Can HR ever really be strategic?


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Can HR ever really be strategic? It’s a question I have pondered over the seven years I have edited HR magazine.

It is timely to revisit the question in this July issue. For not only do we announce the winners of the HR Excellence Awards 2013, for which one of the core criteria is evidence of business impact, but I am handing over the editorship as I take a wider role in my business - one that requires me to think strategically.

I have always considered that if an HR professional cannot prove the business value of an intervention then he or she should not be considering that intervention in the first place. And that HR, like all functions, should be aligned to an organisation's future direction – or what Thomson Reuters senior VP of organisational effectiveness and HR operations Mark Sandham simply calls "understanding where the business is heading".

Contrary to what some seem to think, this is not deep thinking or a strategic approach - it is just common business sense. Yet research paper after research paper finds people in HR to be wanting when it comes to contribution to business strategy.

There are plenty of articles and opinions on why this is the case, many of them carried in the pages of this publication. Three stand out to me: the lack of an evidence-based approach in HR; the focus on best practice and what Mike Haffenden from Corporate Research Forum describes as "chasing quick fixes with glib, meaningless titles"; and a widespread lack of commercial acumen in HR.

Let's focus on the first. As HR magazine's own HR Most Influential ranking shows, HR directors embrace academics and thinkers. They like fresh and crystallised ideas, models and frameworks. Yet many HR professionals are not acting on the evidence uncovered in academic research. In 2000, Pfeffer and Sutton argued the gap between research and practice is a "knowing-doing" gap rather than a "knowing" gap.

A study by the University of Iowa a decade ago found that in some areas, fewer than 50% of HR practitioners agreed with the evidence that existed. One such area was Ulrich, Brockbank, Yeung and Lake's finding that the most important competency for HR managers is the ability to manage change. Nearly two decades later Korn/Ferry client partner Anna Penfold says the most critical skill for an HR leader is experience of leading change management and transformation.

Paul Kearns, author of Professional HR (Routledge), believes HR is resisting evidence-based management. He points to the toxic cultural issues of big banks and the NHS, saying a mature HR approach would be to face up to the facts and think again about longstanding beliefs. "We need to look at where we are and what we have been doing of value," he says. I think we also need to ensure we systematically evaluate the effectiveness of HR interventions.

As far as best practice goes, every organisational context is unique. So there is nothing wrong with learning from other companies - something we believe in strongly at HR magazine - but the idea you can just imitate others is fatally flawed.

We have always taken our role as critical friend to the profession seriously and have warned that HR needs to step up to the plate or it is going to find itself sidelined. The good news is CEOs and finance directors are willing HR to be more strategic. As Serco group HRD Geoff Lloyd says, HR has a helicopter view, with access to more critical insight than many functions. If that cannot be brought to bear on influencing strategy then what can?

This will be my last column as Arvind Hickman this month took over as editor. He will no doubt bring his experience of writing for finance directors to this debate. I wish him well.

I remain as publisher of HR magazine and hope to bring much of what I have learned about good HR from the great HR directors I have met to my new role as publishing director. For I believe that today it is HR, not finance, that is the custodian of value in any organisation.

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