#SHRM19 Topic Q&A Spotlight: Making Agile Work: HR's Role in Empowering Success


In today’s complex business world, organizations operate in a competitive environment to gain strategic market success, with the increasing need to have the firmwide agility to succeed in the marketplace. Building organizational agility requires a new way of working, new tools, methods to react and respond to the growing challenges. Agile Methodologies is one of the most robust and most talked about methodology in recent times. So, according to Andrew Conrad in his What Exactly is Agile?  says, “Agile project management is an interactive development methodology that values human communication and feedback, adapting to changes and producing working results.”

Agile started to improve the software development life cycle(SDLC) but gradually evolved into other functional areas like product development, manufacturing, and HR as well. How Agile in HR works? Josh Bersin, in his Agile in HR, Has Arrived: And Its Growing Fast says, “Agile, once considered an arcane methodology used by software engineers, the concepts of Agile are sweeping across the business. And they are radically changing HR”. Agile is changing how firms recruit, retain, develop their workforce. Prof.Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis in their HBR article HR Goes Agile summarizes this well by saying “HR is going “agile lite,” applying the general principles without adopting all the tools and protocols from the tech world.” Incremental adaption is a healthy way to embrace new tools. For the members attending this year’s 2019 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas will have an opportunity to learn more about Agile through the “Making Agile Work: HR’s Role in Empowering Success” session by Tracy Brower, Principal Steelcase and Laurent Bernard – Vice President, Global Talent Management, Steelcase. I had the opportunity to interact with both the speakers

About the speakers:

Dr. Tracy Brower: Dr. Brower is a sociologist and Principal with the Applied Research team of Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations. She has over 25 years of experience working with global clients, as well as healthcare and education clients. She specializes in human and social systems, organizational culture/effectiveness, and the changing nature of work. Dr. Brower is an executive advisor to Coda Societies, to the MSU Mathematics Master’s Program, and a board member for the FM Research & Benchmarking Institute. Tracy’s work has been featured in TEDx, The Wall Street Journal, Training Magazine, Fortune.com, Forbes.com, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, and more.

Laurent Bernard: Laurent has been the company’s Human Resources leader since 2002, and expanded his role in 2009 when the Learning group began reporting to him. 

His role now reflects the close connection of learning, development, recruitment, rewards, and other disciplines that contribute to Steelcase having the best talent possible to help us achieve our strategic business goals. He has been one of the primary architects of the company’s cultural transformation.

Laurent joined Steelcase in 1998. He has degrees in Human Resources and Law from the University of Paris and an MBA at ESCP Business School in Paris.

Here is my interaction with the speakers:

Tell us about your “Making Agile Work: HR’s Role in Empowering Success” session at #SHRM19, and what will be the key takeaways for the attendees.

With all the hype around agile, there are multiple ways of defining it. We will clarify what agile means and suggest ways that HR professionals can support agile manifesto-based working and the efforts of their internal customers who are moving to agile.

Our knowledge of agile has been built over time with our experience in practice, our work with customers, our research with experts and also through our own transformation of culture, process, tools, and space. Throughout it all, HR has been deeply involved and embedded. We’ll share lessons learned as well as a model for creating a holistic work experience in support of agile working. In addition, we’ll focus on key elements of leadership, teams, and measurements for success with agile.

Overall, we’ll provide for the empowerment of the HR function to lead and support agile work, workers and workplace in new ways.

Agile is widespread in IT space, not so popular in the HR world, in addition to championing agile, do you see specific areas in HR, where agile can be applied?

Yes, definitely. The principles of agile are applicable to HR. For example, putting people over process speaks to both the advocates that HR can be in the organization and the way that HR can model the values that put people first. Managing talent, developing leaders and fostering team skills are worthy approaches for both HR departments themselves and for the support they will provide the organization. Focusing on the customer is another way that HR can apply agile—bringing internal customers into processes to design programs or policies for example, or ensuring that internal customers can provide feedback regularly for the support and leadership that HR provides.

Agile offers something for everyone in the organization, and your session covers the various tenets of agile. Will, that include different methodologies- Scrum, Kanban, Lean, XP, and its applicability to HR as well?

There are indeed many different ways that agile can be applied within an organization from Scrum and Kanban to SAFe, LeSS and more. Also, many organizations have adopted their own customized agile approaches. While we won’t go into the details of each of these approaches, we will cover the principles and tenets of agile and the ways that HR can empower and enable agile no matter which methodology an organization is leveraging.

How can agile (approach to problem-solving) and design thinking (approach to problem finding) work in conjunction to address HR issues?

We definitely see the application of agile and design thinking as well as foresight and lean processes. We will speak briefly to the ways these work together. For example, we see that in terms of imagining the future, a foresight approach helps to capture signals and trends. In order to focus efforts, design thinking fosters human empathy. Finally, in developing new systems, agile is the best-suited methodology and this is complimented by lean which offers best practices for excellence in execution. In addition, agile is a great fit for work which seeks to create and develop new things, while traditional waterfall methodologies work best for work that is more redundant and predicable in its flow.

Can agile be applied to small and medium-size companies as well?

Yes, agile can be applied to companies of various sizes. Because the principles of agile are fundamental—people over process, customer embeddedness, quick feedback cycles, incremental development and value—they can be applied in all kinds of situations. One element of our learning has been that a whole organization must be on board with agile. If a subset or department is seeking to implement agile, they can certainly realize success to an extent that matters. However, in order for them to accomplish the highest levels of success, the entire organization needs to shift its work approaches.

What is the best way for the readers to connect with you?

Readers can connect with us at the conference in our session: Making Agile Work: HR’s Role in Empowering Success, or they can email us: Laurent Bernard or Dr. Tracy Brower. People can also reach us via Twitter @LbernardMI or @TracyBrower108. We also have many agile-specific materials on our website, Steelcase.com which you can access here.


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