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HR stretching itself too thin research finds

The HR function must become more strategic and less apologetic, according to LACE Partners

Its research HR on the Offensive, which involved speaking to 22 HR practitioners from private sector businesses and seen exclusively by HR magazine, aimed to provide a clear picture of the issues facing HR and identify ways for the function to overcome these.

It found that the top priorities for HR are growth (95%), operational excellence (91%), cost reduction (77%), and diversification (41%).

While these priorities might not be surprising, they suggest HR may be stretching itself too thin, said HR transformation director at LACE Partners Emma Leonis.

“If we’ve got all of these things to balance can we really be expected to deliver on every single one of them as a priority? Or are we trying too hard to be all things to all people?" she said at the launch event of the report, attended by a group of HR directors and exclusively by HR magazine.

Leonis warned that HR must think carefully about where its focus should be. “Is HR the best place to own, share, and manage an organisation?” she asked.

One solution might be to split the HR function so it can focus on the most critical areas, she said.

“Maybe we need to think about how another part of the organisation can take some of the responsibility – so that we can take the noise away and focus on what really matters," said Leonis. "It’s a bit provocative, but maybe we should step away from shared services so that we can focus on the people side. To do that might be uncomfortable.”

HR director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Louise Wallwork, who attended the launch event, added that operational issues are preventing the function from progressing: "The real value the HR function needs to focus on is the big drivers of leadership, culture, and talent. We don't spend enough time on this agenda because the talent we do have in the function is often getting dragged into tactical and operational issues. We need to do something different."

The report also found that most HR functions are still using basic people data. It cited CIPD findings that just 54% of organisations have access to people data and analytics, and only 52% of HR practitioners say their organisation uses people data to tackle business problems.

LACE Partners found that while HR seems to understand the potential of predictive analytics, with 75% of HR professionals interviewed saying it could provide a major opportunity for the function to add value, it has not been quick enough in taking advantage of new technology.

“There are parts of the HR community who have said they’re not even sure how many people work within their organisation. We can all see the future and see that there is a role to use data and insight, but we need to invest in it. We’ve got to become more evidence based and show that sometimes we aren’t making an impact," said Kevin Green, CEO of What's Next Consultancy and strategic advisor to LACE Partners.

"We talk about being bold and being courageous, but when you measure HR interventions there’s going to be around half that might not add value. At the moment we can’t see it. That’s why we need measurement and impact; so we can say 'let’s look at three or four things that are going well and do more of that'.”

The report found that mindset was a particular challenge for HR professionals, citing lack of confidence in their own capabilities. Most practitioners surveyed said they thought their HR capability was 'market average'.

Ben Higgins, head of HR UK & Ireland at Société Générale, agreed that: "HR has a tendency to be too introspective and lack confidence in marketing the impact it is having, particularly when interventions are focused on the few rather than the many."

Leonis called on HR to develop a more assertive stance. "We know we’re making progress but it isn’t as fast as we’d like. But I think we’re being too critical. You don’t see finance beating themselves up in the same way so why do we do it? We need to be a bit spikier and have a bit more confidence in what we do,” she said.

Part of this involves challenging leadership and staying true to values, she added: “When was the last time you said ‘no’ in a leadership meeting? Do you say 'yes' to everything? Or do you say 'that doesn’t align with my top three priorities, we’re going to try this instead'? Don’t be afraid to start challenging. We all know the value of HR – we just need to focus on showing that value.”