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What can we learn from HR's emerging talent?

Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute of Employment Studies, looks to the future leaders of HR

When we consider the intergenerational ‘mix’ that many UK workplaces are now seeking to manage, it is easy to forget that the HR profession itself comprises a diverse demographic. I was reminded of this recently at the sixth annual conference of the European HR Director’s Circle in Lisbon.

This year each of the French companies represented (including Sanofi, Crédit Agricole, Air France and Orange) nominated a younger member of their HR teams to present a ‘provocation’ to the Circle focusing on how these future HR directors expect organisations to adapt to challenges like digitisation and the changing needs of employees. For the older generation of HRDs the messages were insightful and challenging and there were three themes I feel should be of interest to their UK counterparts.

First, it was striking how employee-centric the younger HR professionals’ views were. They were convinced that HR needs to embrace marketing principles to listen to staff constantly, customise the employment offer, and become ‘curators’ of talent, skill development and social capital. There was a big emphasis on the role digital technology and social software is already playing to connect networks of colleagues. Orange, for example, is now using LinkedIn to capture the competencies of employees, as they are much more likely to use this platform than the company’s own talent management and skills database.

Second, they had strong views about the skillsets and roles HR professionals need to concentrate on in the future. In general, they saw the Ulrich model as having limitations and proposed a ‘Three Thirds’ framework. Thus, a third of them should continue to be specialists in traditional functional areas such as compensation, learning and development, employment law, and recruitment. A third should concentrate on becoming true strategic consultants to the business, building on some of the Ulrich business partner philosophy. The final third should be ‘geeks’ – non-traditional, numerate data scientists and PhD-level analysts who can ‘mine’ big data, perform a diagnostic role and spot patterns that add to the company’s ability to deliver its value proposition and drive performance.

Third, they want HR to internalise the transparency and democratic power of social media. They were convinced that younger employees will demand greater immediacy of access to data, the power to connect and share in ways that do not require permission from a hierarchy, and fluid, dynamic and agile job definitions and role boundaries.

The transparency element of their thinking also extended to the notion that HR should be strong enough to be the ‘ethical conscience’ or ‘moral compass’ of the business at a time when trust in corporations remains fragile. The sentiment is distinctive and challenging – especially to those HR professionals who find it hard to raise their gaze above the more routine and intense pressures of delivering a basic service to increasingly demanding operational managers.

Even though this was a distinctively French perspective and the brief the group was given was to be provocative, ‘blue sky’ and future-focused, the messages from this next generation of HR high fliers were fascinating, clear and bold. Immediately I asked myself how different the analysis, priorities and themes would be if we repeated the exercise with the UK’s emerging HR talent pool.

So, in partnership with HR magazine, The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) is setting up a small project to bring together some of the UK’s emerging HR talent to look at the role of the profession and the challenges it will face over the next 20 years. We are looking for a diverse range of nominees from up to a dozen UK organisations who would like to participate – at no cost – in this initiative. If you would like to put a name forward please contact me at next.generation@employment-studies.co.uk

Stephen Bevan is head of HR research development at the Institute of Employment Studies. For more information on this project, please email next.generation@employment-studies.co.uk