HR at the crossroads?

Last week I had the good fortune to read one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the current state of HR and where the profession needs to go written by an old colleague of mine, Dan Love. I say old colleague, but Dan and I never physically worked together. I probably wouldn’t recognise him if I passed him in the street to be honest! Many years ago we worked for the same large company, albeit at opposite ends of New Zealand’s north island. But even then he spoke a lot of sense and you can read his Employment Today article on the Crisis of HR here. I recommend it to you.

In a nutshell Dan’s argument is that HR has evolved into a profession that “drives process over influence, and tools and systems over commercial performance and improvement.” He goes on to suggest that HR is attracting people into the profession who focus on the wrong things and who lack the influence and commercial acumen to hold their own and see themselves as “support people who are in the business to drive systems and procedures.”

This is nothing new of course to those of us who invest time in reading about our profession and care about improving capability. Dan advocates “radical and rapid change” that sees HR significantly driving performance within organisations while developing commercial acumen and leadership within the profession. It’s time for HR to really own how the business performs. In short, we need to contribute more in driving greater organisational performance.

In a similar vein, I have also read this week about a new UK CIPD study that “reveals a strong disconnect between HR leaders and other business leaders regarding HR’s contribution to the organisation.” Only 27% of business leaders believe that the HR function helps their organisation to become more flexible and agile. 52% were said to think that HR prioritise what matters to HR over wider organisation issues.

So how can we develop that organisational performance agenda and make it work? Dan talks about the importance of the relationship between the HR leader and the CEO and, if you are lucky enough to work for a CEO who “gets it” then you’ve got no excuses.

However, and this is a particular observation from this part of the world, a lot of business leaders (CEO’s included) simply don’t get it and are too focused on systems and processes themselves. They are simply not demanding this level of input from their HR leaders. It’s not all HR’s fault!

Like managers, there are a lot of senior executives who are in their roles because of their technical capability and not because of their softer skills or leadership qualities. When one of those becomes a CEO you have problems. If you have a CEO who doesn’t understand HR’s role and what we can do you have a recipe for an under-performing organisation.

I have talked before on this blog about HR experience. I came into HR with several years experience of doing other things including general line management. And I’m still learning about business. I believe I’m a better HR professional for having been on the dark side.

So are we attracting the wrong type of people into HR or teaching them the wrong things? I think there is a case to support that. My advice to those coming out of university is simple. Go and work in a business and get broad experience in the line before you go into HR. HR is a much broader skill set than most disciplines. If you compare HR with Finance and Sales for example, there is a much broader depth – a combination of performance management, development, training, change management, employment law, industrial relations, recruitment, remuneration and benefits, compliance, health and safety etc. There are some very different specializations within that of course but all or most have to be mastered to a degree if you want to progress to a senior level within the HR profession. I don’t believe you can really do that unless you’ve been on the other side of the fence and understand the wider context.

In my view, no other professional discipline has such a diverse range of skills associated with it and therein lays our problem. What is it they say about being a Jack of all trades and master of none? That’s HR typically. So if we add driving organizational performance to the list, how can we do it effectively? Do we forget or let go of some of the other things? Are we simply too busy trying to equip our leaders with skills and we should be exhibiting more ourselves? Are our organizations ready for this sort of HR?
Lots of questions and not many answers I’m afraid. What I do know is that organisations the world over are crying out saying they need to improve individual and team performance and therefore productivity. So can we fix it? Yes we can.

One of the key positive things that has happened in recent years has been the shift to focusing on partnering the business and really understanding it. I believe if you have been lucky enough to be part of an HR team that has gone on that journey it has been both liberating and exhilarating. Our challenge now is to take it up a notch or two and become business drivers as well as partners. That may be a step too far but I do think it can be done. Whether it is revolution or evolution remains to be seen, but I’m interested to hear what others think.

5 thoughts on “HR at the crossroads?

  1. michaelchanrubio says:

    I’m a bit at a loss after reading this and the linked post. I spent my earliest professional years in HR consulting. Then I joined corporate as part of HR management, before ultimately becoming a line manager.

    I think I’m better at line management because of my HR background. I know many of us share the experience of having difficult, ignorant, and even antagonistic stakeholders from the line. I won’t be one of those guys.

    On the other hand, I also already possess the high value contributions of having HR management and this to me, makes having a dedicated HR management function redundant. As HR practitioners we want HR-skilled managers. But in having such, we are less necessary.

    There are still HR domains, but I find these increasingly further down the value chain of management the more I work in both line and in HR.

    1. hrmannz says:

      Interesting perspective Michael, thanks for stopping by. Are managers generally becoming more HR savvy? I think the good ones are but there are still plenty who aren’t. And we don’t see many HR pro’s going back out into the line which is a shame. Do you not agree that HR should have a role in improving the overall performance of the organisation?

      1. michaelchanrubio says:

        I’m new to HR blogs; just started reading 2 months ago. As a blogger myself (albeit from a far different domain up until recently) I knew the way to get the most out of the reading is to engage the author.

        I realize my gravatar links to a company internal blog much to my chagrin. Sorry. I fixed it now.

        Anyway, this is a very relevant post to me.

        Today I drafted the HR Functional Brief for the Board of Directors of the company. Granted, we’re a very small firm (less than 50 FTE), but here’s a paraphrase of what I wrote:

        HR does NOT directly manage performance (despite having performance management in its bucket); rather it facilitates the PM process and is a resource for the line to do it well (from a training and competency-building standpoint).

        So to answer your question, there is a role, and that’s clearly a training and development (implementation styles will vary, to include coaching, etc.) function. The organization may lack senior managers with relevant experience and expertise; and I realize I am an uncommon example.

        Nonetheless, I believe that HR skills are fundamental to general management. Line managers are people managers, and organizational challenges are people challenges.

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