialist field. This is not because these are people who are naturally prone to prejudice. Far from it. It is well known from the vast literature on prejudice and diversity that once people get to know 'them' - whoever 'they' are - as people, learn their language and culture and achieve jointly owned successes, those prejudices all but disappear. Then the door opens to new levels of collaboration, trust, co-creation becoming the embedded ways of working.

Here are some statements with words that are commonly used in both HR and Technology teams.  The only change I have made to the statements is to take the name of the function the statement is from and replace it with XXX.  Your challenge is to decide whether these extracts are from HR or Technology Articles (or you can cheat and follow the links, but I suggest you do that afterwards):

'Often, XXX teams are left straddling the needs of the legacy organisation while planning for the needs of the future.'

'Previously, data was stagnant and siloed within disparate systems across both the XXX function and organisation as a whole. Now, metrics are paired with additional background and context to create actionable and meaningful guidance and direction.'

'The ability and cultural readiness to fail fast but learn faster and continuously innovate new solutions are among the most critical to mastering a new mind-set for the future of XXX in order to drive the value that enterprises require.'

XXX need to “co-develop” solutions with the business, and then roll them out in an experimental and iterative way.

All these statements came from HR articles (linked). XXX = HR in each case. They could just as easily have come straight out of the every day conversations happening in the technology teams, particularly in the last statement.  The 'business' here refers to all departments that are not HR, including technology!  For technology, HR is part of 'the business'. 

So why, if we are using the same language, do we feel so disconnected and find it so difficult to collaborate?  Each of these words are the tip of an iceberg, under which we find the invisible 90% of the meaning, the issues, concerns, stories of lived experience. If we can get to know each other better, we will understand each other's context, how these words are used, we will then know what to offer by way of support and how to inspire the trust we need to find solutions to old, hard-to-reach problems, together.

The following is a practical example of how to spot a word that is being used as shorthand, and therefore hiding valuable information. We will start with the word 'legacy', in the first statement. It has many layers of meaning in the technology community. It refers to old fashioned, out-of-date but often essential applications and systems. Those who designed and built those systems often find this word quite insulting. It was the foundation stone of the organisation and has served the organisation well up to now. It was the 'new shiny thing' of its time. There is a tendency to think that with 'legacy systems' go 'legacy skills' and even 'legacy people'. Very damaging but not uncommon. 

Other associations triggered by the word 'legacy' are: often large 'monolith' systems that have evolved over time and are now excessively complex, very inefficient, extremely expensive to maintain, unpredictable, vulnerable and pose varying degrees of risk to the organisation.  There can be a domino effect when one part of a legacy system goes down or malfunctions as 'legacy' systems are often closely linked with and dependent on other systems. Such failures are often publicly visible within or outside the organisation so there is a fear of reputational damage to both the Technology community and the wider organisation in the eyes of customers.

These words may not mean a great deal to the HR community but the following most certainly will.  Legacy systems are part of the cause of some high risk employment practices that are most likely damaging the company's employer brand : excessive working hours, leave regularly cancelled at short notice, short notice weekend working, relentless pressure of an out-of-control workload (WIP) as unplanned work piles up, and priorities driven by whichever senior manager shouts the loudest. Another phrase 'technical debt' has a similar associations. The competition for scarce and expensive technology talent is won by organisations that have sustainable working practices, are investing in reducing technical debt, and putting genuine effort into creating a culture of continual learning and improvement including practices such as Agile and DevOps.

In HR, the word 'legacy (in this case 'legacy organisation') refers to out-of-date management and leadership practices (command and control, performance management, recruitment and career management) and also old style, continual and unfinished large scale organisational change initiatives that leave employees and managers change weary and cynical. Agile HR is seen as the opposite of Legacy HR.  A 'legacy' culture and HR strategy are considered to be important reasons why the best of the new generations of employee talent will go elsewhere. 

Examples of agile as opposed to 'legacy' HR strategies include:

  • Training leaders at all levels of the company to act as hands-on coaches, not "managers"
  • Designing the organisation into small, high-performance teams that set their own targets
  • Creating customer interactions within all groups and functions in the company
  • Delivering a strong, focused mission and values to keep everyone aligned
  • Creating systems with lots of transparent information, i.e., what are our goals, who is working on what project, who are our experts
  • Implementing "systems of engagement" not just "systems of record," i.e., collaboration, information-sharing, project management
  • Building a focus on continuous learning and learning culture at all levels
  • Encouraging and teaching people to give each other direct feedback
  • Creating programs for peer-to-peer rewards and recognition

All of this is also exactly what technology are focusing on, and would welcome from HR, but don't always know that this is what HR are working on, or how best to support them. 

So what practical use can we make of this? 

In this short blog we have analysed just one single word: 'legacy'.  It is often a good place to start if you are, for example, setting up workshop sessions and encouraging Technology and HR teams to get to know each other.  You may have your own key cultural words you would like to use to kick off the storing telling and experience sharing, but Legacy is often a good one to start with. The points of common interest and connection will emerge, as will the point of friction and misunderstanding.  While there may initially be some awkwardness - how honest to be!? - if you agree that the workshop is a safe environment, the issues will be source of interest and focus rather than embarrassment or anger.  Both functions will quickly see how they can work together and help each other address their 'legacy' issues.  At Ranger4 we have facilitated may such workshops for our clients, and helped teams to create actionable evolution plans to achieve the outcomes listed above. 

Value Stream Mapping - to Generate Stories

We also encourage clients to use techniques such as Value Stream Mapping, to look at how the different functions' can work more effectively together. This is a great forum for story telling. Value Stream Mapping enables the diverse teams to analyse the flow of work across all their spheres of influence. Part of this is often surfacing the words that are used by all but differently, and therefore the cause of misunderstandings and misalignment of effort. The teams then use this information to identify the location and causes of blocks to flow and learning, to the benefit of all.

Here is an example of some of the words and stories generated by one of our clients in a very productive HR/Technology discussion.

Traditional IT HR Practices

Agile HR and IT Practices - Outcomes

Command & control prompts an ‘adult-child’* employment relationship (*Eric Berne, Games People Play)

Self-motivated and self-managing teams engaged with the hierarchy as ‘adult-adult’*

Cultural Debt - Change is resisted, painful, slow

Change seen as life-long learning and opportunity, the organisation is ‘Agile’ - can adapt to compete

IT job roles rigid, skills stuck in silos, evidence of talent loss in scarce skills market, low eNPS

Multi-skilled people, delighted with role enrichment, scarce skills retention, high eNPS

Silo thinking creates bureaucracy overhead & organisation stagnation

Multifunctional teams culture, creates dynamism, lean working, resource & time optimisation

KPIs focused on individual tracking, triggers unhelpful behaviour (gaming the figures), cost of team and performance management

KPIs that inspire ownership of overall quality, collaboration, efficiency and speed to customer delivery - 

If you would like to find out more about Value Stream Mapping please go here.

You can read Part One of this blog series here. Keep eye out for the next in the series!






Topics: Agile HR, cross team collaboration, Technology & HR, HR technology business partner, HR Product Owner