HR Needs to Focus on the Right ‘S’ Word: Being ‘Smarter

ike many of you, I’ve become incredibly frustrated in that HR never seems to get the credit it deserves. Allied to this, HR doesn’t seem to position itself in a way that it can demonstrate the real “added value” difference that we all know it can.

There is so much talk about HR being more strategic (the ‘S’ word) and I’m not sure that phrase or focus is helping. In my mind, strategy relates to the plans made or the actions taken in an effort to help the organization fulfil its intended purpose. Now most business functions use the term strategic to describe its plans, programs and initiatives. Strategic initiatives make a major contribution toward helping the entire organization meet its long-term goals and objectives (e.g.: improving customer service, reducing costs, increasing market share, improved employee productivity, etc.) So, where does HR fit in this picture then?


HR has a part to play in determining and delivering these initiatives. But my view of the HR and a strategic approach means taking a long-term, big picture approach to people-related issues. Being strategic means operating HR programs with the ultimate goal of making a direct contribution toward meeting major organizational long-term objectives. The primary goal of HR, therefore, is to increase employee productivity and thus improve organizational profitability. It’s for this reason that the area of relevant metrics and data now become critical to HR to show their value in financial terms.

This means that HR has to have a business mind-set first and foremost and stop trying to use the ‘S word’ at every opportunity. What is (or is not) strategic is determined by senior managers outside of HR. They judge strategic actions or programs not by the words that describe them but by their actual impact on business results, which are always measured in financial terms—the numbers!

So I guess I’m saying HR needs to help itself first!


Now lots of people will say that HR has changed already, and to some extent they are correct.  Dave Ulrich and other HR gurus have written some great books advising us how to change HR. However, in my mind adopting their ideas and infrastructures “en masse” is not the solution for everyone.  Ulrich, by his own admittance, never advocated the implementation of these models without any organizational context.

So, HR, the floor is ours and the opportunity to really shape and change the way it operates still exists, drawing upon the advice from the Ulrich’s of this world. But whatever HR does, it needs to do two things really well. First, understand the financials and second, link people initiatives to the balance sheet—that’s a business or commercially driven mind-set and not a strategic one!


HR needs to change perceptions. That can be done only by being a credible business leader (not a partner), knowing your commercial and HR stuff, and being able to build the business case for people-based initiatives and challenging the business. Stop trying to please everyone because while everyone always has a view about people and what HR should be doing, HR needs to stand up for what it knows and demonstrate that it can add value to the bottom line.

In my mind, that’s why being business-focused or commercially-minded as an HR practitioner is more critical at this stage than focusing on the ‘S’ word. If you want to use a word starting with ‘S’, then focus on being “smarter” in all you do!

Building An Engaged Team Is Hard Work

In times of increasing change and business challenges, organizations have to find ways of responding creatively. That inevitably requires people to cooperate with each other at a level far higher than they are accustomed to. I’ve found that it is rare that one person can produce either all the ideas required or be capable of implementing all those ideas in the real world. The whole area of team development becomes more important and puts pressure on leaders to build that cooperation within and between teams to get the best results.

Since a team is a network of relationships, if the relationships do not work, then neither will the team. If relationships are really bad, then the whole is likely to be less than the sum of the parts. Poor relationships at work cause a lack of engagement in what the organization is trying to achieve leading to wasted energy and a lack of focus.

Sometimes, clients tell me that their team members aren’t working together, and they can’t work out what to do about it. One reason may be that the team members do not believe they need to be a team beyond reporting terms. For example, some teams of sales people are rewarded only on their individual performances, and in those circumstances you will find it hard to convince them of the need to share and work together. True teams need to be able to identify what they rely upon each other for.

Conflict between people and teams can manifest itself in open antagonism, but differences of opinion, personality or personal values can be less obvious but equally damaging. So how can you recognize the more subtle symptoms of conflict? They might include not completing work on time, no responses to phone calls or e-mails, information being hoarded or not shared, or being absent from work.

