Come on HR – Prove Me Wrong!

HR Curator’s Thoughts on the Future of the Function


I love HR and have always had a passion for the whole area since I fell into Personnel by mistake many years ago. Some 30 years later, working both in and around the HR function, the demands and expectations being made of HR continue to rise, and rightly so!

However, 30 years on, HR is still not making the difference that it should be across a wide range of organizations.  It’s time to step up and the function has an amazing opportunity to influence the way that organizations operate as the digital world of work continues to grow at a pace. My frustration culminates in 5 key themes which for me are crucial to change not only the perceptions of the function, but also build the commercial credibility of the function.

Future of the HR Function

Change Number 1: Organizational Design

HR has for years continued to aspire to be strategic (whatever that really means) and I have continued to promote that HR should aspire to be commercial first and foremost rather than seeking to be strategic, which if we are honest, has few bed fellows in any organization! Having said that one of the more strategic elements that I got involved with years ago in HR was organizational design as that truly enabled HR to stand back from the operational issues and devise ways of assessing the success or otherwise of the organizational structure that may be in place.

Poor performance and the erosion of the ability to keep pace with increasing performance demands are symptomatic of the structure not being right. It may mean there are excessive layers, narrow spans of control, siloed ways of working and/or slow “bottle-necked” decision making processes.

It provides the potential for focusing on cost opportunities and more importantly addresses root causes of organizational dysfunction allied to institutionalized layers of management that ultimately cause micro-management, a lack of accountability and ultimately a lack of employee empowerment. 

Good organizational design will define the future organizational goals and strategy, align processes, systems and tasks to those demands and then enable the more effective design of functions, units, jobs and roles that are fit for the digital world.  The future of work is not just about using technology to replace or augment people and their jobs, it’s about making the employee experience a top priority so that the people agenda will attain the greatest importance within the context of newly emerging organizational structures.

These are surely aspects that if HR can influence and change these aspects that will build credibility and ensure that any organization can maximize the available capabilities and ultimately help to support better business results! That sounds pretty strategic to me!

Change Number 2: Organizational Design – Start With HR!

If you can’t do Change Number 1 then at least review HR! There appears to be continuing dissatisfaction with the way in which HR has been put together. After all Dave Ulrich’s original “three-legged stool” model (HR business partners, HR centres of expertise and a shared HR services operation) was not supposed to be “cut and pasted” into organizations without proper organizational design. A model is a conceptual structure that triggers challenge and new thinking, not the end result because it is supposedly “best practice”.

We owe it to ourselves to create the function that our organization needs not just now but in the future. It’s a chance to be proactive and really shape the way that we want to operate rather than try to manipulate a methodology that may not be “fit for purpose” anymore as change and technology rapidly evolves.

Change Number 3: Business Partners – Really!

For me the role of the HR Business Partner (HRBP) is, and always will be, more of a Thought Leader role than being a sub-servient role that could end up taking orders and ensuring the delivery of key people-based solutions. It’s a “tough gig” trying to influence and persuade leaders who are likely to be more senior than the HRBP and who believe that they are “experts when it comes to people” (except when the going gets tough of course)!

When I look at HRBP job descriptions, it appears that “Superman or Superwomen” seems to have emerged over time.  I appreciate the need to be “lean and agile” and seek the best person for this tough role but we are not setting our practitioners up for success if we continue to be driven by the most useless HR metric ever devised, HR practitioner to employee ratio! All it tells us is that we don’t have enough people to provide the employee experience across the organization which will have untold costs and implications if we continue to go down this route.

The HRBP role is fundamental to HR success but may not have a quick fix. Perhaps we may need to focus on Relationship or Account Management as a way of connecting with internal clients in a truly commercial way and then enable the experts to do “their stuff” with a real commercial and analytical based outcomes approach having been established at the outset.

I don’t have the answer but sense that the design of the role isn’t correct and needs some new thinking to ensure that the HR practitioners in situ are being set up for success

Change Number 4: HR Get Commercial

The HR profession is beginning to understand the importance of being ‘more numbers driven’. Don’t get me wrong, the HR metrics/analytics debate is crucial to the development of the HR function of the future as it strives to demonstrate, in more commercial terms, the value that we all know that HR delivers to an organization.

When faced with a major investment decision, such as a new product or a new supply chain system, how many organizations would bet their success on “gut feeling” or an intuition that it is the right thing to do? Very few I would suggest and yet when it comes to the workforce and its’ people, a lot of decisions still seem to be made without making use of relevant data. Some people will say that you can’t measure the value of people – there is too much evidence and case studies to prove those doubters wrong. It’s not about turning people into numbers, that’s not what sound data-based analytics is about; its’ about creating or proving the commercial business case as to why an investment should be made or indeed measure the success and return that has been demonstrated from the evidence available.

The cry for HR/people-based analytics is fundamentally to my mind about demonstrating the commercial business value that HR can provide; there are many great articles that talk about the journey that this involves, my simple take is around:

  • Determine the business problem you want to solve
  • Create a model to frame the issues and guide the analysis process that you want to undertake (you might not get it right first time)
  • Identify or capture the relevant data that is available
  • Undertake the analysis (either manually via experts or numerically orientated colleagues or use one of the technology solutions available to help)
  • Present the findings and insights to the key stakeholders by creating a compelling story
  • Define action steps to implement the solution
  • Review the learnings from the process undertaken

Commercial HR isn’t just about crunching numbers and seeing people as units or widgets; it’s about making sense of the human elements that drive better performance.  Again, by creating these stories it will build credibility for the HR function and show that HR can be as business like as any other function!

Change Number 5: Please Embrace Technology!

I know that a lot of HR practitioners didn’t join HR to become technology experts (I certainly didn’t) but technology is the enabler of the future and in recent years, technology has changed the ways in which HR people have had to think and do their operational work. 

At a basic level, HR practitioners use technology more efficiently to deliver HR systems such as benefits, payroll processing, healthcare costs and other administrative services. However, the future of HR is all about using technology to focus on:

  • Helping people to stay connected with each other like never before.
  • Communicating with clients and employees (via Chatbots etc.).
  • Build more effective people-based data bases that actually talk to each other!
  • Build people processes that are aligned and ensure that ultimately a seamless employee experience for everyone is available.
  • Utilizing technology to undertake complex analytical work (core cause effect analytics, future based predictive analytics etc.).

As technology exponents, HR professionals have to access, advocate, analyze and align technology for information, efficiency and relationships; it’s how collectively we will all be enabled to give of our best and allow us to focus on those aspects that truly “add value” to the HR function and the organization as a whole.

Final Thoughts

On many occasions, I’ve talked about HR not being able to attain new and more challenging deliverables by relying upon an old roadmap. I guess my aspirations for HR are driven by creating and shaping a new roadmap. At many conferences this year I’ve heard the phrase “this is one of the best times to be in HR”, all driven by the real opportunities for change and transformation into a real “added value” function. The challenge for HR is to find those opportunities and turn them into new ways of operating driven by new mind-sets across the profession that focus as much on the commercial elements as much as the people solutions.

So, come on HR prove me wrong and start driving these changes through; HR is a great profession and just needs to find and maximize these opportunities whatever the size of the organization, whatever the size of the HR function.

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