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What is Agile HR and Is It Right For You?

By Kelly Craig on April, 18 2016
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Kelly Craig

Can software development principles be applied to the development of human talent? 

A growing number of HR professionals are exploring the possibilities and looking at ways to manage volatility, enhance adaptability, and strengthen the organization by applying Agile methodologies to their talent-management processes.


In this post, we'll look at the following points:

  • The definition of Agile HR
  • The rise of Agile HR
  • The difference between Traditional HR and Agile HR



What is Agile HR?

What is Agile HR?

According to the Agile Alliance, Agile is “the ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment.”

These capabilities are highly prized by organizations that must do business in the “VUCA vortex”—a term first used by the United States military that is now more frequently used to define the perfect storm of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that characterizes today’s global markets.

In the VUCA vortex, it’s essential for businesses to be nimble and responsive, as the landscape changes frequently and in unexpected ways.

Inflexible plans and rigid hierarchies may work when the world moves slowly and predictably, but in a vortex, they block innovation, waste time, and prevent organizations from taking advantage of new opportunities.


The rise of Agile HR

Agile software development has been around since 2001, when a small group of software professionals came together to develop a better approach to software development. It has since become the most popular approach, with a 2013 survey from VersionOne reporting that 94 percent of all software companies use Agile methods.

The success of Agile in promoting faster, more customer-focused and cost-effective software development has brought it to the attention of virtually every other industry.

In recent years, disciplines as varied as marketing, accounting, manufacturing, and more have been successfully reframed in Agile terms, and Agile HR is gaining recognition as a means of helping the organization stay current and aligned with the realities of today’s talent requirements.

As early as 2012, Josh Bersin’s keynote at Impact, Bersin by Deloitte’s annual HR conference, focused specifically on how HR could contribute towards building an Agile workplace.

HR, he believed, was one of the business functions with a significant contribution to make towards the organization’s agility.

For Bersin, Agile principles are key to supporting the kind of continuous learning, continuous talent acquisition, and transparent processes that enable organizations to attract, develop, and engage talent in the twenty-first century.


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Traditional HR vs. Agile HR

When applied to HR, Agile principles change the focus from imposing controls and standards to empowering collaboration and innovation.

Here are some of the ways in which Agile methodologies influence key areas of HR:


Remedial approach to learning

An employee who under performs in a current role or needs to prepare for a new role is assigned training to achieve a specific performance level.

VS. Continuous learning environment

Employees are given myriad opportunities to learn and stretch themselves independent of a specific, job-related goal.

“Recruiting” mindset

As jobs become available, the search for candidates begins. Once the best candidate is identified, the talent acquisition process is complete.

VS. Continuous talent acquisition

Organizations invest in their employer brand and cultivate ongoing relationships with talent across multiple channels, including social.

Opaque talent processes

Talent management is owned by HR, and the processes by which talent is acquired, evaluated, and developed are proprietary and inaccessible.

VS. Transparent access to talent information

Talent management is facilitated by HR, which empowers employees to take ownership of their own development. Employees understand and are active participants in talent acquisition, evaluation, and development processes.

Siloed objectives

Jobs are discrete elements in a complex system. Job requirements are related to specific workplace tasks.

VS. Unified mission and values

All jobs directly support the mission and values of the organization, and all employees understand how their on-the-job performance supports these elements of the organizational culture.

Implementing systems

Large-scale systems are carefully researched, resourced, and deployed over the course of many months or even years.

VS. Piloting small initiatives

Small-scale initiatives are piloted within a specific team, job family, or business unit. Feedback is gathered early and often to determine whether the initiative should be expanded or scrapped.

HR as “system of record”

The HR function is focused on record-keeping and defensibility. Employee files and records of HR activities and outcomes track progress and note issues. HR success is measured in the completeness of documentation.

VS. HR as “system of engagement”

The HR function is focused on engaging employees to enhance self-motivation and encourage collaboration. HR success is measured in terms of retention, employee satisfaction levels, innovation levels, and organizational goodwill and trust.

Reframing HR as an Agile discipline can help HR create a more resilient organization with the nimbleness and openness that’s required to navigate the realities of the VUCA vortex.

However, transitioning from a traditional to an Agile HR methodology constitutes a big change. Before putting it in motion, it’s important to have the underlying supports in place. These include:

  • An amenable organizational culture—one that prioritizes engagement and trusts its employees
  • An HR department and managerial function that is ready to relinquish control
  • A workforce that is ready to take greater responsibility, and is supported in doing so
  • Technologies that make resources such as self-guided development programs widely accessible.

To learn more, check out the full case study below on how we helped ELM build a competency-based development program to discover and eliminate skill gaps in their organization.





Post last updated: February 20, 2020