Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to speak with Mehdi Kajbaf, a colleague of mine from Canada on the impact that simple Engineering concepts like process documentation and optimization can have on how we move HR from an administrative function to more of a strategic role. Our passion here at Jumpstart:HR is to re-think how we do HR in order to make it more efficient, forward-thinking and relevant in the eyes of senior level decision makers. In order for this to happen, there must be a shift in how we approach “how we do HR.” This will result in a transformation from simply being the “administrative support” to being a front-seat driver in executive-level decisions on organizational goals and objectives.
Here’s what Mehdi had to say about Engineering and the importance of innovation in Human Resources Process Optimization:
Jumpstart:HR: Tell us about your background in Engineering and why you have a passion for Business Engineering in the HR function.
Mehdi Kajbaf: I studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Waterloo and had the chance to work in a variety of industries including telecommunications, power, electronics and most recently traffic control products.
I’m unsure exactly what you mean by Business Engineering, but I will say my passion for HR is a result of many factors. The top three are probably:
1) I love helping people achieve their full potential, and find happiness at work. It is incredibly motivating.
2) HR challenges are incredibly complex and require the full range of skills including understanding human behavior, technology, large data sets and of course great communications skills.
3) I am completely disappointed in current management practices and feel that HR is very well positioned to make a difference.
I have always been one to challenge the status quo, particularly with respect to workplace rules and policies. I’ve never understood the Monday to Friday, 9-5 mentality, strict dress codes or adherence to what I consider outdated traditions. Why are Monday’s so miserable for so many? Why do so many seem to loathe their bosses? The more I learn, the more I realize there is a better way and that the huge amount of disengagement and apathy in our workplaces is an epidemic that can be solved. My passion in life is to help remedy this situation. I believe that by improving the workplace culture into a healthier, more fulfilling one, we can also create a healthier and more productive economy.
JHR: What are some key components of engineering that all HR professionals can apply to their problem-solving approach?
MK: Engineering is extremely rigorous, as there are often good, better and best solutions. In HR there are rarely perfect solutions as there are so many unique situations and factors, but I still think it is important to look for the best possible solution.
This is critical because HR is often guilty of meeting baseline requirements. So much of what HR departments do seems to be dictated by law or based on what others are doing. 2 weeks vacation to start, standard benefits package, diversity training, if we are creative maybe we’ll add some fun perks like a fitness center or masseuse! Innovation is few and far between, the good solution is good enough.
In engineering I was taught to optimize, build for scalability and never stop looking for better solutions. We test, measure, iterate and improve continuously with version 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 etc. HR needs to apply this kind of thinking to their profession and not be satisfied with good solutions when there are amazing solutions to be had!
JHR: Can technical engineering strategies be applied to the “softer side” of HR? How so?
MK: I recently gave a talk to a group of engineers in IT and asked them, what’s more difficult, technical problems or human problems? Generally people felt that human problems were much more difficult, and I see it as the difference between complex and complicated problems. Complicated problems are difficult and challenging, but they are understood and there is a knowable solution. Complex problems are also difficult and challenging, but there is no definitive solution. You’ll never solve the problem of motivating employees, or having everyone be extremely productive. There are better and worse ways to get it done, and we are always looking for new strategies but it’s not something we can solve per say.
So in this way, treating a complex problem as a complicated one is a recipe for disaster. We will either settle for a non-optimal solution or get incredibly frustrated when our approach isn’t working perfectly. So I guess I’m saying that engineering strategies shouldn’t
The way they should be applied is primarily in the way I described in question 2. An evidence based approach that measures, iterates and continuously improves. This is built into engineering thinking, but not always in HR. I can understand where it comes from as well, because the benchmarks to measure against in Engineering are much more obvious than in HR. We can say that efficiency is improved, output is increased, or costs are reduced very definitively in many Engineering applications. A new HR initiative may be much more difficult to measure, and its impact may be felt in subtle ways that only become apparent when taking a long term perspective. Yet, there are still ways to measure and improve and it is critical to make our best effort so that we don’t settle.
The second point I would make is that strategy is evolving and changing faster than ever before. Nobody can say with certainty what makes a great strategy in this new age. Nilofer Merchat, who recently wrote the Social Era says traditional strategy is dead and we have entered a new age. I tend to agree, so much has changed in the past 10 years, and even just the past 2 years. Look at Workday, the cloud based HR software which more than doubled expectations in its IPO. Yammer, an enterprise social media platform which was bought by Microsoft for $1 billion. Technology, HR and social media are intersecting in new and exciting ways but nobody can really say where it will take us. Adaptability, flexibility and continuous learning are fundamental to being a strategic player.
JHR: Have we missed anything? What are some of the most critical things that HR needs to know about applying Engineering
Beyond that, on a tangent, I think the most important point that we haven’t touch on so far are values. HR professionals are supposed to be the people-people, but I think it is valuable to take a look in the mirror sometimes and reflect about what values we are demonstrating with our behavior. Are you an HR Professional that is continuously looking for ways to help employees do their work in the most effective and successful way? Consider, how often are there requests made that you have to say no to? Consider how many vacation days you have rejected, how many sick days you haven’t paid for, how many benefits you have cut, how many training sessions you denied, how many times have you said no? I believe HR has to work hard at removing obstacles and making sure that every employee is heard and valued so that a strong culture is created. Why say no? Are we protecting an out dated policy, managing for the 3% that take advantage, being lazy or is there truly a good reason? I would say that we should look to our core values as HR people every time we say no and see if we are being true to those values.
Mehdi is a University of Waterloo Electrical Engineer, that has taken a 90 degree turn in his life since completing his MBA from the Schulich School of Business. He has been working as an independent consultant with Organizational Effectiveness Consulting for the past 2 years, helping organizations get the most out of their workforce. He is also an enthusiastic blogger at orgeffectiveness.ca, discussing innovative workplaces and management practices that are critical for success in the modern economy. Find him on his social media pages or his blog!
Favorite Quote: “culture eats strategy for breakfast” – Peter Drucker