It seems there’s always another commentator in HR borrowing that well-worn military phrase VUCA – meaning volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity – to describe the world we now live in. But it’s a myth that the world is becoming ‘more VUCA’ – the world is inherently more stable than it has ever been and, in any case, life itself is pretty volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
The problem is that people are taking the acronym as a whole rather than using it as a tool to better address the needs of a particular situation. That’s how the acronym should be used – through labels. Situations, events or occurrences should be analysed and given labels, such as volatility (which tends to mean a challenge that’s unstable, of uncertain duration, but which you understand well) and then addressed based on a strategic plan.
So, for example, you could use the volatility label in the oil industry with regard to the strategic need of the HR function. The price of oil is volatile, which means you need a strategic plan for dealing with human capital needs in a $50-per-barrel world, and a $100-per-barrel world. If the price of oil drops, and exploration activity needs to fall off, what’s the plan for keeping control of people costs? Do you over-buy talent in case the price of oil skyrockets? This is an expensive strategy but the potential returns may be worth it.
Here’s a great example from the HR world of how an organisation is dealing with situations that have strong element of volatility through the use of HR technology:
Global NGO Plan International have traditionally operated solely in child sponsorship but in recent years they have expanded to emergency and disaster response. A natural disaster hits the definition of volatility – the NGO knows what services need to be delivered to offset the damage but the situation is unstable. A successful response to a disaster often comes down to getting aid workers on the ground as quickly as possible. For Plan, having unsurpassed real-time knowledge has helped them achieve this. Prior to implementing cloud HR technology from SuccessFactors, it took around two to three weeks to get the right people in the right location at the right time. This has since been reduced to 72 hours – the knowledge and information they get instantly from their technology platform allows Plan to deploy people immediately.
Ultimately, HR needs to use the VUCA term to apply labels to the things they have to consider in order to be strategic. It’s a great term to use in conjunction with Dave Ulrich’s ‘Outside In’ model of HR – if HR professionals have to consider many more variables, using labels can help assign a specific strategy to dealing with that variable.