• Opinion: What does the future hold for HR?

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  • 25 Aug 2015
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Duncan Brown weighs up conflicting opinions from HR thought leaders

Our profession is facing a host of contradictions at the moment, a predicament that was highlighted to me as I caught up on my HR reading over the summer.

One particular book, a free e-book called The Rise of HR, which contains essays by 73 thought-leaders, examines many of these “exciting and frightening times for HR professionals”, as Jorge Jauregui Morales, president of the World Federation of People Management Associations, refers to it.

In the book, hosted online by the CIPD, publisher HR Certification Institute (HRCI) optimistically sees the profession sitting “at the centre of some of the most important decisions in any business”, while the function “is rapidly expanding its influence” in the workplace.

The HRCI says that organisations across the globe recognise that HR is the way to elevate acceptable business practices up to exceptional business performance.

Yet in the face of such optimism Wharton professor Peter Capelli’s wrote a nice summary of “why we love to hate HR”, in his recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article.

He highlights the profession’s perceived bureaucracy, operational focus, and lack of innovation and strategic impact. He also notes that with the effects of the recession still lingering “executives see no urgent need for new HR programmes”.

However, taking an different tack in a parallel HBR piece, Ram Charan applauds the value of HR can bring to an organisation as he advocates “splitting” the function by removing the administrative aspects and forming a new all-powerful triumvirate at the top of the organisation.

This would include the chief executive, chief finance officer and chief HR officer to ensure we put “people before strategy”.

Yet research from KPMG shows that a fifth of business leaders fail to see any tangible correlations between the HR functions and business outcomes. And the much-vaunted ‘HR transformations’ advocated by authors in The Rise of HR are still on the drawing board in many cases.

Josh Bersin’s essay in the e-book says HR needs to move from “systems of records” to “systems of engagement”.

But most of us would not recommend our core HR system to another company.

It would appear as if the traditional complaint about HR’s lack of boardroom influence has been reversed and HR is unable, in practice, to land many of the grand policies, structures and strategies it is promoting and presenting to executives.

However, demand for a high-level, influential HR animal such as the HR business partner (HRBP), remain strong, according to research by the Institute for Employment Studies. But the research also highlights common difficulties in putting the HRBP model into practice, particularly in finding staff of the right calibre and communicating and ‘selling’ the new model to the line, meaning that many HRBPs can get ‘stuck’ in traditional case work and administration.

While there may be contradiction and confusion on where HR is as a function, the good news is that cheer-leaders and critics alike seem to be united in their view of how HR can progress and avoid being frozen out completely.

The key appears to be abandoning our quick-fix-induced, superficial copying and borrowing of supposed ‘best practice’ from competitors and promoted by consultants, those deceptively attractive “bright shiny objects” referred to by Boudreau and Rice.

Instead, we need to devote the time and effort to researching and designing evidence-based solutions to specific issues, based on a deep understanding of the business and culture. Along with the required “grit” and “realism”, Ulrich, Schiemann and Sartain conclude the e-book by writing that we need to “learn and do innovative things” and most of all “know yourself and your organisation”.

Investigative and evidence-based HR has to become a reality rather than a theory.

And perhaps most tellingly, Fry and Fishman’s work on the CIPD’s Changing HR Operating Models conclude that “the near mono-culture we now see in the way HR organises itself, is a direct consequence of HR failing to take a systematic and methodical approach to the organisation design of its own function”.

HR’s future is in its own hands it would seem.

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Comments (3)
  • Who can drive employee engagement and culture effectively other than HR. The success of any business will hinge on the quality of employees within the business. We are well positioned to drive talent management which can make a difference to the business.

  • Jaison, thank you, i agree, i think smaller tech companies often intuitively 'get' the importance of good people management and with innovation being so critical to the success of most employers today, it is areal way that HR can show it adds value.

    duncan

  • Duncan, this is a great summary of the current HR literature. It is thought-provoking for those of us who aspire to see HR be all it can be. I would highlight that HR in many start-ups, particularly in tech, don't seem to face the same challenges. They are valued, critical to business success and have a seat at the table. And while they haven't done everything right, I think the way they organise, the cultures they've helped to create and the increased levels of employee commitment and engagement suggest that maybe HR should look there for concrete ideas of how to improve itself -- along with its reputation and bottom line impact.