The problem with HR, says Jackie Orme, is that there have never been enough good people working in it.
Coming from the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) this is a bold statement. In fact, it could even be seen as a tacit admission the CIPD has previously got it all wrong.
But then Orme's 21-month tenure at the helm of the industry body has been marked by controversy. In April last year the CIPD made 41 redundancies at its head office in south west London. This was despite publicly urging other organisations to find alternatives to headcount cuts as a way of reducing costs. Five months after closing its final-salary pension scheme Orme provoked further apoplexy within the HR community and the industry press when it emerged she had received a £60,000 bonus while staff faced a pay and bonus freeze - a move she has firmly defended amid calls for her to pay it back.
Then again, you do not get to lead HR in one of the world's largest companies, playing in one of the most competitive business landscapes by taking the easy path. It is precisely because Orme has 17 years of practical HR experience, culminating in her running the UK and Ireland HR function and sitting on the UK executive board of PepsiCo International, that she is able to admit the failings of HR.
So, when she says advancement in the discipline has relied on a "handful of witch doctors" rather than a pipeline of talent, she is only articulating what many outside, and inside, the profession think. This perspective was rammed home in an article by Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera in which he said HR was shrinking and we should embrace its demise. According to Sanghera: "If you were to digest HR's position, it is this: we don't know what we're for any more, we're loathed, we're disappearing and the only way to resolve this is to give us a position on the board. Well, I wish I could sing like Curtis Mayfield, but it's never going to happen."
He is not the only one. At a recent Professionals Boards Forum Sir Mike Rake, chairman of BT, recalled his time at KPMG where only 9% of partners were women. He blamed his HR department, saying: "HR is so important it should not be left to HR professionals."
In this context, Orme's remarks seem to add fuel to the fire. But, unlike those to whom Sanghera is referring, those who focus too internally on the profession's image rather than getting on with delivering value to the business, Orme is saying this because she has a plan.
Her ambition is to help shape the next generation of HR. Her goal is a stronger, more strategic and confident profession, one that is fit for the future. Her message is about articulating the role HR plays in the link between culture, leadership and sustainable performance. The route is a new roadmap for the profession, based on deep insights into an organisation's context and emphasising the types of behaviours and applications of knowledge that result in effective performance. And the tools include a shake-up of CIPD qualifications and membership, with the focus shifting from a 70:30 ratio of HR knowledge to business knowledge to a 50/50 split (see box left).
To achieve all this, Orme wants - and needs - buy-in from top HR directors who have previously felt disengaged from the CIPD; not that she doesn't understand how that disenchantment arose. For one there is the confusion between CIPD membership and gaining CIPD qualifications. These are often seen as mutually exclusive, a view the association has previously failed to successfully counter. The result has been that people who have come into HR from other parts of the business and with different experiences have felt unrepresented by the CIPD.
"HR is a very broad church," explains Orme. "We are not like an accountancy body. HR comprises seniors and juniors, specialists and generalists and career HR professionals as well as those from other disciplines, like (Google's) Liane Hornsey who came from sales.
"We need to be clear about what membership means," she adds. "Having different routes enriches the function but we had a system that said 'there is no home for you here'. That view is old-fashioned and outdated."
Underpinning this is her belief that HR is an applied business discipline and should comprise individuals who see themselves as business people. These business people understand the way people and organisational factors impact on success, she says. "HR can influence the organisation in areas such as building culture and developing leadership to deliver sustainable performance," she explains, stressing that vital to this is effective execution and not just policies and knowledge.
For this reason, the CIPD is focusing on the link between culture, leadership and sustainable organisational performance in its Next Generation HR research, which is designed to build a picture of what great HR will look like in five to 10 years' time. Companies such as BT, Tesco.com, Standard Chartered, General Mills, McDonald's, Shell, Cancer Research, Surrey Police and Cambridgeshire County Council are taking part in the research, which looks at how leading HR functions are adapting to the changing nature of business.
The research, released this month, is intended to stimulate debate rather than give all the answers. It places particular emphasis on how to deliver both short- and long-term results and how to move from a service and process-driven function towards an insight-driven future for HR.
The basis is the suggestion that HR's mission is about helping to develop sustainable organisational performance. To deliver long-term value it is not enough to focus on operational efficiency and effectiveness alone. Instead there is a third element, what Orme calls "organisation equity", which increases the capacity of organisations to be agile and adaptable through creating a more open and dynamic culture.