If you spot any of these symptoms it may be worth asking yourself whether there is more to them than meets the eye. Is there something that needs to be investigated within the team? Sometimes it requires some coaxing to get someone to open up about what is wrong, and team members might be unwilling to voice an opinion different from the rest of the team. This is where leaders have to be brave, and work through the differences; because it is worth it. If you do not do anything, and hope that the problem will go away; it most likely will not. It will probably get worse!

“This is the Way We’ve Always Done It” Isn’t Good Enough When Selecting Today’s Workforce

I’m waiting for the train to the airport and I’m greeted by a billboard that portrays the success the railway operator has had in meeting its’ targets.  Apparently they have assessed their own performance by stating that 95% of their trains arrived on time last month.  If that is the case, then I must have been very unfortunate to have always travelled on those trains making up the other 5%!

It made me reflect upon why using independently verified assessments are important and so much better than self-reporting how capable or how well you are doing.

Are you using the right assessments for today’s workforce?

If we look at today’s workforce, assessments have become used more than ever before in recruitment, promotion and development-based processes; IBM’s global online assessments totaled over 30 million last year!  Using psychometric assessments are usually one part of a multi-stage recruitment or assessment process. They are extensively used by over 80% of the Fortune 500 companies in the USA and by over 75% of the FTSE 100 companies in the UK, but why is that?

Yes, assessments can act as a filtering process to ensure you spend face-to-face time with those candidates likely to perform successfully in any given role.  The key aspect though is all leaders and managers are looking to hire or promote someone they know will perform in line with the job demands; therefore, the prediction as to whether an individual will work out or not is crucial.

The workforce today has never had so many different generations operating within it; Boomers, Generation X, Y/Millennials, Z – I’ve lost the plot!  The point is that any psychometric must be based on extensive recent research. There are too many organizations who developed tests in the 70’s and 80’s, decide to ‘update their research, change a few labels’ and re-badge the test as a new, better-than-ever test.  To my mind that’s not good enough – the workforce of the 21st century has never been so demanding with so many changing complexities that are impacting the employees of today.  If we throw into the equation the different educational approaches, attitudes to work, different generations, etc. can we really rely on assessments developed in a radically different world?

The cost of re-hiring and re-training is more than an HR budget can manage

Budgets are under pressure, we all know that, but to drop a well-researched and designed assessment process is organizational suicide; to replace people from our studies costs between 1 ½ and 2 ½ times the salary!  Coupled with the fact that HR is continually under pressure to demonstrate its’ value proposition to the business, well-planned and implemented selection processes can readily demonstrate value through performance studies are linked to an organization’s bottom line (e.g.: increased sales, higher customer satisfaction etc.).

The key to good assessment tools is to research and design relevant business-driven criteria that is linked to improved job performance and has comprehensive scientific research to back it up. The key word here is relevant; relevant to today’s workplace and the demands the employee will face in their role tomorrow.

I’ve seen many managers in different organizations over the past 25 years whose opinion has completely changed when they use relevant and up-to-date assessments that have shown aspects of people they had never been able to quantify themselves.  They probably came from the same school as my railway operator who portrayed success and performance but never really had to back it up!

HR Leaders: Time to Flex and Strengthen Your Role

What perception do other people have of HR? I’m sure some of you will have read the infamous 2005 Fast Company article ‘Why We Hate HR’. That was some eight years ago, and I’m not sure things have significantly since then.

I was talking to an HR Director last week about the perception people in his organization had about HR. He said “if you want to be thanked for what you do at work, don’t go into HR!” He added that people in HR need to “get over the fact that they won’t get a lot of recognition and if they think that they are going to be thrown compliments for their work in HR then they should get out of the function now.” He was inferring to the need for increased tenacity and resilience from today’s HR practitioners.


HR leaders elsewhere across the world often echo this same sentiment—that their efforts frequently go unnoticed unless something goes wrong. Other head office or corporate services support functions (such as marketing, IT, procurement) are not alone in this regard. If you think about it, when you work in an IT department, the business doesn’t think about what you do until the IT system crashes and people are unable to do their work effectively! There are many elements of HR that are only noticed if things or events go wrong—that’s the reality!

