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What microbusiness HR can learn from hacking

Good people management is about innovation and ownership. Just like good hacking. So what happens when these worlds collide? Two microbusinesses tell all…

As any small, growing business will tell you, there comes a time when the issue of effective people management raises its head. In order to grow sustainably, HR needs to grow too. It’s a shift in mindset from the transactional people processes required for day-to-day activity, to the kind of approaches that empower employees to drive a business forward. But for many microbusiness leaders HR isn’t something they feel confident with. So if you are a microbusiness looking to tackle people management, how can you find a way to make it relevant and effective – for your business and your people?

One answer could lie in the tech industry. Much of this sector’s work revolves around problem solving – identifying an issue then innovating quickly to resolve it. It’s all about developing the right solution for each unique situation. Much like ‘hacking’. Increasingly used in all sorts of industries, ‘hacking’ is no longer a negative word. In Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s famous letter to investors, he spoke of The Hacker Way, building something quickly, testing the boundaries of what can be done or finding clever shortcuts to make a faster, easier and more efficient system. In product design, hacking has also been defined as bringing different elements together to create something better – something unique and completely fit for purpose. So it’s no wonder that when two ambitious tech companies came to address people management in their organisations, it was a combination of these hacking principles they turned to.

Hacking to innovate

A provider of industry-leading efficiency tools for office and mobile workers, Tascomi wanted to examine its people processes and prepare for a period of significant growth. Using the IIP Framework as a business improvement tool, they started with a culture survey to gather the insights and thoughts of their people.

This identified a key problem that needed solving; the team was hungry for better communication, structure and consistency around people management processes, opportunities and development. To address this, Tascomi looked to innovate; hacking together the right mix of services and systems to better support its people to succeed.

Naturally, as a tech company, software played a role. Tascomi blended the customer collaboration benefits of the project management tool Basecamp with the time and development management of HR software solution People to introduce structure and consistency.

Looking outside to improve

And software was just the start. As part of their journey towards formal IIP assessment, Tascomi looked to the world outside its business to see what resources people were using to get information clearly and easily. As a result they introduced an internal wiki that helped to enhance communication across their entire organisation while keeping vital information stored in a single place. Each month, their managing director also publishes a blog post detailing the month’s achievements and linking back to the overall business strategy. It’s opened up channels of communication, helped to profile achievement and ensured staff members understand how what they do feeds into the bigger picture. And all of this has also informed the way Tascomi reviews performance, identifies opportunities for improvement and considers its values and management competencies.

Finding the right mix

Any one of these things in isolation may have worked for Tascomi. But it’s the innovative thinking that led to the swift, smart combination of all these elements – in a way that fits the organisation – that has helped Tascomi push its people management practice forward and get everything in place to grow successfully: hacking principles in action. “We wanted to make sure we have the values as well as the systems and capabilities to help us grow our business,” says Tascomi’s Niall Adams, “It’s all about creating an approach to HR that fits our specific needs at every level. We’ve even set up a social budget which is now used by the team for off site activities, or ‘hack days’. We’re engaging and empowering our employees to think differently, which ensures innovation really sits at the heart of our business – because it lives in our people.”

Hacking to encourage ownership

Innovative thinking can lead to another important component of effective people management. Ownership. The principles of hacking ring true here too. In today’s world, hacking has become synonymous with user-led design. This is where the end users of a product, service or process are put at the heart of its development, hacking together ideas, insights and skills to create something that better serves the users it’s designed for, creating a collective sense of ownership as a result. It’s where the BMX came from, how IKEA-hacking started and why many mobile technology companies are growing so fast. And it’s an approach that can work for HR too. As Fluent Technology demonstrates.

Evolving traditional performance management

An expert in business transformation through better information management, Fluent Technology has been working with IIP for six years and is accredited at Bronze level [link to Accreditation]. Started in 2002 by two founders and now a team of 14 and growing, they have one clear goal: to create innovative useable software solutions that revolutionises how problems can be solved.

To achieve this, Fluent places emphasis on engagement and involvement, which means encouraging a sense of ownership in its team is paramount. Bringing accountability and quality together, the company has evolved traditional performance reviews into ‘job chats’, which provide a space for employees to raise any issues and suggest different ways of tackling them. “I generally keep Mondays free for these informal chats,” explains Fluent’s operations manager Matthew Cummings, “they really work.” He goes onto explain how, through these chats, he’s been able to involve his team in developing standards for testing, checklists and generally defining good practice. “My team has definitely become more self-managing,” he continues. “They designed and developed the processes to set up and measure work themselves, so are consequently fully bought into the approach.”

Working together to recruit and introduce

Nurturing and retaining talent has been handled with ownership in mind too. Matthew and his team work closely with their recruitment partners to emphasise their organisational values and what they are looking for in new team members. The entire team contributes to the composition of interview questions, while at least one of their developers is always involved in second stage interviews. And it doesn’t stop there. “Induction is now well and truly owned by the team,” Matthew continues. “Different people deliver different parts of the induction and it's a really good way to welcome new starters and for them to get to know the company.”

Focusing on ownership, employee engagement and workplace culture has had a marked impact on Fluent’s growth. As a company, its staff turnover is extremely low, with one single leaver in two years. They’ve also welcomed seven new members to the team in the same period. The business’s turnover and profitability has increased constantly, growing 18% last year and on track for similar growth this year.

How ownership feeds success

“Our continued success is based on our company ethos – to build great software from the ground up, driven by our people,” Matthew concludes. “It’s an ethos everyone subscribes to, because they experience it every day. By creating an environment of innovation and creativity we know our people will feel enthusiastic, motivated and inspired to perform at their best. We can deliver operational excellence and customer satisfaction excellence as a result.”

At a glance, hacking and HR might not seem like obvious partners. But strip away common perceptions and underneath you’ve got two practices that have people as their central focus, that rely on innovation and ownership to succeed and that are fundamentally about finding the right solution for a specific space and time.

With that in mind, the answer to better people management practice seems pretty clear. Time to get hacking.