HR scalability: What can it do for your small business?

ScalabilitySmall business owners often learn the meaning of “agility” too late into their development when
agility is the very characteristic that big businesses envy. “Agility” refers to the ability to turn on
a dime, to answer a call satisfactorily, or to solve problems before they arise.

Small businesses have the same strategic problem as big business – “to have the right numbers of the right types of people in the right places at the right times doing the right things right, all at an affordable cost” (Dyer, L. and Erickson, J. 2005). When I see the word “agile,” I always think of
“Jack be nimble/Jack be quick,” a sort of adeptness at end-running, outdistancing, or leap-frogging.

This agility is doable only in a certain context. For example, the just right set of workers for one circumstance may not be right for another. The business that operates with some stability and predictability is good at pursuing what works. While things are comfortable, forecasts are horizontal.
The forecast defines needs as linear and easily filled. If the business grows, the forecast mechanism readjusts and fulfills itself. If business slows, the lead is pulled back in. And, so the tradition goes - two steps forward and one step back.

The tradition aligns and fixes human capital to the current business plan. However, the growth business needs to look to human resources for scalability. In a scalable mechanism, transition and temporary are key values. Where traditional hiring would try to stay ahead of the game, scalable hiring anticipates how emerging opportunities will affect personnel needs. HR scalability becomes strategic when it is able to transition perpetually from one model to another. This makes the earlier model forgettable and the future fluid.

In the earliest days of a business, it benefits from its operational fluidity. Employees were mobile and their tasks fluid. This virtue is among the first things to go as the business takes organizational shape. When the business entitles jobs, sets job descriptions, and draws org charts, it circumscribes fluidity and adaptability.

To find this strategic place, traditional concepts of business organization structures have to be dumped in favor of something less defined, something adaptive and vibrant. It moves beyond organized and cubby-holed human assets in favor of people ready to improvise, self-motivate, and work independently.

The drive builds toward a system where employees focus primarily on what each of them can best contribute in real time behaviors to cost-effective improvements in the business’s processes. Ideal characteristics include:

  • An almost neurological sensitivity to recognize emerging opportunities and threats
  • The ability and authority to devise and redirect processes to fix or influence outcomes
  • A tested and proven knack for improvising and innovating alternative solutions
  • The comfort and confidence to deploy energies and talent
  • The understanding of collaboration and its value and the willingness to engage people and process
  • Desire to retain values from the experience and redesign earlier status quo

In the earliest days of a business, you will usually find this energy, this willingness to serve and share, to float from task to task with no self-consciousness or fear. Everyone accepts and enjoys the multi-tasking, and each enjoys some self-gratification in the job well done.

Of course, this amounts to spontaneity waiting for a trigger. Without a trigger, you are coasting close to havoc. What you are looking for is a “system capable of tapping the distributed intelligence of all participants” (Dyer, L. and Erickson, J. 2005). Scalability is the talent management ability to enable and inspire employees to where they need to be and to do the right things well enough to initiate a continuous flow of innovations.

Business schools do not teach the talent for talent management, and a one or two-day workshop is not the solution. The talent comes from education in organizational development, continuous improvement, and performance management. This expectation is too high for the small business owner in the business’s first days, but there is value in seeking professional advice. And, one final piece of advice is not to rush toward structuring a business when keeping the organization flat and mobile has demonstrated values.

Article contributed by Karen Wills,