HR’s Role in the Post-Bureaucratic Organization

December 13, 2016 Sarah Payne

Look through a stack of papersIf you’re a word nerd like me, you might be curious where the word bureaucracy comes from.

It’s actually derived from the French word bureaucratie, a term coined by French economist Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay in 1818. Bureau is the French word for office or desk, and –cracy is a Greek suffix meaning “power of.” So basically it refers to power held by people in big offices.

WorkHuman 2016 speaker Dr. Gary Hamel, director of the Management Innovation eXchange, is not a fan of bureaucracy (to put it lightly). I spoke with him earlier this year about that. And I recently had the opportunity to chat with him at HR Tech World, where he delivered a keynote and several breakout sessions.

We discussed what a post-bureaucratic organization looks like and how HR can be better facilitators of change platforms as opposed to change programs.

Read the first part of our Q&A below.


You’ve said you are on a mission to “kill bureaucracy.” Do you think that’s even possible? And what does that organization look like post-bureaucracy?

First of all, it’s necessary. Today, our organizations are failing us in critical ways.

They’re failing individuals who show up every day at work and want to make an extraordinary difference and then run into a tangle of red tape, or find themselves in a regime of creative apartheid where their voices aren’t heard.

Our organizations don’t work for CEOs who have nightmares about being Uber-ized and know that their organizations are not fast enough or agile enough to compete.

And they’re not working for a society in which productivity growth is stagnating and income disparities are growing. And underlying all these failures is a management model – bureaucracy – that impairs the capacity of our organizations to adapt, invent, and inspire.

Second of all, it is possible to bust bureaucracy. As human beings, we’re pretty good at rallying around problems when they become urgent and inescapable, even if we don’t have good role models. Luckily though, we have many examples of companies that have escaped the curse of bureaucracy.

We see companies like Nucor, the world’s most profitable steel company, that are far more decentralized than their competitors. Another example would be Svenska Handelsbanken in Sweden. As Europe’s most profitable large bank, Svenska has a tiny head office and hugely empowered local branches. Another post-bureaucratic exemplar is Haier, the Chinese appliance maker. Haier, a 50,00-person company, has divied itself into into 4,000 micro enterprises, and has only three organizational levels.

So yes, there are organizations that are managing high levels of complexity and achieving world class productivity without relying on the traditional tools of bureauracy.

It’s important to ask, “What problem were people trying to solve 150 years ago when they invented bureaucracy?” Essentially, they were trying to turn human beings into semi-programmable robots. At the time, we needed people to be as reliable as the machines they were serving on the production line. Today we have real robots to do this work.

In the creative economy, we need team members who are curious, imaginative, and willing to take initiative. In a sense, we now have the luxury of building organizations that are fully human.

“We now have the luxury of building organizations that are fully human.” @profhamel #workhuman
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How can HR leaders be better facilitators of deep management innovation? How can they play a role in excising bureaucracy?

There are several principles you have to start with if you are in HR and really want to change things deeply.

First of all, any change program has to be driven by users – by front line team members who know what’s getting in the way of doing the best job they could. These individuals have to be the authors of change, not recipients of top-down initiatives.

You need to ask people across the organization, “What needs to change in the way we lead, manage, and organize if we want to unleash more innovation or become more resilient?” Not everyone will have a great idea, but in my experience, you’ll be surprised by how practical and compelling many of the proposed solutions will be.

Today, you have to crowdsource change. I believe that in the future, every change program will need to be socially constructed. If it’s not, it won’t be embraced, it won’t be impactful, and it won’t be nuanced.

“Today, you have to crowdsource change.” @profhamel #workhuman
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Second, as HR people, we have to shift our focus, in a way, from individuals to the organization as a whole. At HR conferences, so much of the attention is focused on the person, the individual, the employee, which is important, but insufficient.

You can hire amazing people, can train them, give them key skills, but if you put them in an organization where the systems and processes are still built around the old bureaucratic model, those people are going to be frustrated and cynical.

Let me use an analogy. Over the last decade, companies spent a lot of time and money re-engineering their operating models – supply chains, logistics, and customer support. I would argue that they must now re-engineer their management structures and processes in ways that are equally ambitious and systematic

In other words, HR needs to broaden its mission. It’s not just about the people practices. It’s about how to imbue our organizations with 21st century capabilities – how to make them adaptable, innovative ,and inspiring. To do this, we’ll need to retool every management process.

For example, how many voices get heard when we sit down to do annual planning or create strategy? How easy is it for a frontline associate to get a small amount of time and experimental capital to do something? How many leaders are actually personally accountable for innovation? Or what autonomy do front line employees have to choose their own leaders or hire their associates?

We need to think of HR as not just “people management” but “capability development.” Again, that requires a systemic view. How do we make sure that all HR functions are pro-change, are pro-innovation, are pro-empowerment? I think that’s an expanded and exciting mission, not only to find and build more capable people, but to build more capable organizations.


Stay tuned for part 2 of our Q&A with Dr. Hamel!

HR’s Role in the Post-Bureaucratic Organization @profhamel #workhuman
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