What is Agile HR, and how to get started | Moorepay
March 6, 2024

What is Agile HR, and how to get started

HR department using agile hr methodology

Unless you’ve been buried under paperwork for the last decade (entirely plausible in the HR world), you’re bound to be familiar with the concept of ‘Agile’ project management. In this article, we outline how you can apply these concepts to HR operations.

When was Agile introduced?

Agile methodology was the brainchild of software engineers, developed as a way to speed up their development projects, and was formalised in 2001. It was founded on the principles of collaboration and iteration – breaking down large, complex projects into shorter work cycles, known as sprints, delivered by multi-functional teams.

Agile has since been adopted by all kinds of different industries and is now one of the most widely recognised project management methodologies around. It was applied to HR when HR functions started to experiment with alternative operating models – replacing the previous ‘gold standard’ Ulrich model, popularised in the late 90s by HR thought leader David Ulrich, which focuses on roles and responsibilities in HR departments.

What does Agile working involve?

Today, Agile projects continue to centre on ‘sprints’ – the name given to each of those short cycles of work. Sprints last for a predetermined period of time, after which progress is reviewed and any revisions identified. Only then can the next sprint begin.

These iterative sprints underpin a culture of continuous feedback and improvement, allowing teams to react quickly to change, and avoid any large-scale mistakes being discovered at the end of a long and expensive project.

It’s these advantages that are making HR departments sit up and take notice – with Agile HR being the latest application of a methodology ever-growing in popularity.

What is Agile HR and why is it relevant now?

In essence, Agile HR is simply the application of Agile methodology in the HR department. In practice, it means more collaboration, less linear planning, shorter work cycles and less focus on individual contribution.

Under an Agile approach, for instance, a small team would work together to design, develop and deliver an HR initiative, rather than each member working independently from top-down instruction.

In many ways, the evolving nature of the traditional business structure is supporting the introduction of Agile HR. Organisational structures have become much flatter in recent years, thus opening up opportunities for collaboration in all directions.

This collaboration extends far beyond the HR department, too. Indeed, a key element of the Agile mindset is that solutions that should be developed collaboratively with customers – and in the case of HR, that means co-developing solutions with the wider business that it serves.

The evolution of HR’s role is another an important driver behind the introduction of Agile HR. As the department seeks to add strategic value and becomes increasingly focused on measuring success, Agile’s shorter work cycles and regular review processes are more conducive to demonstrating the validity of the ongoing activity.

We propose that agile HR represents a logical evolution in HR operating model design that is not only strategic in origin but sustainable in the context of the increasing pace of change in the external environment.

– John McMackin and Margaret Heffernan from HR Magazine

Where to start with Agile HR?

While the basic principles of Agile are easy to understand, its underlying techniques and terminology can be extremely complex and confusing. Here are some simple pointers on where to start, to build towards full adoption of Agile HR.

1. Gain an understanding and learn the language

‘Sprints’ are just the start of the Agile vocabulary. As you look further into the methodology, you’ll also discover Backlogs, Epics, Scrums and Standups – a whole new language on which the Agile culture is built. It’s something that’s become the norm in software development teams, but can make adoption of Agile HR more daunting for other departments.

While it’s important to know what these all mean, it’s equally important not to get too hung up on these individual elements. Calling your catch-up meetings a StandUp meeting won’t make you any more Agile if you’re not taking on board the wider ethos.

Indeed, the opposite approach is a better starting point – adopting the principles of Agile without necessarily implementing all the protocols (or lexicon). This is sometimes referred to as ‘Agile Light’.

A true understanding of these principles can be gained by reading the Agile Manifesto. You should also invest some time in seeking out case studies, and see how other businesses and HR departments have successfully incorporated Agile methods.

2. Build the business case

Like any significant change in an organisation, a solid business case is required to gain buy-in and break down resistance. To develop your business case, you’ll need a clear focus on the end goals – what are you trying to achieve by adopting Agile HR? What impact will it have on the business?

It may help your case to look at a previous project which seemed unachievable (or indeed failed to get off the ground), and show how an Agile approach could have yielded a different result.

3. Identify internal experience

When discussing the potential of Agile HR with key stakeholders, look for any Agile experience you can leverage along the way. Some people in your business may already be well versed in Agile project management and could be key allies.

Given the origins of Agile, development teams in particular might be a good place to look.

If your organisation is lacking in experience, external Agile consultants and coaches can always lend the support and advice you need.

4. Leverage technology

Built off the back of a boom in software development, Agile has now come full circle – with a wave of technologies and tools designed to support its implementation.

Moving past the ‘Agile Light’ phase into full adoption will, therefore, require careful research to find the right Agile project management tools, as well as HR software platforms capable of supporting your new ways of working.

In summary

Although traditionally slow to adopt change, the HR world is finally embracing the advantages that Agile can bring.

More iterative and collaborative work fosters a culture of continuous feedback and improvement while enabling HR teams to roll out initiatives that aren’t out of date the moment they launch.

Adopting the Agile mindset is only part of the challenge though. Organisations also need the tools in place to implement it. Time should, therefore, be taken to get the right technology in place. In this regard, the switch to Agile should be a marathon, not a sprint. (See what we did there?)

Find out more about Agile HR on HR Magazine’s article.

Want to learn more about software that can support an Agile method? Check out our HR Software brochure to learn more.

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Stephen Johnson
About the author

Stephen Johnson

Stephen has over 25 years experience in private sector HR and management roles, working as a Manager for over 10 years and eventually moving into the financial services industry. In his current role as an HR Policy Review Consultant he develops, reviews and maintains our clients’ employment documentation. With extensive knowledge of management initiatives and HR disciplines Stephen is commercially focused and supports clients in delivering their business objectives whilst minimising the risk of litigation.

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