But to overcome perceptions of irrelevance, it needs to move away from collaboration to active leadership, says Helen Rosethorn

If you look up the words ‘future proof’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition you will find is: ‘unlikely to become obsolete’. That sounds so simple, but in today’s always-on world, it isn’t. Who could have predicted a generation ago that Kodak would lose its way – but digital disruption left it behind and the once-loved brand never managed to catch up.

To say that HR holds the key to future-proofing a business is a big statement. But given the revolution redefining the workplace today – with a new balance unfolding between man and machine – it’s a statement more valid than ever before and an opportunity every HR leader should be laser-focused on.

Sadly, however, even though many senior HR professionals recognise that themselves and their functions need to become real shapers of digital change, they are not playing the role they want.

This was one of the key findings from research we carried out earlier this year with over 550 HR professionals, including 250 HR leaders. We set out to understand how HR was fairing amidst large-scale transformation. What we found will surprise very few. Yet again, HR sees itself as down the pecking order of influence, investment and perceptions of relevance, suffering from poor self-esteem.

The research uncovered a spectrum of roles played by HR – six archetypes on a continuum. At one end, people are trapped in a conventional state, are tactical and reactive. At the other, HR is achieving its ambition to be a true force for digital change – an activist driving the agenda.

What’s happening in the space between conventionalism and tactical reality? What can HR do to accelerate its future-proofing capabilities?

The answers lie in a particularly interesting feature on the spectrum of archetypes that emerged; a point at which HR starts to truly enable a digital shift within the organisation and achieve the strategic impact it desired. It is the moment where collaboration – being a crucial part of digital transformation – moves into active leadership. This tipping point and the HR behaviours associated with it are revealing of the barriers HR is confronting and what it needs to do to overcome them.

The HR teams future-proofing their organisations have distinct characteristics centred on being digitally enabled themselves. One particular characteristic is a familiar one assigned to HR competencies – curiosity. In 2010, when early work was done by the CIPD on the professional roadmap for HR, one of the critical qualities highlighted was curiosity – the thirst to know more and explore the possibilities ahead. We are not just talking about emerging trends and technologies but about being data hungry and smart, too. Today, one enables the other.

HR leaders and their teams beyond the tipping point have made themselves indispensable to any discussion around digital possibilities and what the future looks like – not simply because they can imagine the possibilities, but because they have built their credentials and a mandate.

We saw that these teams were credited with digitally led innovation that typically started with an HR focus but had clearly translated into improved business performance. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary. For instance, British pub chain Stonegate’s staff generated a video learning app that went way beyond its original intention in terms of customer impact, elevating performance and engagement and becoming a new digital communication channel for management.

HR can be the catalyst to organisational change, but first it must recognise – and take responsibility for – its ability to exert transformation on the wider business. Laggards will risk simply fading away.


Helen Rosethorn is a partner at global brand and marketing consultancy Prophet