Agile HR – Petra Carlsen on trends in human resources

In the mid-1980s Petra Carlsen became one of the first women in the IT industry, at the time a revolutionary occurrence. And she has stayed – first in marketing and sales at Aldus and Adobe Systems, then as IT Branch Manager of DIS AG. Today she provides coaching on the World of Work 4.0, sits on the Management Board of Hamburg@work and chairs the new “Agile HR Club.”


Ms. Carlsen, how did you come into contact with the topics of human resources and digitalization?

I worked in IT right from the start, including then in the HR area from the late 1990s. I have always been driven by a curiosity about people, communication and psychology. After more than 25 years in sales and marketing in HR and IT, I then decided in 2008 to do something completely different and trained as a business coach/trainer, mediator and facilitator. I have been self-employed for ten years and through changemanufaktur I support businesses and their employees with change processes, focusing on organization development and diversity. I also run workshops and consultations on the topics of leadership, communication and conflict. As a certified mediator, I assist businesses with conflict resolution.

You are active on the Management Board of Hamburg@work. When did that collaboration start, and how did it evolve?

Digitalization of course began with the Internet hype at the end of the 1990s. I remember thinking back then that it wouldn’t work without HR. But the HR angle didn’t yet feature in an IT network. In 2004 I then decided to join Hamburg@work. As Branch Manager of DIS AG I was working in the field of HR and helped to set up the new IT Division in Hamburg and North Germany. IT projects were my bread and butter because at the time my team consisted solely of project managers and project backers for IT projects. 

Together with the Coordination Agency for Continuing Training and Employment (KWB) I then set up the first HR Work Group for Hamburg@work and offered between three and five events per year. That format was the forerunner of the HR Group, which is still held very successfully three or four times a year by the KWB in partnership with Hamburg@work, free of charge to members and non-members alike. 

At the end of 2015 Uwe Jens Neumann and myself got together with the intention of creating something new. Right from the start I had noticed how IT and Hamburg@work are predominantly male; in other words, not enough women attend the events. So over my 25 years in IT, not that much has changed. Our logical move was to establish the Women’s Club at the start of 2016. Our aim: to give women in IT a platform for communication, networking and knowledge-sharing – separate, closed events for women, by women. Our concept worked. The Women’s Club events are very successful and popular. I think that success and my HR expertise motivated Uwe Jens to ask me whether I would like to head up the new “ Agile HR Club .” And that’s of course precisely my area. 

What can you already disclose about the new Agile HR Club?

We are planning a closed format to which we will invite HR managers, HR officers and managers from businesses that also have HR responsibilities. We will not be including consultants or coaches in this target group. It is meant to be a format in which the members can share ideas and raise the issues that concern them. Similarly to our IT Executive Club. My role will mainly be as facilitator of the events. In the world of work, agility also means a high degree of individual responsibility, flexibility and dynamism. That’s precisely how I envisage the Agile HR Clubs and cooperation between the founder members working. The kick-off event was held on 19 September. We asked the founder members for their suggestions and tailored our concept to their responses. In the Agile HR Club, the members will have the opportunity to shape its future. I will be acting as the interface between the project team at Hamburg@work and the members of the Agile HR Club. 

Why is it so important for the members to contribute to the Club?

Agility is the future. Digitalization and the continuing transformation process leave businesses and therefore people with no other option. What is more, young people are entering the market with a different outlook on work and life: Generation Z and the younger end of Generation Y. By that, I mean those born after 1990. People in those age brackets have grown up almost entirely in the digital world. Almost half of them have already been working for over five years or are just entering the labor market. We know these young people want to work in an entirely different way and have different values than people who are ten or 15 years older or belong to the Baby Boomer generation (born before 1964). Businesses need to change or adjust their HR management if they are to be an attractive employer for younger people in the future. I feel that is a huge challenge and want to help shape that future hand in hand with our member companies. We will succeed at that if we are able to be agile in how our entire outlook evolves.

