Dave Ulrich: Convergent vs. divergent thinking – developing a human capability framework
- 6 Min Read
Organizational leader, Dave Ulrich proposes an integrated human capability framework as a blueprint for HR convergence and progress.
Advancing HR work requires both art and science. By art I mean creative and divergent innovations that adapt to changing circumstances to discover new ideas. By science I mean disciplined and convergent insights that meld theory, research, and practice to deliver on promises. Or in other words, navigate an art/science paradox requiring divergent/convergent thinking.
The divergent/convergent thinking paradox is described in figure 1. Divergence (more art-centric) means identifying challenges and generating options for responding. Often creating options leads to a surfeit of ideas and actions that diffuse attention and limit results, which is represented by the widening angle of the diamond. Convergence (more science centric) turns many options into a few priorities that allow execution by focusing energy and action, which is represented by the narrowing of the diamond. Both divergence and convergence are necessary for progress.
Figure 1: Divergent/convergent paradox
Purpose and challenge of divergent thinking
Generating new ideas and tools may come from observing others by benchmarking and identifying best practices, experimenting with alternative approaches, acquiring new competencies from outside the firm, and continuously improving through work like six sigma or lean. Divergent thinking often leads to many initiatives that an organization may pursue, such as the list of initiatives in figure 2 that organizations have attempted in recent years. While innovative, chasing initiatives may become faddish with each new “shiny object” being seen as a quick fix. In addition, trying to advance multiple initiatives simultaneously can disperse attention and cause a “good is the enemy of great” situation.
Figure 2: Recent HR initiatives
Progress through convergent thinking
Convergent thinking focuses attention to turn many options into focused actions. Convergence is less about all that could be done and highlights what should be done.
The value of a framework. Convergence begins with an integrated framework to organize separate ideas into patterns. In studying chess, research found that chess masters possess a “recognition-action” repertoire of concepts (also called “chunks,” “templates,” or “patterns”). These patterns are frameworks that organize the complex chess options into protocols that help chess masters accurately replace pieces on the board if removed or even help them play blindfolded. For many, this is like learning to type. When we started typing, we began with letters; then with more experience, we type words, or patterns, and not just letters.
Every discipline, to become a science, offers such protocols or integrated frameworks that organize divergent options into patterns (see figure 3). My doctoral training with Bill McKelvey in organizational systematics (numerical taxonomy or classification) taught me about the discipline of integrated frameworks turns complexity into simplicity, focuses attention, provides conceptual clarity, sets priorities, and offers a blueprint for progress. Mental models that create patterns or frames for organizing thinking are critical in the age of technology and turmoil. Notice how the disarray of HR initiatives in figure 2 indicates that HR as a field may not yet have such an integrated framework.
Figure 3: Disciplines relying on frameworks to shape progress
Human capability framework
The evolution of HR. HR has historically focused on talent (or human capital) as the HR agenda. Our (and others’) work shows that organization has far more impact on results than talent and that HR can be the architect of creating organization capabilities. Thus in order for HR to continue successfully serving its key stakeholders, it needs to evolve from work on human capital to human capability (see figure 4).
Figure 4: Evolution of HR agenda
Human capability framework or blueprint. The human capability blueprint in figure 5 offers a simple yet robust way to organize HR work into four pathways that create value for all stakeholders inside and outside the organization and move itself along the HR evolution.
- Talent (often called human capital) deals with what could be done do to ensure the right individual competence, workforce, or people.
- Organization (sometimes called structure, governance, or culture) focuses on defining the organization capability, workplace, or team.
- Leadership emphasizes both individual leaders and collective leadership.
- Human Resources refers to the HR function or department and the how of accomplishing HR work.
Figure 5: Human capability framework
The logic of the human capability framework helps business and HR leaders focus the indiscriminate list of initiatives (figure 2) into patterns or clusters that can then be managed like a master chess player sees the protocols of chess moves (see figure 6 and the colors for each pathway).
Figure 6: Human capability framework applied to today’s HR initiatives
Application of human capability framework. Let me demonstrate how this human capability framework helps turn great ideas (art of divergence) into sustainable impact (science of convergence). Each month, many colleagues summarize recent innovative work in HR. One monthly summary provided by Dave Green from Insight 222 curates the “top 20 articles” in HR that is always a remarkable list of innovative ideas. But turning this remarkable research (divergence) into relevant action (convergence) is often hard because the information is overwhelming. So this compendium of ideas is often more interesting than impactful.
For the month of June 2022, I clustered the twenty insights into the four human capability pathways. Notice that most of these ideas were about “talent” (in red of figure 7).
Figure 7: Classification of June 2022 top articles into human capability framework
HR continues (at least in this June 2022 compendium) to focus more on people insights than leadership, organization, or HR. This may be a statement that the HR field is still focused on the “human capital” agenda more than “human capability” as shown in figure 4.
By clustering multiple insights into the four human capability pathways, an HR or business leader may make progress by focusing attention on which of the four pathways best delivers desired results. Given the desired strategic, customer, investor, or community results, business teams can do a diagnosis to determine whether talent, leadership, organization, or HR is the most critical pathway. This diagnosis can be from thoughtful discussion or from rigorous analysis (see Organization Guidance System). For example, if talent is selected as the most critical pathway, Dave Green’s curation now offers a meaningful menu of “talent insights” that can be prioritized to select the top talent initiatives to implement.
Hopefully, HR professionals can increasingly contribute value to all stakeholders by relying on an organized, integrated framework to guide their decisions. By so doing, the HR agenda moves forward and evolves as it needs to (figure 4) like the other disciplines in figure 3.
Going forward, I envision progress by combining the art and science of HR. The divergence and art of HR innovation can be coupled with the convergence and science of HR discipline so that progress will continue.
The best is yet ahead.