Workforce Speed — the Most Impactful Talent Factor That No One Is Managing

I work in the Silicon Valley, where we have a long-established mantra of “faster, cheaper and better.” But now no matter where you work in the world, almost everyone can sense the fact that every aspect of global business now seems to move significantly faster than it did even 10 years ago. You could even label the 21st century as “the century when speed dominated.” This increased speed means that new products and product features come to market at an amazing rate, copying is almost immediate, everything you rely on seems to become quickly obsolete, and long-established businesses routinely lose out to faster moving startups.

In this environment, even notable fast-mover firms like Google and Apple occasionally don’t move fast enough. This was the case where they both failed to effectively seize on the amazing social media and microblogging opportunities that the faster-moving startups Facebook and Twitter quickly dominated.

In the past, the business domination rule was simple … Large and established firms will dominate the smaller ones.

However the new rule has become “It’s the fast-moving and rapidly adapting firms that now dominate the slower ones, whether they are large or small.”

If Your Firm Changes Slower Internally Than the External World, it Has No Future

Executives are beginning to realize that the need for speed may not just be a luxury; it is probably already a critical success factor for business survival. This point can be illustrated by the once industry-leading firms of Friendster and MySpace, which both went from domination to obscurity in a handful of years. Their demise was in part because the speed of their employees and managers simply could not match the speed of their marketplace.

You can also look to the mobile phone industry, where brand-new phones now become almost unsellable within six months of their introduction. Firms like Kodak, Xerox, Sears, Blockbuster, and RadioShack that once dominated their industry are now but a shadow of their former selves as a result of becoming bloated and slow. The probability has increased dramatically of any dominant firm rapidly falling out of the top tier in their industry.

Speed Must Now Permeate Every Aspect of the Organization, Including Employees

We already know that many business essentials including computers, Internet downloads, printers, and package delivery have successfully responded to this “need for speed” by improving their speed capability by as much as 20 percent per year. However having equipment and technology that enables speed may not be enough if a key remaining business success component, the employees, lags behind in the race for speed. For example, recent speed-related train accidents have demonstrated that fast-moving equipment simply can’t function if the employees operating it are not capable of handling the speed that the equipment is capable of.  The key strategic learning for executives should be that in order to dominate their market, all of the major components of a business, including equipment, capital, and people must all move in unison and at a speed that matches the firm’s best competitors.

HR Is Not a Player in the Speed Game

Unfortunately, a quick assessment at almost any firm reveals that it is the people component of a firm that is dead last in increasing its speed. The talent management group that manages the people component doesn’t have a weak response; instead, it has no response whatsoever to this business imperative of continually enhancing “workforce speed.” Because executives routinely repeat the phrase that “our employees are our most important asset,” it only makes sense that HR should take a proactive role in improving the speed of that most important asset.

HR could have a proactive impact on organizational speed through the way that it hires, develops, moves, and manages employees. If you’re not sure whether your HR function has a focus on speed, you can quickly find out, because having a “speed capability” would be part of job descriptions, employee performance appraisals, promotion criteria, performance metrics, and reward criteria. And there would certainly be classes for employees and managers on how to increase their speed. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find HR organizations anywhere that even list enhancing workforce speed as one of their primary goals, no less offering services and programs that measure and increase that employee speed. Outside of firms like Google, Facebook and Yahoo; it’s hard to find any organization where managing workforce speed is a major funded HR initiative.

Workforce Speed Categories Defined

There are three categories of speed, including:

  • Workforce speed – this means a workforce (i.e. all managers, employees, contractors, and vendors) that complete work tasks faster. However, the definition of workforce speed also includes how fast the workforce learns, generates ideas, redeploys workers, innovates, and shares best practices at a speed that could not occur unless the organization was managing speed. “Speed-capable” employees, managers, and teams also identify and respond to problems and opportunities measurably faster, they anticipate environmental changes, and they are forward-looking, so they plan and use if-then scenarios to prepare for a range of possible fast-arriving events.
  • Organizational speed — this means how fast the entire organization moves. Organizational speed can be measured over a variety of factors including how fast decisions are made, the time to market of new products and services, customer response speed, and process speed. Additional organizational speed factors include your response to competitor actions, organizational learning speed, project completion speed, problem-solving speed, and growth speed (i.e. the speed in which the firm moves into new regions, customer categories, and new industries). Speed principles can for example be applied to decision-making, where firms like Glaxo Smith Kline have demonstrated that redesigning their inside workplace to enhance employee interaction can cut decision-making time by as much as 45 percent.
  • A “culture of speed” — this represents an overall strategic goal, which indicates that you manage speed effectively in both the workforce speed and the organizational speed categories. If you take the “need for speed” seriously, you need to move beyond having isolated “pockets” of speed throughout the organization and instead adopt a comprehensive organizational wide approach.

