BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
When confronted with the reality that their profession is dramatically changing, it's natural for people to feel uneasy. But not Steven Rice, executive vice president of human resources for Juniper Networks. Rice not only accepts the fact that HR -- a field he's been in for more than 30 years -- is shifting radically, he's excited about it.
With seven years of HR experience at Juniper Networks and 25 at Hewlett-Packard, Rice is no newcomer, but he's hardly set in his ways. "Every single button is being pushed around historically what an HR function has done. I think it's cool," he said.
Rice's "bring it on" attitude helps him to not just roll with the punches, but get ahead of the game. For instance, while most companies still use annual performance reviews and are just now getting wise to the potential downsides of this entrenched process, Rice explained that Juniper Networks, a prominent networking equipment provider, scrapped traditional performance management three years ago. With Rice at the helm of Juniper's HR organization, several processes have been revamped, from corporate learning to employee surveys, and even the HR department's intranet site.
So how does he manage to keep ahead of the curve? He constantly questions each assumption about HR -- and challenges his peers to do the same. "Focus on what is the business outcome you're trying to drive, and don't let the language get in your way of throwing out [processes] or reimagining them," he said.
Content 'molecules' enable on-demand learning
Rice said the greater personalization of technology is one of the driving forces behind several of his organization's HR initiatives. While offering a wide array of courses and methods of consumption is widely believed to be essential to a solid learning program, Rice explained that learning at Juniper Networks is instead about thinking smaller. "People want information and content when they need it versus when there's a class available, so in our learning space, we're breaking a lot of our content into what we call molecules," he said.
To illustrate the concept, Rice gave the example of a manager who is preparing to have a coaching conversation with an employee. Instead of attending a general communication class for managers on a set date, Rice said Juniper managers can access a minutes-long YouTube video walking them through the specific task.
Another process that has gotten smaller at Juniper is the employee survey. Instead of a company-wide survey, Rice said the organization issues "climate surveys" on a team-by-team basis, which provide managers with specific, actionable information. "Doing the climate survey that's team-oriented allows a manager to drive engagement at a team level versus forcing them to extrapolate from company-level data," he said.
As for Juniper Networks' HR intranet website, Rice isn't just trying to personalize and tailor its content -- he wants to abolish the current layout entirely. Rice rationalized his "mission to remove the HR website from [the] intranet" by explaining that in his opinion, having an organized website forces people to learn the HR function, which they shouldn't have to do. While an HR manager designing his department's site layout would understand that certain forms fall under certain categories, a non-HR employee might not. To avoid frustration and wasted time, Juniper implemented Google search for the HR intranet site.
"I'm moving us toward where, if you go to the HR intranet site, the only thing you'll see is basically a search box that says, 'What would you like to do?'" Rice said. To respond to HR managers who might balk at their content being less visible, he added, "It's important to you, but it's not important to the person who's trying to get something done."
New HR challenges call for new definitions
In addition to the personalization of technology, Rice said HR leaders also face a challenge with the increasingly multigenerational workforce. "We have [employees] who are in their 20s all the way to their 60s now, and each of those generations has different expectations in terms of how they like to work, have goals set, be involved in decision making [and] what collaboration looks like," he said. "If you want to be a company that's multigenerational, you better embrace it and figure it out, and you better be doing it now."
This statement is indicative of Rice's broader outlook on HR. While he sees many of his peers taking a "wait and see" approach to impending changes, he encouraged HR leaders to dive into solving today's problems and actively mold the future of the HR function.
More on effective HR leadership
Read one HR executive's take on what it takes to achieve strategic HR
Get three action items that HR departments should undertake in 2013
Learn how IBM and eBay are using HR analytics to improve workforce insight
But HR managers sometimes become too hung up on the language around established processes, Rice said, which can inhibit their innovation. He used succession planning as an example. Whereas traditional succession planning initiatives prepare a person for a specific role, Rice pointed out that this does not take into consideration the possibility of that role becoming obsolete or a new one being created. With this in mind, Juniper takes a skills-based "talent velocity" approach rather than a role-based approach to succession planning.
And with HR's role changing, what skills should the forward-looking HR leader possess? Rice named three characteristics: cross-functional HR knowledge, business knowledge and an attitude of "showing no fear." To the last point, Rice said HR leaders can be overly risk-averse -- to their detriment.
"I sometimes see folks in this field [who] let fear drive them to mediocrity," he said. But it's necessary to take risks to move forward, he added.
"The fun and excitement of the job is pushing the envelope as a way to ensure that we're driving as much value, creativity and innovation for the company as possible. If it's not love-hate [with the CEO], then I don't think I'm pushing hard enough," he said. "If I was just incrementally improving stuff, I would not be a happy camper -- that's not what excites me."