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Charlene Li helps organizations and their leaders understand how to make sense of business complexity, leverage emerging technologies and prepare for potential challenges. Then, she helps them to figure out which first step to take toward success.

Li, based in San Francisco, is the founder and a senior analyst at the disruptive industry analyst firm Altimeter, a Prophet company. She is also a bestselling author whose latest book, The Disruption Mindset: Why Some Businesses Transform While Others Fail, was released in September.           

Through her work with clients to help them tackle their various organizational obstacles and grow, Li has noticed that there are some common misconceptions that hold companies back from reaching their goals, be it digital transformation, growth or better employee engagement. 

Here, we explore the primary HR misconceptions that Li has observed: There is a misunderstanding about who the “customer” is for an HR department, HR teams are preparing for digital transformation in a backwards way and organizations underestimate the role that marketing teams can play in engaging employees.

To Keep Customers Happy, Keep Employees Engaged

When Li talks to employees working in HR departments, she hears echoes of a common error: HR’s “customers” are internal, as in employees and hiring managers.

“No, no, no, no,” she says. “Your ultimate customer is the actual customer.”

And that means you need to look at the ripple effects hiring decisions can have on a company’s bottom line. Keeping the customer in mind, Li says the functions traditionally filed under HR—“Hire, train and retain”—are not enough.

“It’s not just about finding people to fill the spots; it’s finding the great people, the right people,” she says, and building relationships with them to influence retention and engagement rates as well as overall company potential.

“If those people have a great relationship with their employer, they will be able to create that relationship with the customers,” she explains. “But if they’re unhappy at work, disengaged, they won’t do that.”

For this reason, Li says, the culture, purpose and mission of a company are extremely important, “especially if you want to create an organization that is truly customer-centric.”

Part of relationship-building involves taking advantage of company data, Li says. How is the company gauging the health and psyche of individuals and teams? Is data collected by an annual employee survey, or is a system in place that helps take “multiple mini-pulses” on how employees are feeling?

“The reality is, most work doesn’t happen anymore inside of silos,” Li says. “So the only way for people to be engaged and work together effectively within teams, outside of teams, across the organization is through effective analysis and fostering by the HR department.” If employees are happy and are collaborating effectively, their satisfaction will eventually trickle down, all the way to the company’s customers.

Transform, Then Reorganize

Li identifies digital transformation as one of the biggest initiatives in present-day companies. But as companies attempt to digitally transform, Li finds they’re asking the wrong questions.

Companies will ask her how to organize employees and processes for digital transformation—a question that she says is “almost like putting the cart before the horse.”

Rather than asking, “I need to digitally transform, so how do I organize for that?” Li suggests starting by identifying the digital transformation you’re trying to create in order to work in a different way. Then, determine how the company needs to reorganize its people and processes in order to ensure that work can happen properly in the new digital environment.

Too often, Li says, companies struggling to change their culture throw up their hands and accept the status quo. She asks those she works with to identify the beliefs that are holding them back.

“Culture is fundamentally made up of two things: beliefs and behaviors,” she says. If beliefs change, behaviors can change, and vice versa.

Marketing Can Handle More Than External Communications

Companies are using modern marketing tools for external communications, but what about internally?

“We’ve gotten so much more rich in the way we communicate with our customers,” Li says. “And yet, how do we communicate with employees? If they have an email, we use email, maybe. That’s about it.”

However, Li has seen some companies moving internal communications out of HR and into marketing. In this way, she says, employees are treated as well as—or even better than—customers.

Li proposes a partnership between HR and marketing departments in which HR will give marketers messaging and content for employees, and marketing will manage it in creative and engaging ways.

Li also stresses the importance of leadership developing relationships with employees, and marketing can help with that, too.

Employees want to know what company leaders think and what they’re doing. And leaders want to know what customers are saying, by way of employees.

“A leader came to me and said, ‘Why would anybody be interested in what I had for lunch?” Li says. “I’m like, ‘you’re absolutely right, no one cares what you had for lunch. What they care about is what you talked about over lunch.’”

Social media is also a tool that leaders can use to share what’s on their minds, and to learn and share customer feedback. Similarly, this sort of communication can be achieved using frequent emails or internal messaging tools like Slack.

 “If you don’t [communicate with employees], it’s as if somebody was knocking at your door, or calling you on your phone, and you saying, ‘I can’t be bothered to answer you; I can’t be bothered to respond,’” she says.

Image: Creative Commons