Rob Briner: Five things HR should start doing
Following on from his article on things HR should stop doing, here's Rob Briner's suggestions of five things HR should start doing
1. Start identifying real problems first and only thenlook for solutions. Consider this: you go trotting off for an appointment with your GP and before you’ve even opened your mouth they thrust a prescription in your hand. Bizarre, right? Why hasn’t the GP tried to find out what’s actually wrong with you before giving you drugs? Now think of any HR practice you currently use, such as engagement surveys, management development, or 360-degree appraisal. My guess is that you adopted that practice without first having good evidence for an important or specific problem that practice aims to fix. If so you were behaving no less strangely than your GP. The first and most important questions should be is there a problem (or clear opportunity) here and what, specifically, is it? Once you are sure you have a specific, well-identified and important problem only then should you start searching for possible solutions.
2. Start thinking in terms of likelihoods and multiple possible solutions. Only crosswords and mathematical equations have definitive and single answers. For everything else there are no perfect or guaranteed solutions. Rather, there are just things you can choose to do that have more or less chance of bringing about the effects you want. And for every real problem you identify there are likely to be several possible and partial solutions. So you need to make a judgement – based on the best available evidence gathered from your organisation, your experience, your stakeholders and published research (also known as evidence-based practice). Remember, you’re not trying to solve a puzzle but do what’s most likely to get you closest to the result you want.
3. Start to build information systems that give you the information you need. There is still a lot of mostly over-hyped excitement about big data and data analytics. But don’t be blinded by statistical science. Start simple. Maybe some organisations need the management information system equivalent of a super-computer, but for most of us relevant, valid and basic spreadsheets with some simple analysis are probably fine. The key is to identify the decisions you need to make and therefore what data you need to help you make them. Where is it? How can you get it? In what form and when is it best for you to get it? You are the only person who has the answers to these questions. Information systems need to be designed around your information needs and, quite often, those needs are straightforward.
4. Start paying more attention to the boring but important stuff. Everybody has seen those silly two-by-two tables that so over-simplify the world they stifle critical thinking and analysis. Well here’s another one. Going left to right the columns are ‘exciting’ and ‘boring’. And the bottom row is labelled ‘trivial’ and the top ‘important’. Of course, we all love the stuff in the exciting-important quadrant. The bad news is that there isn’t much in that box that needs doing and, because it is exciting and important, we’ve probably already done it. We really should take a look in the boring and important box as, like it or not, that’s probably where the action is. My hunch is that doing really effective HR is (probably like doing good stuff in many jobs) not a roller-coaster ride of thrills and is an inherently slow process with few quick fixes. Intervening to shape or develop people’s behaviour takes time – and it may be quite a while before effects are seen.
5. Start to boost your levels of healthy scepticism and become a more critical HR consumer. What’s so great about being sceptical? Well for one thing it’s a lot of fun. Yes people get irritated, and yes they hate you for challenging their cherished beliefs. But, in the end, they always appreciate it. Scepticism is great because it makes you a much better and wiser HR consumer. It fine-tunes your BS detector and alerts you to overblown claims and marketing nonsense. When you hear something like 'employee engagement is the number one driver of organisational performance' your BS detector immediately goes off. Is there really a number one driver of performance? What’s the evidence? We should take all claims about the effectiveness of HR practices with a pinch of salt. And if that isn’t working for you, try a shovelful.
Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at Bath University's School of Management
How a “tsunami of change” is shaping the future of HR
While the identity and purpose of HR have sometimes been questioned in the past, the future of HR is currently in the balance as it is currently experiencing a “tsunami of change” like never before, according to an expert in organisational development.
“This time it’s different,” said Ben Whitter, organisation and people development manager for The University of Nottingham in China and CEO of consulting firm Tsunami Leadership.
“There are fundamental shifts taking place in HR. Leading organisations, for example, are quickly moving to people analytics and data-informed HR strategies, which are becoming the essential ingredients of solid HR functions.”
The future of HR is about tuning into how to get the best out of people within the workplace and, as a profession, and he said HR is using data much more widely, carefully and creatively to define, develop and market great workplace experiences and the connected business strategy.
“It’s really all about a much stronger and visible impact on business performance, and progressive HR folks are showing where, how and why people strategy affects the bottom-line in a way traditional HR hasn’t been able to – and its adding massive value,” said Whitter.
Key changes for HR
Employee experience is currently a hot topic for HR (as evidenced by recent developments at Airbnb and Amazon), according to Whitter, who said there is intense attention and debate about the quality of workplaces.
“Some companies are trying to get ahead of the curve by bringing together key internal functions, and not just the typical HR stuff, under the banner of employee experience so that they can be much more focused and connected in ensuring organisational culture drives performance,” he said.
“This shift in expectations of the HR function is also affecting long-standing ‘norms’ within the workplace such as performance management, which has been thrown out of companies like GE, Microsoft, and Accenture.
“It’s still clinging on at companies like Google, but it seems organisations are becoming acutely aware that they need to move to more progressive people operations.”
All this combined means that HR is firmly in the spotlight and has an incredible opportunity to become a core part of the business across sectors in what is becoming a more meaningful economy, he said.
