HR Transformation in 2021: It Starts with Practitioners

Original Article:’s that time of the year when everyone focuses on next year and predicts what HR must do or not do.  The pandemic has accelerated the need for change across all HR functions, large, medium or small and whilst the drive for a digital world will be a key focus next year, for me any transformation has to start with the HR practitioners themselves.  This is about whether they ‘fit’ with the new mindset and business demands that will be expected from them.

Drawing on the extensive research for my book that was released earlier this year, ‘Introduction to People Analytics’ (Kogan Page) I believe that all HR practitioners must be critiqued against the ‘6 C’s of HR’.  The key principle throughout is that the HR function must operate in a commercial way in everything it does; after all greater digital tools means that more data will be available than ever before and the expectation of business leaders is that HR will become a value creation function, not merely a cost and efficiency function.

The 6 C’s

Curiosity:  It’s vital that HR practitioners are constantly curious about the business in which they operate. The HR function needs to be able to give a comprehensive synopsis of the business environment within which the business or organization operates and clearly be able to focus upon those aspects that drive competitive advantage.

A comprehensive understanding of the business and its’ challenges will also enable appropriate prioritisation when it comes to determining where best to invest in the HR function. The pandemic, if nothing else, has shown that disruption and accelerated change is a part of everyone’s world. HR needs to be at the forefront of those issues and be able to proactively anticipate how best to help the business future proof itself against those challenges.

Credibility:  Every HR practitioner needs to be financially literate; this drives true business credibility in the eyes of senior executives and leaders. That means being able to interpret financial statements, financial terminology and the financial indicators that drive the business and organisational outcomes. The key is being known as a colleague who can “add value” whatever subject is being talked about and whatever decision is being made rather than just being a talent expert. This isn’t about being a financial expert but about understanding the key imperatives that drive the organization’s balance sheet and being able to align HR’s activity to those aspects that it can impact upon the most, its people.

Confidence: Any transformational shift will require confidence across the HR function to make change and projects happen. After all, not every project realizes every anticipated change, but there must be an inherent confidence across all its practitioners that the approaches and solutions being offered are those that will drive the required improvement in performance.

It’s at this point that the HR function does need to demonstrate that it is “on top of the numbers”.  This means being very conversant with the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) or ‘People Metrics’ that are used to determine the success or failure of a section, team and department. Measuring performance against KPIs, especially in the form of ratios, provides the evidence to highlight strengths and weaknesses and this requires confidence to not only interpret the data but also to challenge and question the business about the observations identified.

Courage:  The HR function needs to be continually focusing on generating, evaluating and then implementing new and better ways of working, especially with the increasing demand for automation. This means having the courage and bravery to identify performance improvement opportunities and different ways of doing things and not just within the HR function.

Connected:  Being collaborative is important in bringing together different functions, ideas and leaders.  This is where interpersonal skills – influencing, presenting, negotiating, leading, facilitating – are as important as the ‘hard’ skills around finance and numeracy. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of commerciality is a firmness of purpose, a tough mindedness to make things happen, to seize the initiative and to take tough decisions when needed.

The head needs to rule the heart by explaining to colleagues and direct reports what they need to hear not necessarily telling them what they want to hear. Being connected isn’t just about having effective relationships, it’s also about having those difficult conversations that sometimes need to be had.

Capability:  Continuous development of capability is becoming more important across the whole workforce and the HR practitioner is no exception.  Apart from improving financial understanding, there are several other important topics such as having a good grasp of business strategy and how it is formed, being conversant with operational effectiveness techniques, knowing what process improvement is all about and keeping up to date with the continual technological advancements that change almost on a daily basis. Add to that the shift to a more data-based approach and there is a critical change agenda for all HR practitioners during 2021. Remember, high performers never stop learning!

It’s an exciting time for HR with the pandemic providing challenges but also opportunities for transforming businesses and approaches that have ‘had their day’.  Focus as much on changing and improving the capability of the HR practitioner as driving new transformations across your organizations. One can’t fully work without the other!

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