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Why HR needs to lead the culture club

If an HR director can’t be out of the office for three days without worrying about how things are back at the ranch, we have a problem. So how can HR seize the strategic higher ground?

My colleague, Iain Moffat, started off this series with an anecdote about an HR conference. It seems fitting, then, for me to open the final article with another HR conference. In this case one for those at director level, and one which had been so packed in previous years that the organisers added a third day, with the expectation of increased attendance. It wasn’t. In fact, it was only half as popular. Why the dramatic drop in attendance?

It’s my belief that those HR directors couldn’t spare a third day away from the office. However attractive the conference agenda, they just had to get back to their desks. Fair enough? After all, to some it might seem an indulgence to spend three days at a conference. If that agenda is important enough, that surely is sufficient justification, isn’t it? They simply had to get back to deal with operational matters. The ‘essentials’ of HR management ensured that they had to leave early.

This is worrying. If HR directors can’t be away from their desk for three days are they really fulfilling their strategic function? Is it because they are bogged down with operational issues preventing forward thinking? Dave Ulrich has always maintained that HR needs to split the operational from the strategic. The assumption is that HR should be seen as strategic and will therefore be welcomed at the top table, alongside board stalwarts in areas like finance, sales and operations.

Ulrich takes this further and sets a major challenge for all of us in HR. Our role, as he sees it, is to become an essential part of driving business success, and we will do this by ensuring that a business achieves value for its stakeholders, maintains and grows its talent, its leadership and its culture. In short, HR’s role is to transform business through structure, competencies and analytics.

His ideas about the core areas in which HR should be playing a leading part is nothing short of mind-blowing. It covers the whole range of organisational change, from achieving and maintaining organisational culture, to operational excellence, and designing and maintaining the appropriate incentives to realise those ends. A tall order indeed for anyone who can’t afford to spend three days away from their operation.

The fundamental area for me is culture. Culture is far bigger than just a mission statement and some values. Ulrich maintains it is “what you want to be known for by your key customers”. Your culture gives you an identity among your customers, and when the external brand meets the internal culture, you have, so the theory goes, a winning formula. Once it’s established HR needs to do four crucial things:

  • Communicate, articulate and clarify the message
  • Enable employees to act
  • Ensure all HR processes and policies are adjusted accordingly
  • Make sure the leadership brand is consistent with the culture

This in itself creates a range of major issues. How is HR seen by the rest of the board? Can it rise to meet these challenges? How much is known and understood about the stakeholders and their need? Is HR ready to take up the lead on changing cultural and operational excellence? Or are you becoming a full time fire fighter?

If those ‘operational basics’ are still the main concern, as suggested by my conference experience, this is most certainly holding HR back from achieving that place on the top table. This doesn’t have to be the case. We can already – using technology – automate so many of the operational issues which have been the bread and butter of HR. As Iain’s article and the follow up by MHR’s Chris Kerridge on transforming talent management have shown, technology can be a major enabler if we embrace it fully. It’s the critical tool that will allow HR to move towards a more demonstrably business-led approach.

It’s that automation that will allow HR to focus more fully on strategy and strategic business issues. It will give us the data we need to start to have the board level discussions which Ulrich sees, as HR’s ultimate ambition.

The good news is, we already have the tools to enable us to deliver operational results more quickly and more easily. We also have the transactional analysis from that automation which can help us start to build the higher case for HR. So my hope is that next time an HR conference extends for a third day the venue will be packed to the rafters with HR directors all busy discussing how they are setting the business agenda for the future – and that they have the time to do just that - with nothing standing in their way.

Hazel Johnston is HR strategy expert at MHR, which is sponsoring HR magazine's Ulrich Insights video series and has produced a free downloadable whitepaper to accompany the series