Next generation HR: Part two


Interesting comment on the need to become HR specialists rather than generalists. I believe the way forward in an agile environment is to embrace HR Business Partners at a strategic level who are ...

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Stephen Bevan reveals the outcomes of the IES/HR magazine project with next generation HR leaders

Last month we looked at some of the ways the next generation of HR directors are preparing to deal with the demographic, technological and political shocks UK employers are likely to face over the next decade or two. I described how we at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) worked with HR magazine to convene a group of 10 early- to mid-career professionals from a mix of businesses to work together to shape a vision of the HR challenges that employers will face and how the HR profession should respond.

We have already looked at elements of their ‘diagnosis’ and parts of their prescription as they presented it to an audience of HR practitioners, academics and consultants at an event in October. In this second part of the story we will look at the way they see the skill needs and roles of HR professionals evolving and their responses to some of the questions our invited audience posed to them.

Having considered the ways the world of work was likely to change in the future, the group were pretty clear about the priorities for HR professionals. More specifically they were prescriptive about what HR professionals should stop doing, what they should continue to do, and what new things they should focus on. The main messages are summarised in the box below.

From my perspective, one of the strong messages was that to maximise the influence of HR on business success they would need to develop stronger analytical capacity and be prepared to ‘call the shots’ on OD.

Based on some of the questions from our invited audience it emerged that some of the thinking behind the call for more involvement in OD was prompted by concerns that many organisations had suffered in the past from a lack of strong HR involvement in change initiatives. This led us on to a debate about the willingness of HR professionals to speak up and lead businesses in times when questions of business ethics are at stake.

In this respect, professor David Buchanan from Cranfield University pressed the group on the question of whether HR had been sucked into delivering a predominantly transactional model when it needed to be a more strategic and even ‘ethical’ voice in the years before the financial crisis. In the discussion that followed phrases such as ‘speaking truth to power’ and ‘moral compass of business’ featured frequently.

The group suggested the next generation would need to be prepared to challenge CEOs more robustly if they judged that short-term expediency was likely to elbow medium-term prudence, and demonstrably ethical practice, to one side.

These ethical questions, while important, did not dominate the debate. Helen Scott, UK HRD at American Express, raised a question prompted by the future demographic changes that the group had identified in its presentation. She wondered how the HR professionals could encourage businesses to embrace some of the challenges of the 50-year career and the non-work demands likely to affect most employees during their lifetimes.

This led to a discussion about the need to move beyond the, perhaps unhelpfully ‘gendered’, consideration of work/life ‘balance’ towards a recognition that all employees would need support to achieve different forms of work/life ‘integration’.

HR, it was agreed, should lead on these issues and ensure that wider social changes are being reflected in the way employees experience life at work and at home.

Similarly, it was argued by our next generation group that definitions of employee wellbeing need to be broadened beyond a classical clinical model to embrace the need that many employees have to find a connection to the purpose of the business they work for. While there was not wholehearted agreement on whether apparent intergenerational differences on the question of ‘purpose’ really exist, it was clear that our group felt that this was an area that should fall squarely into the domain of the HR profession in the future.

So, what can we conclude about the responses of our group to the original ‘homework’ question we set them about the HR response to demographic and technical change and skill profile required by HR professionals over the coming decade and beyond?

Some of their observations reflected a recognition that some current trends will both continue and intensify. Others represented a call for HR to assert itself more confidently and assume a leadership role in shaping the way business responds to some ‘big ticket’ changes in the operating environment.

The much more ‘employee-centric’ tone struck by the group and the way they emphasised the primacy of optimising the quality of the employee experience was especially noteworthy. The group was fully aware of the challenges to this experience posed by greater ‘Uberisation’ of work for some, but seemed to recognise the need to get the core ‘offer’ as attractive as possible.

However, this position might turn out to be more complex to attain than some of the group might realise. I was also left wondering whether HR’s interest in the employee experience isn’t often easier to pursue and justify during periods of talent shortage rather than labour surplus.

Nonetheless, the intellectual energy, curiosity, and willingness to break the mould that our group of next gen HR professionals brought to this project was inspirational and provocative. In some ways their message was that businesses will only be able to deliver a more strategic, agile and differentiated ‘offer’ to future employees if they are prepared to invest in and stretch the role and capability of the next wave of specialist HR practitioners on whom they will continue to rely. This is an important point because the sophistication of employees and their expectations of work are evolving quickly. Unless business leaders are prepared to place greater faith in their HR leaders to help them navigate this changing landscape with insight and agility, they risk getting left seriously behind the pack.

Finally, it is worth remembering that most of these future HR leaders are already in the formative stages of their careers. If our group is anything to go by, they are full of great ideas and have the energy to start trying some of them out on real business problems. My advice is that employers could do worse than giving them a voice sooner rather than later.

Stephen Bevan is head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies


Interesting comment on the need to become HR specialists rather than generalists. I believe the way forward in an agile environment is to embrace HR Business Partners at a strategic level who are 'high level' generalists. To be effective influencers at a business level HR Business partners need to understand strategy and business as well as all aspects of HR. The challenge in creating functional specialists as a career path will be a lack of experience and knowledge at a high level of other HR functions. At a senior level the business manager career path divides into two options; to remain as functional leader or to develop wider expertise across all aspects of the business and be a business leader. HR is no different in having these requirements.

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