Maintain or Transform?

When times are difficult, the knee-jerk reaction is to hunker down and try to survive. It is the natural defensive response to threat. But there is a choice. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.

So, what is your company’s reaction? No matter how bad things are, there is always opportunity. Think of the market as a piece of cloth with various threads woven into a pattern. Competitors, customers, the economy and regulators are cross threads running through the market’s fabric. Vertical threads include the company’s strategic business plan and leadership, employee capabilities, workforce plan and readiness. Over time, that fabric is tugged and stretched as threads are weakened or reinforced. Gaps in the weave open up when the cloth is subjected to violent forces. Some of those holes are problems, while others represent opportunities.

In a disturbed market like the current one, some competitors become confused. They don’t know what to do when they see customers disappearing. Mid-market customers may delay discretionary purchases as layoffs proliferate, credit dries up and savings are decimated. Conversely, wealthy consumers usually weather market dips because they have investments that continue to produce income.

Regardless of the economy, people still have needs for which they must continue to spend. During the Great Depression, movies thrived because poor people could get into theaters for a dime and escape their worries for a couple of hours. Wealthy people took advantage of markdowns to get bargains on luxury goods and foreclosed real estate. The economy was rocked, but all people continued to need products and services.

Just as companies today must make decisions on maintenance versus enhancement or even transformation, the human resources function is also at a decision point. What will be the new normal for talent management in your company?

Consider what is happening with the onslaught of smartphones, tablets and social networks. The youngest employees have grown up with technology practically embedded in them. They view work and relationships quite differently than you or I. Whether or not we regard open communications as naive, to them it is a given. Add the fact that millennials’ values are different from those of us over 30. In the end you have an organization that can no longer control communication. The best we can do is mitigate the risk inherent in an open communication environment. So what can HR do around talent management going forward?

Which of the following set of opposing ideas will exemplify your modus operandi? Efficient vs. effective; maintaining vs. enhancing; reacting vs. anticipating; knowing vs. preventing; describing vs. predicting; and building skills vs. transforming culture.

The first in each set is about tactical responses to the market. The second in each set is about strategic thrusts into the market. Which is the competitive option?

I don’t have to tell HR professionals what to do to maintain their position. They continue to work on providing good services. They urge management to encourage everyone to work hard, do more with less, be a team player and carry on in spite of the tough times. Most employees will do that because they don’t have any other choice. There are not a lot of jobs available for people who do not have leading-edge skills. In the end, if you are lucky your company will survive and find itself in about the same position as when the bottom fell out. What it won’t find is itself in a position of competitive advantage.

Advantage is the end product of executing on an enlightened vision, a fresh strategy and a new culture. The transformative expedition does not require us to know the destination. It only demands that at each fork in the road we keep an open mind. The only conveyances we need for the journey are a set of logical questions and the means to impartially analyze what we encounter.