This Is How You Drive Innovations With HR

Patrick Willer

Bimodal people management might be the next stage for your HR department. A new chapter that takes HR on an exciting journey of exploration into uncharted territory of business transformation. A new way of working that fosters creativity and connects more people than ever before. A new HR mindset that adds more value than ever before.

What is does bimodal mean?

Bimodal is the practice of managing two separate but coherent styles of work. I heard the term first from Gartner. Its bimodal IT model has CIOs over the world rethinking their service to their organization. I see great opportunity for organizations in bimodal HR.

Why bimodal people management?

Every company has transformation challenges. Transformation is change and changing something is more difficult than building something new. And the most difficult thing to change is culture. Taking on change management with a bimodal attitude separates the explorers/innovators from the traditionalists and generates air for innovation.

Innovation never comes from the center of the organization. It might be discussed in the boardroom, but it is rarely born there. The best ideas come to light at the edge of the organization, in the area where people are connecting with people who think differently. It is the same fruitful environment where acquisitions happen.

Many large organizations have ceased to truly innovate. They morphed into acquisition artists that buy creativity to extend their kingdom and satisfy shareholders. Key creative people from these acquisitions often leave in order to stay creative. Their new initiatives are new targets for multinationals.

Building a bimodal organization is like building a startup within the company. A different, separate entity with employees that have a different attitude. Not better, but different!

Bimodal HR looks like this:

  • Mode 1 focuses on running smooth operations and reducing risk and cost
  • Mode 2 focuses on improving creativity and innovation by connecting people


HR Mode 1

This mode is all about the rules and agreements between employer and employees and the government of those rules. The only innovation we see here is the reduction of the complexity of those rules, because: HR Mode 1 is as complex as the company’s (collective) labor agreements.

Automation, cost reduction, and improving service levels are key themes. That is also the reason why standardization and cloud solutions are such a fresh breeze. It’s the standardization that forces organizations into simplicity.

The mindset is traditional and operational. People are concerned about safety, privacy, and accuracy. The specialists that work are goalkeepers. Errors are not welcome.

The customer of HR Mode 1 is the employee, who constantly demands clarity, stability, and efficiency.

What lies ahead for HR Mode 1?

The HR-to-employee ratio has been in decline for years. Dave Ulrich’s model of shared service centers, self-service, and technology are opportunities to continuously automate services and drive down costs.

This trend will not stop. Self-service becomes intelligent services. Helpdesks become chatbots. Classroom training has already become e-learning and soon breaks further down in gamified learning snippets generated by artificial intelligence. Looking far ahead, I see HR Mode 1 ultimately being reduced into very small teams. This is often referred to as: the future of HR is no HR.

HR Mode 2

This mode is all about driving transformation. There are two things HR can do to drive transformation.

  1. Observing what happens in the world (trend watching) and workplace (workforce analytics),
  1. Then using that knowledge to connect and engage people in order to generate ideas and help execute them

The mindset is creative, fast, and innovative. Empathy, emotional intelligence, and the ability to connect people are crucial skills.

Adding value, connecting people, creating self-guiding teams, and transparency are key themes. HR Mode 2 will be much more dispersed and integrated in the business. It’s a business partner on steroids who welcomes errors in an effort to create optimal employee experiences.

The customer of HR Mode 2 is not the employee. It’s the end-customer who constantly demands better services and products. HR Mode 2 is the catalyst for that.

What lies ahead for Mode 2?

It’s a continuous non-linear exploration for the HR Mode 2 team in a fast changing world with exponential dynamics. Workforce analytics are only getting started. According to Moore’s Law, Big Data (to analyze) will only increase. This has a huge impact on our predictive capabilities. There will be more trends such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, VR, gamification, and last but not least social collaboration.

The HR Mode 2 organization is the catalyst to connect the most valuable asset in every company: the human brains. Something that is close to impossible to outsource.


Automating HR Mode 1 is a challenge, but not the challenge. HR has been doing Mode 1 for ages; it’s known as HR operations. Automation came in waves, driven by cost reduction.

A split between Mode 1 and 2 is also not the challenge. Many organizations already have different teams for HR operations and more strategic and tactic HR tasks, the latter often executed by HR business partners and change agents. Ulrich’s book “Human Resources Champions” was released in 1997. That’s almost 20 years ago! Companies such as Google, Uber, Airbnb, Twitter, Snapchat, Netflix, Fitbit, Spotify, Dropbox, WhatsApp, SuccessFactors, and Tesla didn’t exist. Neither did tools such as iPhone, YouTube, Bitcoin, VR, chatbots, and self-driving cars.

The real challenge is this: Innovation went from something nice-to-have to a necessity for survival in tomorrow’s marketplace. And that shift is changing HR too.

The goal is not to connect HR with the business. The goal is to connect employees with each other.


Working with a bimodal structure might just do the trick because it shapes a mindset. It takes a different way of thinking that consequently results in different people, different management, and a different culture for both modes of HR, as opposed to one department with very similar people and different roles.

I’m not preaching a wall between different HR teams. No, absolutely not! It’s about a conscious decision for different DNA in different teams to achieve different goals. Transparency about such an approach can help these teams respect and understand each other.

The half-life of knowledge is shrinking. Learn How to Create a Culture of Continuous Learning.

About Patrick Willer

Patrick Willer is a Workforce Innovation Consultant at SAP, responsible for helping organisations to maximize the effect of their workforce. In practice this comes down to discussing the clients strategy and evaluate together how technology can help the total workforce to execute the companies strategy.