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Cafcass HR director: HR has 'frequent inability' to be entrepreneurial

HR has arguably had a more turbulent history than any other core business function. The one constant, though, is that HR has long failed to be a strategic influence in the same way other departments have.

In CIPD's most recent HR Outlook survey, 40% of company leaders said HR either had no involvement or they were unaware of its involvement in the development of business strategy. With statistics such as these, questions must be raised about the success of our function.

I believe the main problem is HR's frequent inability to be entrepreneurial. This requires using an advantage you possess that no one else has, and maximising it for business success. But HR must not lose sight of its original purpose - the people. This is focusing on our specialist knowledge of staff to add value to the business. The opportunity is certainly there - recent CMI research reveals that business leaders globally view staff as their top strategic challenge.

To become entrepreneurial, HR must know the business. At Cafcass, only by understanding the culture, motivation and challenges of our social workers, and the workings of the Family Court system, can my team design effective policies and develop strategy for the business. The focus must remain on knowing how the business works, then using HR's unique knowledge of people to develop our own, and shape other, initiatives that drive the business.

A number of challenges must be overcome. First, HR needs to strive to add value with proactive, innovative projects that complement business strategy. This means appreciating what makes business successful.

Second, we need a new wave of HR professionals with a wider knowledge of business, and who are intrinsically entrepreneurial. HR qualifications are mainly focused on transactions and legislation, and this needs to shift to teaching softer skills that build business acumen. HR professionals do not need to be developed within the function, but should be able to come from any business background.

Finally, we need a stronger professional voice connecting HR colleagues with wider corporate functions, promoting a more coherent, confident message.

The CIPD in particular is well placed to do this, but must expand its offerings. Its work this year on 'megatrends' focuses on some of these wider organisational challenges, highlighting the changing demographics of the workforce, the growth of flexible working and identifying future challenges. It doesn't, however, explore the potential solutions. There is a definite opportunity for HR to lead in the face of these changes. By using our specialist knowledge and understanding of how wider trends will affect our workforce, we can be proactive, rather than reactive, to business needs.

There remain differences between the public and private sectors, while each industry faces its own unique challenges. Should, however, approaches differ?

The one constant is that HR departments should work to develop a heightened business awareness, operational curiosity and consistency of practice, rather than wait for the business to ask for a people solution. By pushing an entrepreneurial approach to problem solving, HR can shape a business's future.

HR has come a long way from the 'personnel' transactional function, but we need to rethink our offering to meet the diverse needs of our stakeholders. HR should be at the heart of the business, whatever the corporate aspiration, whatever the sector.

Jabbar Sardar (pictured) is director of HR and organisational development at Cafcass