10 Action Steps That Will Allow HR to Effectively Manage Workforce Speed

This last section contains a description of the foundation steps that HR must complete if it wants to play a major role in effectively managing workforce speed.

  1. Develop the business case for managing “workforce speed” – the first critical action step within HR is to build a compelling business case for developing programs to manage and increase speed. The goal is to make it a business imperative because you have demonstrated that the lack of workforce speed is costing your organization millions each year. In order to get managers to pay attention to speed, they also need to be shown the impact that a lack of speed has on their own business results. The next step of the business case is to work with the CFO’s and the COO’s office to quantify the “cost of slow” on revenue and other business goals. And as a result of that quantification, executives should almost immediately begin asking themselves if they can afford to have the single biggest business impact factor (your employees), lagging in speed capability. A segment of the business case also needs to demonstrate the costs associated with “uneven organizational speed.”
  2. Make workforce speed a strategic HR goal – the next important step is to make “workforce speed” a strategic HR goal and success measure. Both financial and HR talent resources need to be applied to this speed initiative. HR staff with speed capabilities must be hired and trained, so that they have the capability of maintaining and increasing workforce speed.
  3. Everything must move in unison – it’s impossible to maximize organizational speed when any one single business component lags behind the rest. Just like with a moving train or a centipede in a foot race, the speed of the whole is limited by the single slowest-moving component. Ensuring that all components of an organization move at the same speed requires that you monitor speed metrics to identify bottlenecks. You can’t have the fastest organizational speed in your industry if a single process, silo, or function moves at a lower rate of speed, creating roadblocks and “speed bumps” for the faster moving elements of the organization. You also must develop a process to rapidly share speed related best practices, opportunities, and problems. Unevenness in speed will frustrate your employees, and that frustration may cause the faster ones to slow down (it may even force fast-moving employees to leave). Don’t forget to use technology, because it provides speed and consistency across the organization. And finally remember each component of “interdependent” business processes must also be integrated and coordinated, so that the process time is minimized.
  4. Increase hiring speed – focus on hiring process speed, because having key positions vacant for a long period of time slows up overall organizational speed dramatically. The hiring process itself must be speeded up so that “in-demand” prospects and candidates are not lost to competitors as a result of unnecessarily slow hiring. Make speed capability a key hiring competency that becomes part of all job postings and interview assessment criteria. And finally educate both managers and recruiters so that they know how to find speed-capable candidates, and then accurately assess their speed capabilities during the assessment process.
  5. Develop the capability of completing tasks faster  a major action area where the training function can help is in aiding managers to assess the speed capability of their team members. The training/learning function must play an important role in helping employees increase their speed skills, their ability to complete tasks rapidly, and to innovate faster. Obviously in order to do that, T&D must provide learning materials, experts, coaching, and online classes to help everyone learn speed techniques, so they can continually get faster without sacrificing quality. Develop a process for identifying any barriers to workforce speed.
  6. Develop individual learning speed – research by Google has indicated that “learning capability” is one of the top two factors in new hire success. The learning function should seek out the fastest learners (both inside and outside of the organization) in order to capture the most effective speed learning approaches.
  7. Reward speed with quality – the compensation and reward function can make a major contribution by determining accurate measures of speed. And then they can make speed a critical part of performance, reward, and promotion criteria.
  8. Develop fast leaders – the leadership function needs to dramatically expedite leadership development, so that it produces leaders much faster. It must also develop the speed capability of all leaders and show them how to develop and bring out that capability in their teams.
  9. Speed up internal movement – an other important talent area that needs to be upgraded is internal movement. I recommend using a process once used by Microsoft which I call “business phase matching.” The approach directs employees with advanced speed capabilities into jobs and business units where speed is critical. In the same light, if slower-moving employees can’t be fixed or replaced, they would be moved into business units and teams where speed is less important.
  10. Develop speed metrics – the metric staff can make a major contribution by developing a set of powerful real-time metrics that can be used to monitor speed throughout the workforce. Predictive metrics must be developed so that both managers and HR are alerted prior to any major talent issue, so they are prepared to react quickly when they do occur. Metrics should also be developed that prove the impact that HR has had on improving the overall workforce speed.

Final Thoughts

Speed has long been part of most executive conversations, and it has been a major business initiative in almost all business units and functions. However, HR has been inexplicably absent when it comes to both understanding the need for speed and in providing programs that increase it. The time has passed where HR is the only major business function that does not have a formal process for increasing speed.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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