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From bureaucracy to curiosity: The new challenge for HR and L&D

By Wilhelm Crous, MD of Knowledge Resources

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase calls bureaucracy a “disease” and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon refers to it as a “villain”. Management Guru, Gary Hamel quotes research by Harvard Business Review that reveals almost 66% of respondents said that their organisations had become more bureaucratic in recent years. 

Bureaucracy has been thriving. 

And in a fast-changing VUCA world, bureaucracy is stifling organisations – making it difficult to quickly respond to changing market forces and increasingly difficult to compete. Bureaucracy is probably the primary reason why HR departments find it so difficult to move from a transactional role to a more strategic, transformational one. 

What can be done?

Create a culture of curiosity in your organisation

Creating a culture of curiosity within your organisation, and specifically the HR and L&D departments, is one way of moving out of the clutches of bureaucratic practices. 

But this is easier said than done… 

Professor Francesca Gino quotes results from a survey conducted amongst 520 Chief Learning Officers and Chief Talent Development Officers, indicating they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they “believe the company would be harder to manage”. 

The opposite is actually true. 

According to Prof Gino, cultivating curiosity at all levels helps leaders and their employers adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. Furthermore, when curiosity is triggered, we tend to think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions. Better decisions are ultimately made, and people are less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias and stereotyping people.

In addition, having a sense of curiosity leads to greater innovation in creative and non-creative jobs. Gino also adds that a curiosity culture leads to less group conflict, more empathy, more open communication and better team performance.

So how do you bolster curiosity?

1. Become more inquisitive yourself.

Leaders and specifically HR executives can encourage curiosity throughout their organisations by becoming more inquisitive themselves. Ask questions and listen as opposed to quickly searching for answers to a problem. Also acknowledge when you don’t know the answer. This highlights to others that it’s alright to be guided by curiosity.

2. Emphasise learning goals.

Prof Gino highlights new research that shows “framing work around learning goals (developing competence, acquiring skills, mastering new situations and so on) rather than performance goals (hitting targets, proving our competence, impressing others) boosts motivation. And when motivated by learning goals, employees acquire more diverse skills, do better at work, solve problems faster and receive higher ratings after training.

3. Encourage employees to explore and broaden their horizons.

Organisations can foster curiosity by giving employees time and resources to explore their interests. Closer to home, it’s important for HR professionals to explore what other organisations are doing. Read widely, continue to develop by attending conferences, etc.  HR & L&D people are excellent at developing everybody else in the organisation except themselves. In addition, spend more time with external and internal customers. Deeply understand how the business is making money. Employees should be encouraged to broaden their networks. Curious people often end up being star performers, thanks to their diverse networks. And organisations benefit when people are connected to people who can help them.

If as an HR executive, you want to play a more strategic and transformative role, you need to not only foster a culture of curiosity within your organisation but work on becoming more creative and innovative too. In other words, you need to rediscover your sense of wonder. 

Here are a few events to help get you started! Take time out of the office to refresh your thinking and reimagine new ways of working:

At the flagship HR Directors Conference, we will be hosting a one-day Creativity in HR pre-conference workshop facilitated by Lana Roy on 12 March in Cape Town. This one-day workshop will give you, insights into the role HR (and creativity) will play in the 2nd Machine Age. You'll also get practical tools and exercises you can use to enhance you and your organisation’s creativity. This course is open to any HR leader who wants to learn the skills of re-igniting their creativity and translating these skills into the workplace. Click here to learn more.

While at the OD Conference, Amelia Van den Berg, Senior Manager: Human Capital at Deloitte will show you how to empower employees to build a culture of innovation, collaboration, and participation. You can view the complete line-up of speakers here.

And we’re very pleased to be hosting a one-day workshop, where Jos Arets and Vivian Heijnen from the 70:20:10 Institute in the Netherlands will present their breakthrough work around New Business Models for L&D. Click here to learn more about this event in: Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Lastly, become one of the first people in the world to hold the ICAgile Certified Professional – Agile Talent (ICP-TAL) Certification. Learn more about our HR Goes Agile Workshop, taking place in Johannesburg and Cape Town.


Gino, F. The Business Case for Curiosity. Harvard Business Review (2018, September-October) pp. 48-57.

Hamel, G. & Zanini, M. The End of Bureaucracy - How A Chinese appliance maker is reinventing management for the digital age. Harvard Business Review (2018, November-December), pp. 51-59.

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