· Features

A new challenge for HR

It's a tough life being in HR, but what can we learn from others functions?

Reading the HR press is an interesting cross-section of business challenges. More need to focus on talent than ever, new legislation, new technologies, external and internal boundaries blurring, wage inflation coming, pensions auto-enrolment proving more difficult than expected. And in these recent weeks, some commentators have suggested that HR is the least strategically important function for a CEO. Phew, it’s a tough life being in HR.

These pressures are no different for other functions, nor for a business itself. So, what can we learn from other functions? And what does HR have uniquely to add on top? How can we differentiate?

Credibly predicting future behaviour. Many other functions spend most of their time planning, recasting around how to impact business performance. What activities are our competitors or customers going to need us to do, in order to keep their business? This, by nature, is always driven from the outside. The more depth and insight you have, the more credible your voice

Single-minded focus on growth, or bottom-line improvements. Most front-facing functions worry about demand creation, engaging relationships with customers and how to drive sales. Most internal departments create subjective, flexible KPIs to synthesise the change they are trying to make how.

Controlling (in economic downturns). Finance departments are well known for this; and this oft comes through careful detailed attention to the small things, and strong analytic behaviour throughout.

Innovating. Unleashing the potential of all to contribute to great ideas can be the root of huge value creation. HR can play a pivotal role here. Do your colleagues come to you first, when they want to stimulate innovation?

Getting the basics right, and rising above them. All functions have the need to deliver the basics. Not one of them gets off if their core delivery is poor (for any length of time). For everyone, this is table-stakes, and the core delivery of HR needs to be strong.

Link activities across the organisation. HR here has a hugely privileged situation. Few functions get across a whole organisation and see the linkages between teams. Finance teams also see this, but they can miss team and process behaviour as they focus on the financial outcomes. Linkage is so often missed that HR can and should be strong in this discussion.

Agility in reshaping. So often, other functions are wrapped up so much in their operational delivery tasks, that their capacity to be agile is reduced. It takes breadth of vision and insightful team shaping to be agile in approach. It can vastly reduce project timescales and costs, if done cleverly. HR can be central to this discussion, if it has the confidence to have a voice.

The need for a separate voice? Many other functions appear strong in their voice and opinion. Some, like marketing and HR, are more accessible and therefore subject to more well intentioned external input. Others are less accessible, like IT and finance. The core to the strong ones is a clear view of their purpose and vision. Without that clarity and voice, HR may need to accept the role of “key support team”, rather than “strategic influencer”.

As we change our thinking into a new set of economic conditions, all these points come in to sharp relief. How well we, as HR, contribute deeply to the agenda in these areas counts. When we are clear about our own performance and the right areas of focus for our organisation, we can drive the agendas with simplicity and impact. When we do so, the CEO’s door will always be open. The opportunity to be central and to create long-term value is there; the question for us is how well we engage in the vision, and on the Journey.

Doug Sawers is managing director of Ceridian UK & Ireland