Seeing HR Through the Eyes of an Astronaut

The HR World is Flat

Less than a decade ago, when I first began conducting HR service delivery practice surveys, fewer than 20% of shared services operations were considered global, with 80% calling themselves single-country, or domestic. Nowadays, according to soon-to-be-released findings from the 2018 HR Delivery Practices Survey, the picture has completely flipped. Today, the reverse is true, with over three-fourths of HR shared services operations structured under some type of global umbrella.

This is not a surprise.  In those early surveys respondents also pointed toward future globalization as a top priority. Today's global landscape is made up of myriad global visions that simply became reality. Borrowing the title of best selling author Thomas Friedman's treatise on globalization, the world of HR has indeed become flat.

But being global entails far more than being structured under a global organizational umbrella. Being global is an attitude and, more importantly, an aptitude. Being global is not always good, and it's never easy. In an earlier blog about Global Business Services (June 5, 2018), I talk about the inevitable administrative burden that comes with being global and for which the advantages of globalization more than pay.

Over the years, I've consulted with many global organizations. Today nearly all of my clients are global to some degree. But most I would say have not globalized. By that I mean they are still U.S. companies with operations in other parts of the world. But they still think and behave like a U.S. company, first and foremost. 

Globalization takes a long time and a lot of work to achieve. Companies globalize much as children mature, imperceptively yet profoundly. People in truly global organizations learn to live without the comfort of a strong national center. Someone raised under a strong central authority entering a truly globalized organization must feel like floating in Vertigo by comparison. The center is both itself and nothing. It is an idea, not a place (queue the Twilight Zone music).

Global Harmonization

The pot of gold for which every global HR organization seeks is global harmonization, which being the ultimate expression of centralization seems a bit oxymoronic. More than once I've been involved in global HR projects espousing the guiding principle that processes and programs will be globally standard unless there is a government or business reason preventing it. Every organization that ventures down this path eventually runs into the wall beyond which standardization cannot go. Some hit the wall earlier than others. Some before they ever get started.

Most global companies with which I've had direct involvement didn't (or don't) quite know what to do with their global-ness. They know they need to be global, but are much less certain about how to go about it. Most organizations I've known have one foot firmly planted on U.S. soil with the other limbs in Twister-like contortions trying to be in all other parts of the world, sometimes called "rest of world." These are not truly globalized organizations, rather U.S. (or German, or...) companies with a nagging global headache.

Seeing Like Astronauts


To think globally, one must learn to see like astronauts, who upon returning to earth unanimously share the jarring impact of seeing the earth from space and realizing that the boundaries we use to dissect it are mere human creations, completely invisible from outer space.

The digital world sees the earth like astronauts. Electrons zip across time zones in real time. Data cross oceans and scale mountains almost instantly. Supercomputers learn different languages so we don't have to (be that a good or bad thing). But in the human realm we see boundaries. And, like all boundaries, mere humans made them up. And eventually they stuck.

Take, for example, the way businesses divide the world into regions, typically NA, LATAM, EMEA and APAC. Really? We put Europe, Middle East and Africa in a single region and called it EMEA? (By the way, if your company has done a bang-up job with HR shared services across all those countries please send me an email, because I'd love to blog about it. But I won't hold my breath.)

Let's put on our astronaut glasses. Let's watch the lines disappear and infinite possibilities emerge. In the digital realm, the world is just a big shapeless network lighting up in different places at different times like the firing of brain synapses watching a great movie. Why, then, shouldn't we ponder how to design the optimal network of HR professionals to support the great network of people that is the company?

The Digital Enabler

Technology has always been about breaking barriers and overcoming limitations. Whether we were to sail across the sea, fly above the clouds or transform society, technology provided us with the means.  

Technology is ever calling to us with new ideas, if we are able and willing to listen. I believe we've yet to figure out how HR services can best serve the global networks we support. I don't have it all figured out, but I have some ideas. Let's have a conversation about it, shall we?