One key aspect is that HR has to start talking the language of the business; that doesn’t mean talking about HR policies and procedures.

So why is that? HR needs to start letting people in their organization know what they are doing and how they impact the bottom line. If an HR function can’t demonstrate this in the current climate, then it’s no surprise that the efforts of HR will be forgotten. Start your influence process by understanding the key individuals you are trying to influence.


Start with the CEO and the senior management team. They didn’t get to the top without being 100 percent focused on what needs to be done and developing their own agenda—if HR is truly going to help them accomplish their goals, HR has to first understand what gets their attention. This is difficult, but still possible. One key aspect is that HR has to start talking the language of the business; that doesn’t mean talking about HR policies and procedures. Start talking about the commercial business challenges (increased profitability, improved efficiency or service, etc.) and how HR can support these through insights into talent, people capability and through the application of the data it has available.


To the senior management team, almost every decision requires a “business case,” and because they’ve learned to think in analytical terms and to quantify everything, HR must do the same. I’ve found that the prime reason so many HR departments are constantly being cut by financially-driven initiatives because firstly HR does not “show off what it has done.” Also, HR departments often fail to provide quantifiable proof of the ‘added value’ it provides in a manner and language the senior management team understands. Namely, financially-based savings and income benefits! We understand ‘HR speak’ but our clients probably don’t to the same extent, so we need to change our behavior to get that crucial buy in.

There are many HR professionals who hate the idea of self-promotion. The reality is that all support services and professionals need to be on the front foot and say, “Look what we have done for your business. You now have a competitive advantage because of the clever stuff we have done.”


I’m not saying sound HR thinking and practices aren’t valued, but the time has come for HR to confidently make some noise—what harm can it do? If you are afraid that it will place the focus upon you and your function, perhaps “tomorrow’s HR” isn’t for you because the scrutiny and commercial rigor has only just begun. It’s about changing the perceptions that people have of HR and that starts with your own behavior and mind-set change.

HR 2020: We Need Data Scientists Now

Over the years, many articles have been written about what’s wrong with Human Resources. The usual challenges emerge: HR is too process oriented; HR is not commercially savvy enough; HR doesn’t think in numbers or data terms; HR has issues truly demonstrating the value of what they do.

Some of this may be true, but having worked in and around HR for over 25 years now, I find it a difficult profession that is once again going through a lot of change. The fact that all managers regard themselves HR experts — when they want to be — doesn’t help the situation.

Business has evolved from the archaic infrastructure of subjectivity and guesswork to an analytically metric-based system covering virtually the whole organization from finance, sales, and marketing through to distribution. HR, however, has failed to fully adapt and communicate its continued relevance.

HR decisions were traditionally intuitive, grounded in relationships, and driven by skills frameworks, on-boarding, and retention objectives supported by knowledge sharing. However, consumers, customers, and employees are all pushing HR into justifying its decision making and predicting the future outcomes of decisions. In the ever-changing marketplace with an increasing demand for talent, getting the right number of people with the right skills in the right place at the right time to deliver outcomes in line with organizational strategies has become paramount. At the same time, HR is expected to find ways to engage, balance flexibility and cost, attract, grow, and predict the churn rate of employees. And that’s why the role of HR is so challenging.

The emerging shift requires a new type of HR practitioner to meet the demands of both today and HR 2020. The change has to be both tangible and transformational, or HR will be left behind in the digital world.


2020: The future is here


The year is 2020. The world of work has been digitally transformed by embedded artificial intelligence systems. We collaborate and deliver services through social media, with new forms of automation arriving all the time. The workplace is predominantly remote, no longer defined by a smart glass designed building or office. Low-level skilled jobs have mainly been replaced by machines. Outsourcing and collaboration are at an all-time high, with human optimization capabilities driven by data analytics. HR has evolved into a real-time Performance function with the old Finance function and is an extended arm of the executive board with data metrics and return on investment driving people-based decisions and programs.

