Agile HR Is Here Now. Is Your Organization Ready?

“Agile” isn’t just for tech anymore. Are you leading the charge for agile HR, or taking a wait-and-see approach? Find out how HR leaders in major firms from IBM to Cigna to Bank of Montreal are innovating agile talent practices to meet the swiftly changing needs of today’s business.

Agile practices have spread from technology into product development, manufacturing, and marketing, and now into HR. Many human resources executives and chief learning officers are faced with moving away from their familiar rules- and planning-based approach toward a faster, participant-driven model. Is your HR organization on board?

In the recent Harvard Business Review article “HR Goes Agile,” Wharton’s Peter Cappelli and NYU’s Anna Tavis discuss how the agile methodology affects a wide range of industries. Cappelli is the director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, and his thought leadership has been widely published, including in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the Atlantic.

Here’s a look at some of the findings.

Performance Appraisals: “Annual” Is So Last Year

Many firms have dropped annual performance reviews in favor of frequent assessments, often conducted project by project. You’ll find this new approach cropping up across industries, at GE, IBM, Pfizer, Cigna, The Gap, OppenheimerFunds, and P&G, to name a few.

Johnson & Johnson invited its businesses to try out a new continual-feedback process for three months using a customized app. Employees, peers, and bosses could exchange comments in real time. By the end of the pilot, participation had jumped from 20 percent to 50 percent.

Coaching Skills: A Must for Managers

Getting supervisors to replace judging with coaching can be a challenge “because it undercuts their status and formal authority,” Cappelli and Tavis note. Yet effective coaching is key for agile HR. Supervisors at Cigna undergo coach training designed for busy managers. It’s reportedly stimulating the kinds of open conversations that companies want supervisors to have with direct reports.

Teams: They’re Taking the Helm

While traditional HR focused on the individual, today’s management and talent systems are becoming more team-focused. Employee groups are creating and revising their goals as new information arrives. That means your HR organization needs to adapt to:

  • Multidirectional feedback: Peer feedback is essential to course corrections and employee development in an agile environment.
  • Frontline decision rights: Organizations are empowering employees to operate more independently. To facilitate that—and help senior leaders relinquish some of their decision-making—Bank of Montreal embedded agile coaches in business teams.
  • Complex team dynamics: Today, supervisors must promote healthy group dynamics. At Cisco, a platform called Team Space helps the firm identify the best-performing teams so managers can emulate those principles in their own groups.

Other aspects of HR—including compensation, recruiting, and succession planning—are also undergoing massive shifts as companies test out innovative approaches.

“The agile methodology is being adopted pretty quickly,” observes Cappelli. “The challenge—if HR does not move to adopt it—is that we will have HR practices out of step with the needs of the organization. At some point this can become a career-threatening challenge.” It appears that the pressure is on to embrace agile HR.

Learning and Development: What Do Employees Really Need?

Today’s L&D must bring new skills into the organization faster than ever before. New approaches involve using data analysis to identify the skills people need for particular jobs and making training recommendations tailored for individual employees. IBM, for example, uses artificial intelligence to examine employees’ prior and current roles, expected career path, and already-completed training to generate recommendations.

Peter Cappelli, DPhil
George W. Taylor Professor of Management; Director, Center for Human Resources, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Given today’s agile environments, how do you ensure that your leaders and managers are up to the challenge? Your people need to undergo learning and development that shifts their mindset from yesterday’s static, hierarchical business environment to a team- and project-focused approach for which “nimble” is the word. At Wharton Executive Education, we help mid-level managers to C-suite executives understand and adjust to the idea of constant change so they’re prepared for any business challenge.

Peter Cappelli, who teaches in Wharton Executive Education’s custom programs designed for organizations, notes that Wharton’s faculty begin with the understanding that the world is a highly uncertain place. “And rather than just assuming that away—which is what you see in many other programs—we start with the assumption that there’s uncertainty and move to the idea of managing it.”

Wharton Executive Education offers a range of leadership development and business acumen programs for organizations to help executives learn, evolve, and make an impact:

  • Custom Programs: Let us design learning experiences that reflect your organizational strategy and corporate culture.
  • Open Enrollment: Send small groups or cross-functional teams to Wharton for an immersive learning experience.
  • Online Learning: Bring Wharton’s world-class business education in-house to reach a wider audience within your organization.

Cappelli observes, “The learning that you get here [at Wharton] makes sense. It’s not theoretical; it’s based on what we see going on in the world.”

Partner with Wharton Executive Education for measurable impact. We can design programs that reflect your organizational strategy and corporate culture, and deliver on your business goals.

Visit or call Wharton Client Relations at 215-746-8093 to learn more.