And the term agile HR is being used increasingly frequently in the media. Can you explain what it actually means?

The word agility means flexibility, autonomy, thinking ahead and driving things forward, as well as high customer centricity. The term originally comes from IT project management. Agile means for instance short sprints, working autonomously, high dynamism and flexibility. The goal and above all the benefit for the customer is constantly reviewed in feedback loops and retrospectives, and corrected as necessary. I see “agile” as an outlook, because for agile work I need very good communication between all parties involved, a high degree of transparency, the ability to handle feedback with maturity and the will to work autonomously. It is all based on a strong culture of trust, otherwise it cannot work. 

So to what extent do businesses handle projects differently compared to ten years ago, and how does that impact HR? 

In the past (she laughs – ten years is not that long ago) projects were planned with a long-term horizon, and milestones and resources were defined. One consequence was they were highly structured and very rigid, there was little scope for flexibility, let alone spontaneous changes. Agile project management features short project phases, or sprints. There is a lot of communication and the constant feedback loops mean the goals may also change. The focus is on the customer. HR will likewise not be able to ignore this development. Digitalization won’t spare HR. New instruments and tools will come into circulation, and the concepts for HR development will also change in the short term: In the VUCA world, the focus will shift to leadership and communication competencies in the future. People in HR will redefine their role:  They will become the shapers of their area and the shapers of the corporate culture. That throws up questions such as ‘what do the employees want, how do we want to develop as an enterprise, how should we advance and develop our employees?’ In the age of digitalization and a growing skills shortage, agile HR management will provide the decisive competitive edge.  

What else do management and employees need to learn?

We are observing how hierarchies are being dismantled, employees are taking decisions themselves and assuming more responsibility. That applies not just to specialist areas, but also to issues involving workplace and working time planning. When employees are able to develop freely and work autonomously, not only does that boost commitment and motivation; they also become creative and innovative. Management needs to learn to recognize, encourage and also steer such resources and potential. In specific, that means reinforcing trust and bonds, communicating the goals clearly and transparently as well as giving feedback at short intervals, but also being able to accept it. The manager will increasingly step into the role of coach and will support employees as they autonomously execute projects – one immutable feature of our age is change. Change is all around us, and managing change processes is the freestyle discipline for managers. That easily overstretches many managers. 

Employees, too, face the challenge of optimizing their communication skills including for handling conflicts. Despite ever greater diversity and the ever increasing range of working models and ways of life, people still need to be able to rely on each other. A culture of tolerance and esteem is a given.

What does this process mean for communication in an enterprise?

Communication will continue to change: openness, transparency, the communication of clear goals. Managing conflicts is also becoming increasingly important. It may sound banal, but many professionals really do need to work on their communication skills – not just in technical fields. Storytelling, communicating values and goals, and inspiring people as a result, but also – if need be – resolving conflicts and providing frequent feedback – all that is communication and will be needed more and more in the future. 

What can the Agile HR Club do in this context?

Two important topics converge in the Agile HR Club: digitalization and intelligent HR management. Digitalization only works if HR “reinvents” itself by embracing modern HR management complete with cutting-edge HR development.  We don’t have just IT people and start-ups in our network, we also have businesses that are just starting to think about digitalization or are already in the midst of the change process. That is where HR needs to step in and support. We want to help those businesses by teaching them skills by sharing experience and expertise. Because if the digitalization process does not inspire people to be part of it, it won’t work. Many employees fear for their jobs, especially if they previously had little contact with digital topics. We need to create processes and communication cultures that gather in all employees. So that the company can successfully take the path of digitalization together with its employees. 

With the Agile HR Club, we are creating a platform for collective learning, for knowledge-sharing and with a networking opportunity for HR people. I am convinced sharing knowledge and experience – across corporate boundaries – will bring companies huge value added. Siloing is obsolete. Sharing knowledge and working on ideas jointly – that’s the future.