This thinking was brought home to Orme recently by the HR director of a major financial institution whose company had suffered less in the crisis than its rivals. When he examined why this was the case, and what he needed to do to ensure sustainability in the future, his conclusion was that the difference was culture and leadership.
What is interesting, of course, is that there is still the need to bang home this message. It must be particularly frustrating for Orme, coming from one of the best HR functions in the world where is little need for a debate about the value of HR.
"At PepsiCo you are joining a function that has credibility and status. The company has a reputation for talent. You just get on with the opportunity to do great work," she says.
For this reason she knows what good HR delivers to the business and has no truck with people undermining the profession. Yet, as she admits earlier, there is a need to raise the overall calibre of the profession to ensure a pool of future-fit leaders that will help organisations deliver sustainability. "There is a debate to be had about how we evolve. We need to be seen as Ulrich's credible activists. It cannot be about one or two bright sparks. We must have a scaleable and operational framework rather than relying on the efforts of the top 5%," she says.
"We need to take this debate out to the seniors in our sector," she adds, warming to the theme. "We have got to drive capability up. There is not a single sector in this country that should not be involved in this debate."
To help drive this capability the CIPD has tied up with a leading professional services firms, which will be seconding someone to the association to lead work on creating the talent strategy for HR and increasing attraction to the profession. Orme is resolute: HR should be a career destination of choice.
All this will resonate with strategic HR leaders but Orme has her work cut out to bring them into the fold. So how is she going to encourage them to get involved? "I would love people to come to us and join the debate but if they don't we are going to them," she says adding: "There is nowhere to hide."
And it is not just HR directors who will find Orme on their doorstep. The Next Generation research is also being taken to chief executives. This was one of the reasons behind the CIPD's controversial £3 million acquisition of Bridge Partnership. Bridge is not a traditional HR consultancy and worked for Orme when she was at PepsiCo, leading some CIPD members to conclude that the deal is to the detriment of the association's consultancy members. Orme defends the move by stressing that Bridge's strength in working with business leaders and CEOs will help the association better serve HR strategists. She adds that the CIPD's director of HR capability, Stephanie Bird, who took up this new role last year, is working with Bridge to ensure the CIPD maximises value from the acquisition.
Maximising value is exactly what Orme hopes to help HR achieve in business. But she too needs to deliver value to the CIPD and for this reason the board has set her a number of clear financial and non-financial performance targets aligned to the association's strategic objectives. These will be reviewed annually and Orme will be measured against them each year.
"I'm confident we've charted a course that will build a profession demonstrably better equipped to face the future - and a CIPD equipped in the same way," she concludes. "But I'll be judged on my performance. That's exactly as it should be for me. It's also exactly the way HR professionals will be judged by the business leaders they serve."
The CIPD has overhauled its chartered membership criteria. To become a chartered member from this year HR professionals will have to demonstrate they meet three criteria: activities - what they do; knowledge - what they understand in order to carry out the activities; and behaviours - how they carry out the activities.
It has introduced a new level of professional membership - associate level. This role sits below the chartered member and chartered fellow level and is evidence of the CIPD's move to ensure there are no longer members who cannot show HR knowledge combined with impact in the workplace.
The associate member has to show how they meet three behaviours: insights and influence, operational excellence and stewardship. The latter is particularly relevant to the new approach as it is defined as the courage to challenge, speak up and ask questions.
According to Orme, the shift in membership standards marks a raising of the bar. It is about setting a "new gold standard for the profession", she says, a "stronger badge of competence" relevant to employers and HR professionals. Moreover, it enables the CIPD to offer new routes to membership to those entering the professional at different levels and from diverse backgrounds.
CIPD has developed a new range of qualifications that are launched this month and built on the same principles as the HR Profession Map, which is rooted in a deep understanding of the business, and focused on the application of skills and experience in a way that delivers impact in the workplace.
The new qualifications highlight the importance of understanding the business and recognise that the workplace is often an international or global organisation and is designed to meet the needs of specialists as well as HR generalists. They include a new range of intermediate-level qualifications.
HR PROFESSION MAP
The map is intended to show how HR adds the greatest sustained value to the organisations it operates in, both now and in the future. It explains what HR practitioners do and deliver across every aspect and specialism of the profession and looks at the underpinning skills, behaviour and knowledge they need to be most successful.
Where it differs from previous attempts to capture HR's contribution is in covering behaviours needed to carry out activities as well as technical elements. It is also organised around areas of professional competence, not organisation structures, job levels or roles, and covers small to large companies, basic to sophisticated practice and local and global.
The map also outlines a clear career path, including the challenges faced when moving from one band to the next.