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A new HR blueprint: Capabilities and careers

In the last of a series of three articles laying out a new blueprint for HR, we ask if the function has the right skills

When a storm hits people run for cover. Despite advances in meteorological science many are caught by surprise, and a destructive aftermath can lead to despair. The smart ones plan ahead, make preparations to avoid damage, and identify opportunities the storm may bring.

There is an organisational design storm brewing, the biggest for some time. Our previous articles described how head office departments – especially HR – should be significantly reconfigured to meet the challenging operating conditions of tomorrow: adjust to the digital workplace; make full use of self-service systems, analytics and artificial intelligence; and address persistent calls from stakeholders for better run and leaner organisations, by exemplifying and driving agility.

Organisational leaders, employees and the bottom line will be better served by:

  • A ‘one-stop shop’ integrated service function – higher quality and lower cost – rather than persisting with administrative operations scattered within different functional silos.
  • A multi-disciplinary organisational effectiveness (OE) function that is truly expert in change, innovation, performance and development; and is both ‘architect’ – strategy, analysis, design, policies – and ‘coach’ – building the calibre of leadership, talent and skills at all levels.

More CEOs are becoming aware of the potential to amalgamate central functions (the expression ‘business support functions’ has already entered our vocabulary). Where functions struggle to reinvent themselves CEOs are liable to pull other levers, like appointing a ‘chief transformation officer’ or turning to external consultancies.

Required capabilities: business support services

So, what skills and orientation are needed to work in business support services?

  • Critical decision-making. Being close to the business, speed of decision-making, understanding what will make a difference to both employee and bottom line performance.
  • Customer orientation. Application of tools, advice and interventions that matter rather than follow fashion. Performance will be assessed through real-time data on client satisfaction.
  • Technology. Continually moving the bar upwards in researching and deploying smart systems, enabling users to be more productive and motivated and the organisation to create more value.
  • Content curation and distribution. Liaising with multiple sources of expertise, providing incisive business analytics, and ensuring information is easily accessible and fit for user purpose.

Whether services are in-house or outsourced the leadership of the business support function (optionally the COO) is a core player in the organisation’s management.

Required capabilities: organisation effectiveness

Our last article described how the OE function will comprise people who are business experts with experience that spans people and facilities management, finance, operations, marketing and technology.

There will be a mix of executive responsibilities (like governance, policy-making and delivery) and facilitation (such as helping others to perform and develop). The expectation is value creation – the ability to spot business opportunities and influence decision-making to capitalise on these. Business leaders will regard members of this unit as critical contributors.

To be effective in this environment will necessitate a career broad in experience, responsibility and expertise, built on a foundation of academic enquiry and understanding of psychology. The ability to mix with all levels is a prerequisite. Also required is the courage, gravitas and skill to tackle the major behavioural, trust and social issues that organisations now face.

A new ball game for HR

Already adoption of self-service software and increasingly smart automated advice means that basic HR administration and advisory roles are becoming redundant. As managers become more self-sufficient the challenge for generalists is to move further ‘upstream’. Centres of expertise must match what the best external consultancy firms can offer or they too will find themselves regarded as a poor second.

Fundamental steps should be taken to rise above current HR norms and perceptions. The OE function will self-evidently be a talent ‘hotspot’, with roles and experiences that breed future leaders and top-level advisers.

The best HR practitioners can make this step up, given the right orientation, determination, ability to learn, confidence and drive to push themselves and the organisation forward. They must dispel historic perceptions that HR people are frightened by numbers, don’t understand business, are technology-shy, and preoccupied with HR practices and jargon that mystify business colleagues.

Many HR people are passionate about customers, product and service quality, innovation and markets but must demonstrate this more overtly. Broader business and work experience already tends to mark out those able to win credibility from colleagues. This now becomes even more essential.

Those undertaking management accounting qualifications are told from the outset they are being prepared as potential leaders. The HR curriculum and self-perception currently does not compare.

While it is easy to blame the supply side – for example HR ‘professional’ associations – for being unambitious, the demand side is arguably the root of the problem. To break the cycle of under-achievement that has persisted so long it is vital to have HR leaders who will make the necessary investment in talent, and indeed themselves become genuine business architects.

The challenge for HR leaders

All CEOs are under pressure to deliver increasing value to their stakeholders. Like football managers, many are only as safe as their last run of positive results. To weather the ‘storm’ of change, ideas and insights are badly needed. This offers great opportunities for those in HR who have what it takes – the necessary combination of OD knowledge, business orientation, political skills and future focus.

HR leaders have the advantage of oversight of organisation design, performance and capabilities. Rather than being asked to consider change they should be a leading protagonist for it. By asking themselves 'what if' they should be able to present robust and radical solutions that anticipate external and internal challenges. As chief ‘architects’ and ‘coaches’ they should be at the heart of transforming their organisations. If they miss the opportunity others will fill the void.

So where to start?

  • Continually analyse future trends and capability issues, identify opportunities for change and improvement, and then generate business cases.
  • Build change expertise in the organisation. The healthy way to build this capability is through genuine cross-functional partnership and co-creation with ‘the line’.
  • Understand and learn from the capabilities (and weaknesses) of external consultancies. Before engaging them understand their business model, and challenge yourself and your organisation to become more self-reliant. Ensure any ‘partnership’ raises the capability of in-house staff.
  • Abandon any past tendency to be ‘cobbler’s children’ in terms of underinvestment in HR. OE and business services are critical drivers of organisational achievement.

Upskilling HR

To upskill HR people a quadruple-track approach is needed.

  • Retain the best of existing HR specialists and ‘business partners’, giving them more advanced knowledge and skills training where needed.
  • Recruit high potential managers into OE from within the business – training them in high performance and change techniques, plus grounding in core HR knowledge.
  • Attract young talent with the potential to be change agents with a rigorous redesign of the HR curriculum and a development path that builds rounded managerial experience.
  • Incorporate external experts both to boost expertise and build internal knowledge and capability.

In larger organisations business academies can be the focal point for developing a higher calibre cadre of manager. However, that is harder for smaller employers who are more reliant on the marketplace.

To address the talent supply side in broader terms visionary HR leaders are needed to reshape what ‘professional’ associations and educational bodies provide. Steps are already afoot to create an OE capability framework and qualifications to help high-performing organisations adapt to the emerging ‘post-HR’ era. The aim must be to create a pool of highly capable OE practitioners for in-house, consultancy and interim positions.

There will be many HR functions and managers that will struggle to make the transition, as it involves transforming their organisations as well as themselves. The question to ask is: ‘do I want to be part of the past or the future?’

Further reading

A new HR blueprint: From HR admin to employee services

A new HR blueprint: Organisational effectiveness