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We live in an age of disruption. There is no doubt about that. New business models pop up and challenge or even obliterate the old ones. Standing still has never been an option, but now everything seems to accelerate. The speed of change is accelerating. They tell us the world is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And they are right.
So as companies are facing disruption, they face another reality. The world around them changes, almost overnight. And it happens outside. It is difficult if not impossible  to disrupt oneself. Sure, there are examples of companies that tried to disrupt the very markets they are in. For that they do need to disrupt themselves, or at least try to. Most companies fail at that. And why? Because it is extremely difficult to forget about what you know and what you care for.

It is extremely difficult to forget about what you know and what you care for.

Kodak could not see the value of digital photography, which it has invented. Xerox invented many things, but Apple ran away with many of their inventions. The travel industry was disrupted by and Airbnb. Which industry is next? And how do you cope with disruption?

The compost heap

The answer lies with the people. And if we talk about people we talk about the department or process once called HR. It’s not HR that should disrupt. It’s HR that should help people to cope with disruption (if they see it) and help organisations evolve faster. Should HR teach people how to be disruptive. Not really. I don’t think it can be taught. Every heap of compost needs some worms turn the natural waste into fertile soil. So if HR cannot be the worm, it can make sure the worms are at least tolerated within the organization. And do pardon me the comparison between people who innovate and bring oxygen and the worm.
Also for HR the world is changing rapidly. If HR sticks to a role of compliance, janitor, … it will not disrupt but be disrupted. If HR evolves towards the keeper of the compost heap, creating a fertile environment together with all people involved, it will succeed. For that it needs to disrupt some of its own practices.
And if it wants to disrupt some of its practices, it cannot do it alone, but together with its partners. In this sense, HR is business. Business is HR.
It’s a mistake to think that it’s only HR that is conservative. Many leaders demand structure, control, containment. And they look at HR to do it. So if HR wants to be disruptive, it needs to be in a disruptive environment. HR becomes the worm in the heap. Being disruptive to itself is as difficult for HR, as it is for an organisation. So kill your darlings if necessary. But do not do it alone.

Togetherness and Awareness

And to all those (HR) leaders who want to survive in a disruptive world: rest assure that the disruption does not come from you. It comes from them. Leading in a disruptive world has more to do with togetherness and awareness, then with being directive, or being a hero. Create disruption together with others, cope with it together with others.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Michael Jakob says:

    Hi David,
    I like this discussion, but I’ve issues to follow the wording.
    Are we talking about innovation? Is innovation causing he disruption? Is innovation something new? Since nearly 300 years we’re living in a period of innovation, since then business can be and become disruptive.
    Yes, since decades innovation and therefore change is accelerating and cycles are getting shorter and shorter.
    Innovation means change means to work with company culture, the agreement about loyalty, commitment and trust. Here companies not only HR did a bad job.
    Instead of being innovative and to renew the agreement under new or changing conditions the companies really became disruptive especially with their culture. Continuous cost cutting, outsourcing, re-re-re-structuring were the measures.
    Yes, sometimes change needs to be disruptive, but this doesn’t mean that the anchoring in the company culture needs to be disruptive. Doing this both is possible change-evolution and change-revolution.
    Innovation, disruption and change are topics, which go hand in hand in a company and like you mentioned Business is HR and HR is Business. I can see it in Business however I miss it in HR.
    Where in HR is the innovation? Is a three pillar-modell innovation, is it a shared service center?
    Standardization, harmonization and automation with (cloud-)technology – is this HR innovation? Re-structuring and outsourcing with NDA’s, hidden projects and mis-trust – is this HR innovation?
    Do we gain loyalty, commitment and trust with all these “innovations”?
    Yes, I’m provoking. But I think that’s what HR currently needs!
    Also a hay-fork can turn the compost heap. Maybe it hay-fork would be too disruptive! May be the worm is too slow or too less disruptive!
    Whatever we use to get oxygen into the compost heap it needs a company culture – by evolution or revolution. Company culture – the agreement of loyalty, commitment and trust needs HR. HR needs innovation.

    • You ask important questions. Indeed not all innovation is disruptive. Most of it is incremental. Disruption in itself is not a target either. I see that many people do not like innovation, and are terrified for disruption (if they acknowledge it). HR / People Management can play an important role in making sure that people are prepared for disruption. HR itself can lead in innovation but it cannot do it alone.

  • David,
    great article. If HR wants to succeed at not only a collaborative and but also guiding role in disruptive business environments, it will have to transform dramatically. It cannot be the function as we know it today. It will have to integrate business intelligence, marketing, communication and talent management. It will have to work across the industry, beyond the 4 walls of the company, to facilitate a network of talent resources enabling the business strategy and execution. HR needs to become that flexible business tool, enabling bold strategies through people. I don’t see any HR function succeed in a disruptive environment within the current framework.

  • Charlie Ewing says:

    I believe that there needs to be a focus on finding people with similar visions to the companies. If I can find people who work with me because they love what they do, what we do, and want to be part of the success of the organization, you will go far.
    Take scientists and administrators who work with NASA and ESA, they are making less than the averages they could in private industries, but these scientists and administrators believe in what they do. Their dedication is something that all organizations should seek to do.
    Supporting people while things change is a major part of what HR should do, or outsource to do. Losing people because of poor change management is a sad thing, especially if they believed in the company’s vision.

  • It is obvious that HR needs to keep up with the business environment. It is not efficient to rely on practices that are outdated, especially as efficiency is a must to survive in a company and as a company. If the world is disruptive, so should HR.

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