The Case for HR

Posted by: on November 10th, 2019

Human Resources can be many different things to different people. Like a shape shifter or a hologram, the HR pro can morph from that of a fixer or an enforcer to that of a facilitator or mediator to that of an advisor or designer of process and systems. When fully realized, HR impacts every person in the organization and offers a perspective and depth of understanding on work and people that can ultimately transform an organization, in Jim Collins style, from good to great.

Where is the place for HR? In the side office of the Finance department or the chief executive? In a one-stop shop or a suite of professionals? Will HR function as a reactive agent or a change agent? This will depend largely on the case that is made for the value of HR in the organization. This article explores what we can do to elevate the value of HR in our organizations.

But HR has a big problem and it can be summed up like this: the most impactful activities of HR are rarely recognized as having a direct link to successful outcomes. An HR pro can hit a ball out of the park with an initiative that increases engagement but linking engagement to higher productivity is not as readily captured. HR pros are valued for providing data that tracks and measures goals related to hiring, compensation and training. But shifting the value proposition to impact on culture, strategy and capacity to innovate requires the ability to not only measure engagement but to show a direct link to meaningful and highly valued outcomes. Without this link, engagement initiatives are difficult to sustain over time.

Since we are living in an increasing complex world of rapid change, we can say with confidence that change agents are critical in our organizations and that our biggest challenges involve the way people think about their work, role and identity in the organization. For that reason, we have no time to waste, HR must step up and be allowed to partner in the change process.

So what can we do to elevate the value of HR?

First, whether we are generalists, specialists or the big picture thinker who guides the function, we must bring a threshold set of skills to the table that includes people skills (e.g., facilitation, relationship building) Information Technology (e.g., data analysis, metrics) critical thinking (problem solving) and a curiosity about patterns (imagination) in order to connect the dots and ask important questions.

Why do people come into the organization? Why do they leave? What are the quality of relationships within and between work groups? What does the data on performance, pay and benefits tell us about how we are doing relative to other organizations? Where are the gaps in our current skill sets compared to what we need? What sets us apart as an organization?

By asking questions, listening, providing insights and initiating constructive conversations to solve problems, HR pros impact the organization in operational and aspirational ways. HR helps to shape organization structure, policies and practices, which impact people and when done well, impacts trust, brings order and thereby improves predictability in a chaotic work environment.

What are the most difficult changes?

One continuing challenge is that HR is pressured to deliver measurable outcomes, such as goal-based performance programs, but will receive laissez faire treatment when introducing learning and engagement processes that are key to success. This is neglect of the engine in favor of attention to the slick exterior but too often people find it easier to go with the flow than to fight resistance.

Another challenge is that we have a hard time giving up our black boxes which hold untold idiosyncrasies of hiring, pay and other HR policy decisions even while we strive for transparency and streamlining organization processes. Black boxes not only take HR out of the game, it impedes trust in any change process. If we do not do our part and own up to black box thinking in HR, we are only shooting ourselves in the foot.

Is there evidence that HR is leveling up and getting more recognition?

Certainly, the evidence that high engagement is correlated with successful organizations is there and unquestionably HR is a central player in advancing the initiatives that drive the engagement process. Examples of well documented HR initiatives that drive change include mentoring and coaching collaborative leadership and teams, skills sourcing across silos, peer-based learning and networking, pay and recognition incentives for innovation, management development toward high performance work systems, storytelling, agile work design, inclusive and open sourced recruitment, wellness and holistic approaches such as alternative work arrangements.

In fact, do we hear about organizations who implement change initiatives without the involvement of HR?

Let me put it another way:

Whether an organization is implementing a new information technology system and transforming the way work is performed, a new communications strategy that networks people in a new way, design efforts such as branding or yes, designing new work spaces, HR provides understanding about how people relate to one another across the organization, how communication happens and the impact of work space design on productivity and work relationships. HR has the advantage of an inside/outside 1000-foot view of the organization.

HR is the heart of the change process. Why? Because HR provides the grounding for all future entrances, exits and transitions. HR defines the organization’s people system. So, if HR is reactive, people will not come to HR unless they need a fix. But if HR is engaging people in important conversations and creating opportunities for learning and growth, it will be the place where people come to get and give ideas.

What else can we do to make the connection between high engagement and organization success?

The answer to this question will continue to drive the value of HR.

Let’s get the conversation started.

Additional links:

For more information and research links on high engagement workplaces, follow Brad Shuck, David Bowles and David Zinger. Also OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which focuses on public sector innovation but provides tons of data on research in the private sector.

About Nancy J. Hess

I help leaders pioneer extraordinary change through high engagement and whole systems approaches that focus on HR and People.