The Rise of People and Culture

This article was originally posted here and was written by By Rocky Ozaki, Director of People and Culture at Rise

People. From a very young age, I knew my calling was to empower, inspire, and generally help as many people as I could. Nurturing babies was more interesting to me than playing with a GI Joe figurine. While I loved scoring goals, it was the sweet no-look pass that really got me excited. I was the kid striving to make everyone happy, and I often pondered what career path would allow me to do that. Turns out, it would be Human Resources.

I started earning a real paycheck at the age of 15. Scooping ice-cream at Baskin-Robbins opened the door to an opportunity at a KFC restaurant in the early 1990’s. After witnessing the dysfunction of manager/employee relations there, I sought every opportunity to make a difference in the happiness of my co-workers.  I ended up as the job steward and even participated in collective bargaining while still in my teens. My eye-opening observations? Unions, it seemed, were defining many workplace cultures, while HR departments were small cost-centres busily creating binders of policies and employee training manuals. Surely, there had to be more. So off to University I went.

HR starts earning a seat at the table

Fast forward to 2002.  After majoring in HR at Simon Fraser University and working ridiculous hours to become a senior level (operations) manager, I eventually landed my first Director of HR role. At this time, the HR profession was facing an identity crisis. The relevant HR associations pushed hard to market a certification program (CHRP) and industry conferences were focused on “getting a seat at the executive table.” Corporate social responsibility was hitting its stride, and many HR professionals I knew were trying to master annual performance reviews, succession planning charts, and this new thing called metrics. HR was slowly becoming a strategic partner that embraced business rigor around ROI and data to offer value to the company. However, finally having a seat at the table meant many HR leaders were faced with the reality of the bottom line and shareholder value. Some of my HR peers, in an attempt to fit in with their executive colleagues, were more interested in proving their business acumen than being an advocate for the people and their happiness. And most CEOs I rubbed shoulders with still viewed the “human” simply as a “resource”.

Enter: technology

To further compound this disconnect, by the mid-to-late 2000’s, new technologies were being adopted by innovative HR departments to reduce the use of pen and paper while capturing the aforementioned data. Before 2010, most HR professionals were slow to adopt technology beyond ATS, LMS, and HRIS, and those that did often found themselves stuck in front of a screen instead of in front of the people. Social media, the new world of SaaS, and an energetic generation were arriving, and I could sense the entire profession was on the verge of monumental change. That, by the way, is why I gravitated to the technology startup world.

So here we are, in 2016. Technology is everywhere, disrupting legacy institutions is the norm,  the workforce is being heavily influenced by the “connected generation,” and the sharing economy is being realized and adopted around the globe. HR is not immune to this disruption. In fact, HR has evolved so much in recent years that it may have already perished. It’s no coincidence that role titles (and, therefore, entire departments) are quickly replacing HR with people and culture.

But what makes people and culture different from HR?  The truth is, there are countless thought leaders who could list numerous distinctions. So many, in fact, that I’ll be writing a future post on this very question. Until then, here are my initial thoughts.

The rise of people and culture

First, as simplistic as it may sound, people and culture relieves the negative stigma that has long been held against HR, pegging us as policy makers, bureaucracy advocates, and politically correct paper-pushers. And that nuanced distinction fosters buy-in from the people. Unlike in my early HR career days, most executives and team members now understand the importance of culture. Anyone who has success in this area knows that it takes a collaborative effort between all departments and levels to entrench a truly dope culture. HR often struggled to have their ideas transcend the entire organization because it was difficult to build an authentic connection. True people and culture leaders can rally their teams behind almost any culture initiative. You might be surprised at how much easier it is to roll out “policy” if you sell it under culture-building and give it a non-HR label.

Next, I would argue that so much has changed in the way HR programs are being delivered that a full rebranding of HR was inevitable. If the essence of the HR department is to attract, engage, and retain top talent, then look no further than the death of resumes and annual performance reviews and the rise of technologies like Slack, 15Five, Wirl, Greenhouse, and Rise, unlimited vacation policies, the gig economy, holacracy, and—call the HR police—beer taps and ping pong tables in the middle of the office! What’s working for the “connected generation” is fundamentally different than what HR historically believed in.

Finally, (at least until my next post), one of the reasons nearly every HR practice is being disrupted is because many people and culture leaders are not trained HR professionals. They are passionate people who take a pragmatic approach to solving problems. There is a 0.1% chance they would accept a title with HR in it. These leaders will openly concede their need for trained HR practitioners to oversee admin and occupational health and safety for example, but they have no problem leaving the non-culture building stuff to the professionals.

A future of continuous evolution

There is no disrespect intended. I’m a career-long advocate and spokesperson of the HR profession. I simply—and vehemently—believe that the workplace is evolving. HR must embrace this change and not only adjust their previously held beliefs and best practices, but also their very name. And all this, in my opinion, leads to the RISE of people and culture.


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