Hot seat: Optimising people as enablers

The vocation of HR has humanity and reason at its core. But as our profession responds to the immediate challenges of coronavirus (COVID-19), the post-EU Exit era, and future trends, we must focus on two key concepts: ‘Humane Reason’ and being OPEN – ‘Optimising People as Enablers.’

Like many professions which treat humans as individuals, developments in automation and cognitive technology can enable us to practice our vocation in new and better ways. But we must keep Humane Reason at the heart of our profession.

Humane Reason means integrating good processes, good relationships and ‘good work’ into our goal of good business outcomes. For me, the concept sums up the spirit of the vocation which motivates HR professionals.

We in HR have a vocation as much as lawyers, psychologists and economists. Our vocation is unique in that we support a system as a whole while always conscious that we are dealing with individuals.

But our vocation is at an inflection point. Some question if we will survive faced with changes in digital and cognitive technology. Yet, it is these advances in technology and behavioural science, skilfully applied, that will define HR into the future.

The possibilities are great, not least for liberating HR professionals from the deadweight of accountability for inadequate transactional experiences.

Our profession is well defined by the CIPD’s new professional standards as by the global HR design materials published by the Civil Service. This is complemented by the Civil Service’s new functional standard for HR.

For me, HR's role in in a modern enterprise looks like this.

Purpose: The basis of every enterprise. It might be generating value for shareholders, treating and curing patients, fighting (or deterring) wars. In the case of the Civil Service, it is serving the government of the day.

Strategy: The way in which the enterprise fulfils its purpose.

Operating model: How an enterprise organises its activities to execute its strategy and fulfil its purpose.

Enablers: The money, technology, data and people which drive every operating model.

An effective HR professional will be ‘OPEN’– my acronym for ‘optimising people as enablers’ so the strategy can be delivered, and the enterprise’s purpose fulfilled.

To be OPEN includes the core activity of ensuring that people with the right capabilities are available in the right place at the right time.

We can see the power of this in how many organisations have been able to adapt and reconfigure themselves in response to the coronavirus crisis.

HR must be OPEN with good processes, informed by robust evidence. If we are passionate about our vocation, our people processes must be fair and fit for purpose. That means getting the sequencing of steps right, making them effective and efficient for all their users.

HR must be OPEN with better transactional systems. Well executed, this will allow us to lose the millstone of poor transactional employee experience, which affects how our colleagues feel about HR as a function.

HR must be OPEN with opportunities offered by automation and cognitive technology. Here are unparalleled opportunities to practice our vocation in new and better ways.

However, if we do not recognise the equal importance of good processes, good relationships, ‘good work’ and good business outcomes - we risk a great deal.

The diversity and inclusion agenda has had an electrifying effect on modern people processes. The need and desire to look at all aspects of the employee life cycle through a diversity and inclusion lens has made those and their associated processes more effective for everyone who experiences them.

They are fairer and get better business results. As HR professionals, it hones our ability to engineer good processes and good management information.

Now, more than ever, we are an evidence-based profession which requires clear reasoning and analysis. And in this way we are demonstrating the enormous impact of our work.

We also need to be alert to new areas of disadvantage and how those people can be supported to fulfil their potential. Helpfully, through the science of behavioural insight, we have increasingly effective ways of understanding how we can be fair.

Mediation illustrates HR’s distinctive vocational character, and the growth in mediation as a technique for mitigating interpersonal conflicts in the workplace has been one of the unsung successes inside many organisations.

Organisations that use it see fewer grievances (and fewer grievances going to tribunals) and healthier workplaces. Mediation and industrial relations are two important areas of competence and skill for any HR professional.

As HR professionals strive to promote a healthy work culture and good management, let us apply Humane Reason and be OPEN in our vocation.

Rupert McNeil is the UK Government’s chief people officer and director general for Government Shared Services.

Further reading:

Forget the exit strategy, you need a re-entry strategy

Most in-demand skills for HR named in CIPD survey

Workforce reintegration in times of crisis