“People are now realising the true potential of HR, and CEOs the world over are looking at their current HR functions with a renewed sense of what could be, while at the same time understanding much more clearly what they’re missing out on by sticking to more traditional HR models.”
Skill sets in the future of HR
The traditional HR career and development path is blurring significantly as organisations are starting to recruit people who have shunned the ‘old’ ways in favour of the new, said Whitter.
“Tesla, for example, wants HR people who absolutely do not believe in the ‘old’ HR. They want ‘HR rockstars’ – people who are fully in tune with the business, but also practitioners who utilise data and know-how effectively within their operations to add significant value,” he said.
“This is about laser-like impact in the right places.”
Those well versed in the development of organisations and businesses are being seen as the key to lead HR functions, according to Whitter.
“This changes the career path completely in that more and more HR leaders are coming from very diverse backgrounds, bringing their unique skillsets into play, which can span across a range of functions, and [this] is decent-size step away from the more traditional career routes the profession has been used to,” he said.
The bottom line is that a wide ranging and diverse CV is becoming much more desirable to potential employers than a traditional, core HR background, according to Whitter.
Other critical elements of new roles involve an integration of skills across marketing, employer branding, training, communications, engagement, PR, and community/partnership roles, and other operational roles, he said.
“This is a very different brand of HR leader and a very different brand of HR.”
Taking the step up
HR leaders can take a number of steps to help develop the capability of their HR function, and Whitter said this starts from “where you are and with what you’ve got”.
“For me this means really going to deep into organisational cultures, getting out into the world, learning from each sector and its people.
“The really great HR people figure out a way to blaze a trail within their existing roles.” Organisations are very unique communities of people to explore, learn from and understand, explained Whitter, who said that in reality the challenges that HR people see may not vary too much, but the solutions usually do.
“What is right in one context rarely translates well in another,” he said.
“Those seeking to move into this new brand of HR leadership role will need to become immersed in the business from the get-go factoring in diverse experiences and cultivating a more progressive profile.
“The employee experience is front and centre within this though and securing a skill-set that includes business, data, people analytics, applied-research techniques, and psychology will become an essential requirement within future HR.”
The biggest, most immediate task for HR functions is to move from traditional HR thinking to employee experience thinking.
“This is critical for HR teams and makes clear HR’s role in partnering with the CEO and top team to lead an organisation’s culture,” said Whitter.
“The implied opportunity within this is that the HR function as a whole can become the consultancy of choice within businesses via an in-context development approach focused on the employee experience.
“This, alongside a more intrapreneurial style, will help HR functions seize the future in a way that breaks this support function mentality that holds the profession back.”
Whitter said the new economy needs leading-edge and progressive HR functions more than ever before, and predicted the new HR will not be a business partner and will not be fighting for a ‘seat at the table’.
“All that will fade away. HR has the opportunity to become so much more – a true business leader, and I challenge all HR professionals to make this so,” he said.
Top HR Takeaways from Think 2018
Employee experience rules
Play offense by using AI to empower people
In this new era of AI, data is the key to the castle
Skills, skills, skills
AI won’t take our jobs, it will allow us to do our jobs
In fact, AI may just make us more human(e)
Changing HR Operating Models - 'You can't put in what God left out': not everyone can be a strategic HR business partner
In recent years the Ulrich three-box HR model (shared services, centres of excellence and HR business partners) has become the standard delivery model for HR. The model is fundamentally a sound model and has taken HR forward, but in our research we have found a big gap between intention and reality, especially in the role of HR business partners. Why?
Historically a lot of HR work has been about delivering processes to the business, administering payroll, keeping out of tribunals, writing terms and conditions, and so on, so HR has attracted people with the requisite skills and mindset. The HR business partner role is very different. It's about delivering innovative ways of developing organisational and people capability, building on deep data-driven insights into the strategic and commercial direction of the business. This requires a different level of thinking, as the complexity and degree of ambiguity inherent in the role, and in the environment, in which organisations are operating has increased exponentially.
In some cases the issue has been that no one has actually articulated to the newly rebadged business partners how the role is different or the new level it is operating at. In others, no one has helped those with whom they are partnering understand what is on offer and how it differs from the past. In many cases, however, there has been a failure to understand the business partner role and how it differs from the old HR model and then match this to existing HR capability. The simple fact is that the 'ask' has risen faster than the capability of many people in HR to deliver it. As a result, many HR business partners have been unable to deliver what is required in the role or have dumbed down the role to a level they are comfortable with but which doesn't deliver what is required by the business.
One of the causal factors has been that as organisational structures become leaner and ever more matrixed, partner roles become the knot in the bow tie, where they are pivotal in ensuring the whole model functions effectively. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in HR. This means that it becomes vital that you have a 'big enough' person in the role, which often isn't the case because they are the same person as before the organisational change.
