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Should HR Be Employee-Driven or Product-Driven?

February 16, 2022 Employee Experience
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

In the past two years, organizations have gone through some of the most substantial changes in their histories. They’ve battled a pandemic while trying to win the hearts and minds of coveted talent, and everyone’s journey through these changes has been unique.

While certain industries face particular headwinds — hello, travel and hospitality — other industries are creating a durable operating model that accounts for ongoing uncertainty. But running an HR function in any new operating model is challenging. While you might be able to learn from peers on the cutting edge, major changes like this require a lot of creativity. 

For example, the relatively straightforward task of onboarding an employee has changed drastically in many organizations. Even in companies with large contingents of remote employees, critical onboarding steps often meant meeting in person. And while some organizations with remote-first cultures have blazed a trail with the logistics of remote onboarding, it might not be the exact experience others wish to drive. 

So, what can HR leaders do to focus on the types of changes they want to make for their organizations? Let's dive in.

A People Product Operating Model

You can always count on consulting firms for ideas to improve operational models. The latest one out of Deloitte's brain trust involves something called the People Product Operating Model. Here’s how they describe it:

A product-driven HR organization embodies agile practices to create fit-for-purpose products and fundamentally shifts the central focus of HR to the worker experience. The organization grows, adapts and evolves — almost organically — by incorporating feedback from real-time sensing directly back into products seamlessly. Such products empower the people of HR to focus their energy on actual strategy and more closely integrating HR with business decisions and outcomes.

This sounds, at least on the surface, like something on the right track. Employee experience continues to be the sort of make-or-break ideology that's driving organizations today. Companies with a lousy work experience — either because of choices they’ve intentionally made or the stark realities of delivering goods and services to the market in their industries — are struggling. Think of health care, where organizations have only so many recourses to mitigate employee burnout. 

But some of this still reads as pre-pandemic boilerplate. For instance, there’s plenty of evidence to show that HR leaders are more integrated than before in the business of running the organization. Nobody has had a more meteoric rise in the ranks than HR leaders as of late, with the possible exception of IT. 

The real question is whether being product-driven is the answer to these challenges.

Related Article: What Is the Difference Between PeopleOps and HR?

Product-Driven vs. Employee-Driven HR

It may sound counterintuitive to talk about a product-driven approach to the people-centric workforce. That’s what makes it a novel idea in this context.

Traditionally, operating models have taken one of two approaches: 

  • Product-driven: An internal team creates and executes on a compelling vision that, driven by internal collaboration and challenging goals, brings new products to market. 
  • Customer-driven: Teams research and gather feedback from people inside and outside the organization and use those insights to bring new products to market.

While there are pros and cons on either side, both approaches are valid ways to tackle the market and create successful businesses. Assuming that the HR version of being customer-driven is being employee-driven, we can draw clear parallels. 

A natural inclination would be to say that HR must be customer/employee-driven. A product-driven approach makes no sense. But being product-driven in HR is more than being agile, productizing solutions and iterating. It entails having confidence in an imagined future state that employees may not know is possible — and being so compelled by that vision that HR leaders have the courage to say no to any employee suggestion that strays from the goal. In short, you better be really sure about where you’re heading. 

Meanwhile, being employee-driven isn’t just about putting feedback into action or believing in the wisdom of crowds. It’s also about having confidence that people know what they want out of work — and then working to accommodate different preferences and working styles. While this might require a strong philosophical approach, it is one that could be subject to change as you gather data and listen to people. 

Related Article: Do You Need a Head of Employee Experience?

Pick Your Approach

There’s no right answer to this question, and Deloitte’s framing of being product-driven in HR should be taken with a grain of salt.

Companies that take an employee-driven approach can bring an effective strategy and technology stack to the table to drive the organization into the future. Plus, let's keep in mind that agility, automation and the ability to deliver personalized solutions remains possible without a product-driven strategy. 

For companies with a strong vision and the ability to execute, a People Product Operating Model — or something like that — can be a fascinating idea.

About the Author

Lance Haun lives life at the intersection of people, work and technology. He's currently a practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy and a contributor for Reworked and ERE.net.

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