· 2 min read · Features

HR must show it means business

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The profession needs to extend its influence externally to give it more clout internally.

The shape of HR has changed. This is not news to me and cannot be news to the readers of this magazine. But Jackie Orme, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, decided it was news enough to headline her opening speech at the CIPD annual conference in September.

To the institute's credit, it has responded to criticisms of its qualifications and recognition structure by instigating a comprehensive review of the profession. The review confirms what many of us have been saying for some time - that the routes in to a senior HR career are varied and circuitous.

Changing career structures, explains Orme, means that more people are coming into the profession from other disciplines. Careers are following less of a straight line from bottom to top and more of a zigzag with people moving regularly between disciplines. What this means for the CIPD, she says, is that it must concentrate much more on "relevance, flexibility and choice".

Critics of the CIPD's professional structure have been making these points for years, questioning the relevance of qualifications that are often deemed unnecessary in senior management. But it has taken a change at the top of the organisation to bring about a refreshingly frank reappraisal of CIPD status. There was a real danger of HR's biggest membership and standards organisation becoming sidelined within the senior ranks of its own profession. As it is, the annual conference must continue to work harder at attracting the leading practitioners in UK companies.

That will remain a continual challenge. I know plenty of senior HR people who feel they have better things to do than listen to some addled 'keynotes' from overpaid one-trick-ponies whose idea of thought leadership is to repackage the same old Boston vintage in new bottles.

Plans to shift the conference from Harrogate to Manchester next year are a welcome change. But a new venue alone is not enough. The CIPD and the profession as a whole needs an injection of new ideas if it is to make the difference in organisations it craves.

It's good that it has accepted that it will now recognise the experience and prior learning of those who enter the profession at the later stages of their careers. It would be foolish to do otherwise. But the changes need to go further. I believe Orme has grasped some of the fundamentals defining this need - what she describes as a "value-centred" focus among progressive leaders. She and her colleagues, however, still have much to do in shaping the role of HR in senior management teams. Much of this work needs to be undertaken externally within government, among regulators and other professional disciplines where HR understanding has been ignored for too long.

Look at the financial institutions that have suffered in the credit crunch. Could HR be blamed for the crisis at HBOS? Almost certainly not, but nor was it capable of averting the crisis. Equally, The Royal Bank of Scotland is seen as having one of the best HR approaches in any business. But it didn't prevent the slide in its fortunes.

Where was HR when banks needed to be reminded that top-heavy bonuses promoted imprudent risk-taking behaviour? This raises the question: how much can any HR system achieve when an organisation makes some poor decisions at the top? Was the whole of HR at Lehman Brothers incompetent? I doubt it. But I do think HR professionals in the investment banks often have too little clout.

What HR needs to do, as I think Orme understands, beyond a constant drip-feeding of common sense, behavioural understanding and performance- focused effectiveness within organisations, is to extend its influence externally. To do this it needs a new sense of mission, confidence in its message and, above all, an altogether tougher approach. HR has to mean business.