Elliott Jaques1, one of the gurus of organisational psychology, identified the challenge that lies behind this problem. In his research he identified seven levels of work complexity, each defined by increasing ambiguity, longer timeframes for decision-making success and greater delivery breadth. He also identified that people can only engage with complexity up to a level related to their intellectual capability to understand it. As Sam Mussabini said to Harold Abrahams in the film Chariots of Fire, 'You can't put in what God left out.' The essential problem with HR business partnering is that in many cases we are asking level 3 capability people to do work at level 4. The issue isn't about developing them; the issue is that they are simply incapable of operating at the right level, either at that time or potentially at all during the span of their natural careers. In our most recent research we asked what CEOs look for from their HR directors (HRDs) and one of the questions we asked was why they had sacked their HRDs. Three issues came out. One was a lack of integrity, which was the most consistent and most important insight from the whole research. The second was great talk but no delivery. The third was that they either weren't up to the role or had outgrown it:
- 'When we started we employed an HR admin lady who made sure the payroll worked, but we outgrew her.'
- 'It was a function of the agenda. The individual didn't have the capability to step up again.'
- 'We had taken the game up a notch. We had someone who was successful in the old agenda but not in the new. I would give them a reference. They weren't a failure; it depended [on] what we wanted from them.'
- 'Intellect was the key. They didn't have the ability to make sure my thinking on strategy was matched to their deep knowledge of the capability to deliver it.'
- 'We are dealing with more complexity on a broader scale. Once we got six variables to think about versus four, they didn't have the capability to think at that level on a broader scale.'
In each case they didn't blame the person. They were good at what they were good at, but the role required them to be good at a different level. In these quotes lies the answer to the conundrum. We shouldn't ask people to operate at a level they simply can't operate at. We need to help people be the best they can be, not try to get everyone to be something they can't be. This has several implications.
Fit the role to the person
Not all HR business partner roles need to operate at a strategic board level. Not all HR business partner roles are the same, so match your level 4 people to level 4 roles and level 3 to level 3. If you have too many roles at the highest levels compared with people who can operate there, match the best people to the roles that have the biggest impact on the bottom line or on patient service or whatever the key value driver is.
A simple test is to list on the left-hand side of the page the business units and how critical and material they are to creating value. On the right, list your HR business partners by their capability. Does the left-hand list match the right? Do your best business partners face off to the most critical business areas? One final point here is don't build the list only on current returns but also on future growth opportunities. It may be you want to match your best HR business partner to the smaller but higher potential and therefore more strategically critical growth opportunities rather than a larger cash cow.
There is a strong organisational design driver here because level 4 is the point at which you have the biggest mismatch between roles featuring work at that complexity level, and the natural incidence of people in the population with the ability to work at that level. This is not an isolated issue within HR, but is true of many roles in many functions. HR just sees it more frequently because I would argue that the ratio of role complexity increase to individual development has been higher than other functions in recent years.
Be clear what we are recruiting for
This isn't just about a competency framework; it's about being realistic about the level we are asking people to operate at. It's become unfashionable to use tests of verbal and numeric reasoning skills, but perhaps we should look at more sophisticated and rigorous ways of assessing what level a person can operate at. We are letting our people and the business down if we recruit people to do a job they simply can't do. Levels of work suggest that by far the best predictor of success in higher complexity roles is judgement – but this is rarely assessed.
Match your development spend to what can actually be developed
It is very difficult to send someone on a programme that develops their intellectual capability or their systemic thinking ability. But these capabilities can be more swiftly developed through a broader career-pathing approach which tries to develop perspective (for example across different functions) and hence judgement. But this takes time and our research shows that this kind of development is the least often used by HR.
Equally there are some key hard skills that can be developed: understanding the business strategy and where value is created, data-driven insight development, and so on. We should focus our HR development spend in these areas. What is disturbing is when HR people tend to focus their development on HR-related rather than business-related areas: 'And here's one more slice of telling SHRM data: When HR professionals were asked about the worth of various academic courses toward a "successful career in HR," 83% said that classes in interpersonal communications skills had "extremely high value." Employment law and business ethics followed, at 71% and 66%, respectively. Where was change management? At 35%. Strategic management? 32%. Finance? Um, that was just 2%.'2
It also might be that you don't develop all these skills in every business partner or even within HR. As an example, not everyone needs to be a data scientist, but everyone needs to be comfortable with data. It might be that you access the deep data analytical skills from elsewhere in the business or from contractors who work closely with your HR business partners, but your HR business partners must recognise the value that issue-driven data analytics will bring to HR.
Be willing to throttle back the promise
In a desire to be seen to be responsive and relevant, there is a danger we overpromise and under-deliver. Perhaps we need to be willing to promise a bit less and deliver a little bit more or deliver where it is most critical versus trying to do it everywhere. Many people will say, 'but that will impact our short-term credibility'. Isn't it better to be rigorous about assessing the real capability of the HR function and our HR business partners and match what we promise to the business to what we can actually deliver? Perhaps a dash of realism and humility might serve us better in the long term. As a previous boss once said to me, 'the longest route is often the quickest way to get somewhere.'
1. JACQUES, E. (1997) Requisite organisation: total system for effective managerial organisation and managerial leadership for the 21st century. London: Gower.
2. HAMMONDS, K. H. (2005) Why we hate HR. New York: Fast Company.