On re-imagining HR's future

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Changing external dynamics mean HR has to fundamentally rethink its role

We’ve been talking for ever about why HR should change: to achieve greater recognition, to secure ‘a place at the table’, to be more business focused, more externally focused.

But now HR is facing a clear choice that could lead to a polarisation of the profession. One road promises the opportunity to create the kind of value for enterprises we could once only dream of. The other involves doing more of what we’ve always done, resulting in the peripheral role to which many HR functions have continuously been relegated.

The change Roffey Park is seeing in the organisations we work with is not so much about what we do, but why and how. Less about competency, more a reimagining of HR’s purpose and process.

This isn’t the latest fad; it’s a necessary adaptation to meet the external environment. The change we are experiencing confronts HR with significant challenges. Are we willing and equipped to embrace it?

Re-imagining HR

Traditionally HR has been preoccupied with risk management for the present, and an individual rather than systemic focus. We now face a fundamental challenge to pay more attention to the purpose and ‘being’ of HR: the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

In the ’80s, with the label ‘HR’, we chose a commodity management paradigm characterising the people in organisations simply as ‘resources’, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Yet humans are not resources, and we pretend they are at our peril. My view is that HR as a function: ‘facilitates the fulfilment of an enterprise’s purpose through, and towards the people working with it, both individually, and collectively as a dynamic human system’.

It’s a bit clunky, but let’s unpick it...

‘Fulfilment of an enterprise’s purpose’

Ultimately HR’s only purpose is that of the enterprise it’s part of. Our responsibility is the fulfilment of that purpose, irrespective of the sector or business.

Why ‘enterprise’ not ‘organisation’?

The word ‘organisation’ carries associations of structure, hierarchy and management paradigms that are increasingly irrelevant today, hence ‘enterprise’ being a more appropriate label, whatever the sector.

‘Through and towards the people working with it’

We know an enterprise can only fulfil its purpose through the people working with it, but it also has contractual and moral duties of care towards those people.

For the sixth year running, the CIPD’s 2015 absence management survey reported an increase in stress-related absence and mental ill-health in organisations, contributed to by growing workloads, fewer people to share the load, and greater job insecurity. Combine this with the estimated 20% of the workforce facing in-work poverty and this isn’t great for engagement and productivity.

Conditions for those at the bottom of the hourglass also impact those at the top. Perceptions of procedural and distributive organisational justice play a part in attracting or alienating those the enterprise hopes to recruit and retain. How the workforce is treated directly affects business performance, and getting it wrong can be costly, as Sports Direct discovered in December.

Perceived boundaries between shareholders, customers and employees are becoming meaningless. Hundreds of millions were wiped off Sport Direct’s share price amid comparisons of working conditions at its Shirebrook warehouse to a gulag, and accusations that temporary workers were paid below minimum wage.

The challenge for HR is to leave behind the ‘commodity management’ mindset and instead take a systemic approach to the engagement of and duty of care towards all levels of the workforce.

‘Work with’ rather than ‘employed by’

Increasingly, people work with an enterprise through a range of relationships beyond traditional permanent employment contracts. But HR is less aware of this workforce, and often less inclined to offer them opportunities or access to initiatives. While 38% of HR leaders worry about the quality of work of these people, only half provide training for casual staff, only one third have appraisals, and less than half include them in internal communications and recognition awards.

So the challenge for HR is to gain confidence in creating and facilitating a diversity of new contractual arrangements, fresh ways to manage performance, new mindsets regarding issues of trust and transparency in contrast to control and sanction, and imaginative ways to invest in skills, even for individuals who may not stay with the enterprise.

‘Individual’ and ‘collective’

HR has long been disproportionately preoccupied with the individual – from recruitment to performance management, learning and development, succession and talent management. It needs to focus just as much on the collective; to better understand performance in the context of the organisation as a dynamic human system.

The challenge for HR then is to be skilfully attentive at any one time to the personal, the interpersonal and the whole system.

‘Facilitate’

Now to the crunch word: facilitate. Don’t misunderstand facilitation. The word literally means ‘to make easy’, and that’s HR’s core purpose. To make it easy for an enterprise to fulfil its purpose through people, to make it easy for the enterprise to attract people, make it easy for staff to invest themselves in the enterprise and grow their capabilities.

And facilitation is anything but passive. If we look at HR as ‘facilitator’ through John Heron’s six facilitation dimensions (see box below) the function becomes an extremely active, intelligent and agile way of working.

HR’s new value contribution

If HR’s purpose is clear and our approach essentially facilitation (‘making things easy’) HR’s value contribution will present as one or more of the following: policy drafters, culture shapers, or capacity builders.

  • Policy drafters. HR’s challenge is to identify the simple rules that will enable the enterprise to fulfil its purpose through people. That’s policy drafting.

Take engagement and productivity for example. Neuroscience confirms what helps people to maintain their motivation is autonomy, mastery/competence, purpose, and relatedness. HR’s challenge then is to draft policies that promote those. Such a policy might also challenge the enterprise’s approach to performance management. It might even shift the focus of grievance and discipline procedures from compliance and control to organisational justice, ‘making it easy’ for people to do their jobs well without risk to, or from, the enterprise.

  • Culture shapers

HR has often left ‘culture’ to OD, and I make no apology for blurring some traditional boundaries between OD and HR. Roffey Park’s experience with clients suggests that the challenges facing organisations today require this blurring more and more.

Look at reward as one example. We know that what is valued and rewarded affects the culture. So one challenge facing HR relates to contrasting approaches to compensation and benefits within the same organisation. Where pay strategy at all levels is driven predominantly by market forces it can result in the top of the hourglass attracting disproportionately higher pay than the bottom, and the potential cultural inconsistencies that go with that.

  • Capacity builders

A central function of HR is building the enterprise’s capacity. This means not only recruitment and retention, but also facilitating ways for people to build their own competence and mastery, such as helping build capability and competence in leaders.

Take talent management as a capacity building example. Historically assumptions have been made about the degree of control an enterprise has over an individual’s career, assumptions that look increasingly ridiculous, especially in relation to what is seen as an employees’ labour market at the top of the hourglass.

The challenge facing HR is to continue making it easy for enterprises and individuals to have ‘grown up’ career conversations; attending equally to short-term gaps, longer-term succession issues, and individuals’ development and career needs.

The choice

HR is changing (and needed to) because the economic and social changes facing enterprises and HR aren’t going away any time soon.

In my mind there’s no question that consistent attention on HR competencies has been invaluable.

But there’s also an argument that the challenges facing enterprises today demand attention not only on what we are doing, but also on HR’s purpose and who we are being. Are we facilitators of “…the fulfilment of an enterprise’s purpose through, and towards the people working with it, both individually and collectively as a dynamic human system”?

In HR’s hands today, lies the opportunity to create more value for enterprises than could once have been dreamed of. And the alternative? Being content with models of organisations and management that have lost any usefulness they ever had. Being content to view humans simply as ‘resources’, and being content for HR to be relegated to the sidelines. What’s your choice?

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