In each business area, the new Performance function is able to aggregate and forecast overall retention trends and propensity to stay or leave the organization, as well as to predict intention to leave and retention risk per employee, all based on the factors that determine whether an employee is still impressionable or is at the point of no return, leaving despite any intervention. Managers get automated real-time updates of potential retention risks depending on such analytics of the employee as gender, engagement level, social networking content and activity, capability profiles, skills gaps, skill utilization, challenge, and frequency.

The manager is equipped to discuss and explore intentions and concerns with their employees, knowing whether they are impressionable or at the point of no return. Performance management has been replaced by ad hoc conversations, and managers have true accountability for compensation based on demonstrated performance. No more can HR be blamed for their policies blocking pay raises and bonuses.

Every employee has their own ROI. The world has changed with technology being the enabler, but to get to that point, HR has changed significantly in terms of its commercial outlook, the capabilities it requires to operate, and its ability has to provide real-time people-based insights totally oriented towards improving the bottom line.


Outcomes and considerations


Today’s HR leaders are very aware of the importance of being strategic and their need to influence top management on people issues. Yesterday’s HR was more operational and reactive, giving rise to crisis-based management and often agreeing to unreasonable or low-priority requests that add limited value to the organization, given the time and resource cost involved.

The new HR has to command the attention of the CEO and the C-Suite by working smarter and demonstrating specific behaviours aligned to the CEO’s key business criteria and to drive more measurable ROI.


  1. Breakthrough thinking 

With their more scientific stance, HR leaders will be more confident to confer with CEOs and their team to give commercial-related advice and be directly accountable for business-critical people initiatives and their implementation. Predictive analytics will allow HR to demonstrate value by developing forecasts and spot potential problem areas that can keep organizational surprises to a minimum. The art of HR remains crucial to help make sense of what all the data are saying.


  1. The commercial adviser

Predictive analytics allow HR to anticipate problem areas and provide solutions before the CEO and their top teams ask questions, thus positioning HR leaders in a way that makes them look valuable and attractive. These could include:

  • Readiness: If a crisis in the organization required an immediate response, does HR have a strategy or team equipped for this? It is imperative that HR, as a team of trusted experts, be ready at short notice to respond with impact. HR that can anticipate crises before they happen has a very valuable attribute at their disposal.
  • Reputation: No matter what the potential capabilities of HR are, if they lack quality, the CEO will quickly dismiss their potential impact. Therefore, HR must build a reputation of quality in everything associated with it, from advice to reports, with a keen eye for detail.
  • Data: HR must acquire and use intuitive people-based systems with metrics with a clear relationship and linkages to what is important to the commercial side of the organization and its key stakeholder, the CEO.


  1. HR as a brand

HR can have great initiatives, solutions, and science, but these will be wasted if HR is not perceived as a credible function. Implementing simple perception and visibility marketing techniques can ensure that HR is noticed:

  • Perception: HR must demonstrate what, how, and why it has delivered certain outcomes, linking them back into critical business performance indicators.
  • Visibility: Being proactive and visibly volunteering to provide results and insights is key to marketing HR’s credibility and value. This enables case studies and external market-facing insights to demonstrate the impact HR has had due to the application of business-related insights and analytics. It will also build and manage HR’s external brand.

HR is in a race against time. Many HR functions continue to be downsized or outsourced at the very time when the opportunity to really show value is here. It is crucial that HR align itself with the key stakeholders across the organization and speak their commercial language. To do this, HR must quantify its output in tangible commercially-oriented ways that are intrinsically linked into what is important to the executive board and the organization, with a keen focus on the future and how that impacts and drives the present. HR has to be more scientific, looking for data and making sense of it rather than relying on the old “trust me I’m in HR”: It didn’t work in the past and it certainly won’t work in the future.

Data breed confidence in decisions and the ability to persuade and influence people to HR’s way of thinking through a business case approach. If it were easy, HR would have done it years ago, and it certainly is a significant mind-set change, but one that will really enable HR to operate at a different level. While HR 2020 is only a few years away, HR needs to start making changes now.


Reprinted with the permission of Dave Millner, Executive Consulting Partner, Workforce Science and Analytics, Smarter Workforce IBM. dave.millner@uk.ibm.com. Follow him on https://twitter.com/HRCurator