Strategic or operational HR? Get the best of both


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Splitting the function into its strategic and operational parts has changed HR for the better at Informa Business Intelligence

When Ram Charan wrote his ‘It’s time to split HR’ article back in 2014, many HR directors would have been surprised it caused such a stir. Because its central premise – that HR should be split into strategic and operational functions – is something that many organisations are already embracing.

Indeed, splitting the HR function into a strategic and operational team, with a head of each, is becoming increasingly popular. Doing so both wards against becoming so preoccupied with the day-to-day that more strategic, value-add activities get neglected, and the reverse – the risk of overlooking those vital basics.

Informa’s Business Intelligence (BI) division is doing exactly this. Last October it decided to bring its outsourced HR administration processes back in-house, splitting the function into an operations team lead by head of HR and information systems Jackie Birmingham, and a strategic and recruitment function headed up by HR director Emma Blaney.

Though Birmingham reports to Blaney, she has much more control over how tasks such as benefits, payroll and leave, and their related data, are processed. The result is a team whose activities are underpinned and enriched by accurate, powerful employee data.

The HR director's view: Emma Blaney

“This system works phenomenally well because data is what that team are passionate about so they do the job far better. The great thing is you’re able to recruit people into that team who are data and systems career people. What so often happens in the HR community is everybody sees the first step in HR as doing payroll and inputting information into the system; it’s often the only way people can get into the profession.

We have junior people in the business partner team who would have been shoved onto administration in other organisations. The most junior person on that team did have a hybrid role. Since we split them she has blossomed, because she’s been able to spend 100% of her time on strategic HR.

You end up with a group of strategic HR people who can buddy up with the MDs of their business and focus 100% of their time on the business strategy. Whereas with a hybrid role, so much of the time you end up with generic HR people being unavailable for periods in the month because they’re running payroll.

Having strong operational HR and data is so valuable to underpinning what we do on the strategic side. For example, we’re doing a lot of modelling around our 2016 bonus structures, and because Jackie’s queen of data she’s the person who works with the senior management team on the various scenarios.

The people cost is the highest cost to our business so if we’ve got somebody who can model various scenarios against that, and give us accurate information on that cost, it’s worth its weight in gold.”

The head of HR and information systems' view: Jackie Birmingham

“The way we used to work was we had a number of HR administrators sitting with the HR business partner team and they did everything for the business. I was a one-man band saying ‘this looks wrong’ when they were inputting information, but I had no authority over them to say ‘you need to get this right in the system’. But now we have a centralised model I’ve got much more autonomy over the way we do things and we were able to streamline processes. It’s not the sexy stuff but it’s important.

We had to do a massive piece of work on movement in headcount and salary changes, and when the chief executive wanted that information, we were able to get it to him. It was great – he then came back directly to me and said ‘this is brilliant, thanks for this piece of work’. He said the data is helping inform the decisions we make. The fact we were confident the data was accurate really helped.

One of my initial reservations about changing was that it could mean the HR managers basically absolved responsibility from getting things right, with absolutely every piece of administration going to my team. But that wasn’t the intention and that isn’t what’s happened – they are quite capable of doing a disciplinary letter for example.

In terms of this working at other organisations, you do need to have enough people on each team. That’s often the challenge; people end up with double roles as they don’t have the resources.”

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