Reinvent HR with Systemic Thinking

Oct 31, 2023


If you've been in HR for a while, you're no stranger to the endless challenge of staying current in HR practices. After all, your organization relies on human resources to help it compete in the marketplace.

Over the past twenty-five years, the HR function has experienced four stages of transformative growth requiring upskilling.

  1. In the 1950s, we had automation for efficiency and accuracy.
  2. During the service delivery phase, we developed Centers of Excellence and built modular technology platforms for each. We created COEs for new functions and expanded the technology to support them.
  3. The employee experience stage spanned a decade or more (and continues), where we added technologies and COEs to boost employee development, engagement, and retention.
  4. In the fourth phase, we are turning to Systemic HR, a fresh approach that aligns HR policies and practices with business strategy. Instead of using COEs, it integrates all HR functions to solve business problems. Multidisciplinary teams diagnose problems, develop solutions, monitor productivity, and advise senior leaders on people issues.

This doesn't mean HR can let go of its back-office functions like payroll, compliance, and record-keeping, nor can it stop its daily support and service to employees. It's the idea that HR should function as a system to solve business problems.

Systemic HR is an integrated operating model for approaching your people's needs, from recruitment and retention to innovation and performance optimization. It boosts productivity through engagement, recognition, and diversity initiatives.

What is Systemic HR?

Systemic HR is an integrated operating model for approaching your people's needs, from recruitment and retention to innovation and performance optimization. It boosts productivity through systemic problem-solving.

Reinvent-HR-with-Systems-Thinking-Quote (5)

—Jonathan H. Westover, Ph.D. "Key Strategies For Leaders To Successfully Implement Systemic HR." Forbes, July 10, 2023.


Systemic HR is based on the idea that HR isn't just a function or a department, but an operating system. It requires HR leaders to adopt a holistic and strategic mindset and to collaborate with other functions to create a coherent and effective talent strategy. Systemic HR also leverages data, analytics, and technology to measure and optimize its impact on business outcomes.

This means that HR-centric people strategies (recruiting, retention, development, pay, goal setting, and management) should integrate, creating total talent strategies, not just independently optimized recruitment, training, DEI, or pay programs.

Here's the big difference and why it matters so much: It's unlike siloed, reactive, and program-oriented legacy HR. Holistic, proactive, and solution-oriented, it investigates the root causes of challenges, rather than just slapping on standalone programs or policies like bandages. Practitioners of Systemic HR are strategic advisors and business partners rather than order-takers. Here's a comparison from Josh Bersin.

From Operating Model to Operating System

Traditional Operating Model

New HR Operating System

HR is designed around "service delivery" efficiency.

HR designed for "iterative, real-time design" of creative solutions.

HR service centers are designed for low cost and scale.

HR offering teams focused on real-time feedback, self-service, and focused workforce segments.

HR programs take quarters or years to design and implement, rolled out as large "change management" programs.

HR programs are run by "product managers" with regular roadmap updates, driven by "change agility," not big-bang rollouts.

HR domains (recruiting, learning, rewards, diversity, etc.) operate as interconnected silos.

HR domains work as an integrated whole, sharing insights and working on cross-functional problems, not "programs."

HR Business Partners are embedded but not fully empowered.

HR business partners operate as lead consultants to the business.

HR staff is not deeply skilled or trained in advanced practices.

HR staff trained like "full stack" engineers and continuously learn, rotate jobs, and grow.

HR programs driven by user needs.

HR leadership focused on business alignment, systems thinking, transformation, and external benchmarking.

HR leadership focused on multifunctional HR experience and industry expertise.

HR measured as driver of reinvention, transformation, reskilling, agility, productivity, and business growth.

HR function measured by cost of service, employee experience, retention, and "reputation" of HR.

HR teams focus on alignment, common goals, sharing ideas, and partnering in business priority solutions, not "programs."

Operating model is king. Structure defines who does what.

HR designed for "iterative, real-time design" of creative solutions.

Josh Bersin. “Redesigning HR: An Operating System, Not an Operating Model.” 

Benefits of Systemic HR

Because it's a system that aligns with business objectives, Systemic HR delivers benefits on many levels. Here are three examples:

Systemic HR is a strategic approach that requires leaders to implement key strategies, such as:
  • conducting a thorough HR audit,
  • educating the staff on the benefits of Systemic HR,
  • involving the employees in creating new HR policies and procedures, and
  • investing in HR technology and programs.

The systemic approach also requires HR professionals to adopt a systems thinking mindset, which helps them to self-reflect, empathize, collaborate with others, and think beyond disciplinary boundaries to solve problems.

Developing a Systemic HR Framework

Creating a system requires HR leaders to align functions, processes, and technologies with business needs and goals. It's much like the staffing and development design required for designing a skills-based talent strategy. In fact, implementing a skills strategy in HR may serve your effort well by enabling rapid talent allocation to projects.

NOTE: Since you're adopting a new way of doing things, it will change how you do them, requiring an experimental approach.

Systemic HR isn't a prescriptive model, but a flexible and dynamic way of managing human capital in a changing environment.

Into Action

We recommend using Agile methodology to work through designing your framework, or you can lean on your IT team for expertise.

If you would like to talk with one of our experts to get an understanding of the method and roadmap, book a meeting for a day and time convenient for you.

Book a Consultation Now

About Pixentia

Pixentia is a full-service technology company dedicated to helping clients solve business problems, improve the capability of their people, and achieve better results. 

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