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Is your HR department happy?

Today's heavy, transaction-based workloads, budget cuts and staff reductions, on top of high expectations from senior leaders, make it tough for HR executives to look on the bright side. Some surveys suggest HR leaders are among the least engaged of all professions.

The most recent Happiness at Work index from recruitment consultancy Badenoch & Clark found HR professionals top the list when it comes to workplace unhappiness. Even banking and financial services employees were more content.

This unhappiness may be the result of a major disconnect between expectations and reality in the HR profession. On the one hand, senior management looks to HR to deliver higher-value benefits to the business; on the other hand, recent Accenture analysis of how HR leaders actually spend their time shows a high percentage of transactional work.

A reasonable expectation of time distribution for HR executives would be roughly 20% strategy, 40% process and 40% management of transactional activities. Actual numbers from our research are quite different. Few HR leaders spend more than 10% of their time at the strategic level. At least half of their time is spent processing HR transactions. For some companies, time spent in this way can be as high as 65%.

Solutions to the HR workload problem

If the situation is to improve - if HR work is truly to be meaningful for highly trained executives -changes will have to be made at a structural level, via more efficient service delivery models, new technologies and training, and different reporting structures and spans of control. The following are some key points to consider.

Develop a supply chain mindset

Human resources has been among the last business functions to embrace tested principles of standardisation and industrialisation. Areas such as supply chain, finance and customer relationship management have moved toward automation and efficiency, but HR is lagging. Part of the resistance stems from HR's perception as a high-touch function, but increasing efficiency at the transactional level means more time to provide personalised services, not less. If the primary impediment to HR's ability to become a valued business partner is its transactional load, the first answer must be to process transactions as efficiently as possible.

Embrace new service delivery models

From a transactional perspective, companies must be willing to embrace shared services and outsourcing models for HR. The common infrastructure of an HR shared services centre - whether insourced or outsourced - can consolidate and deliver transactional and information services to internal and external HR customers across multiple HR functions in an operationally efficient and cost-effective way. Shared services that leverage high-quality, lower-cost labour are an important piece of the overall puzzle. Moving an HR organisation in this direction is a significant change management challenge, however, and this needs to be acknowledged up-front and addressed in a rigorous and planned way. HR and the senior management team must work together to embrace new measures that more adequately assess the impact of the HR team and the contribution of the HR lead.

Develop new technology-based solutions

The underlying capability of a more efficient HR service delivery model - one that reduces transactional effort - is technology. Technology solutions applied intelligently can significantly alter the distribution of work in the context of an overall service delivery model, removing the transactional burden from HR managers. For example, when Standard Bank of South Africa sought to transform its HR organisation, a self-service portal was a key component. The portal provides the means for employees to answer their own questions via online tools. Managers also can avail themselves of the portal, which automates significant portions of performance management, job changes and recruitment.

Invest in capability development

Another significant part of the disconnect between desire and reality in HR has to do with capabilities. It's one thing to ask HR leaders to step up and deliver higher-level business value. It's another thing to provide the opportunities for HR managers to retool and develop the capabilities that would help them deliver on that need. Executives around the world continue to express strong support for the idea that talent is the last frontier in terms of developing competitive advantage. But if that support is to go beyond lip service, senior management must be attentive to the processes, technologies, capabilities and structures needed to create an environment that is conducive to HR leaders' success.


David Gartside is an executive director in the Accenture talent and organisation performance practice