What a difference a decade makes. Just 10 years ago, HR in most organizations was still an administrative support function. Some went so far as to call it a backwater, where old forms were sent to die and where useless rules were written. But a few visionary souls--within HR and outside it--had seen the future and it looked very different. They saw a world in which HR was a key force in business, a valued player grappling with big challenges and helping to move business forward.
The visionaries faced rampant skepticism and even pockets of open derision. Undaunted, they set about proving they were right. They have succeeded. HR today is not only a major force in business, it s also the custodian of what we understand more than ever to be our greatest assets: employees.
The story of the transformation from administrator to strategist is a story we ve told through the experiences of the 89 organizations that have received the Workforce Optimas Award. It isn t a story punctuated by policies, forms or rules. It isn t a story told with the vocabulary of benefit plan enrollment, EEOC compliance or salary grades. It is a story writ large, of rules broken, conventional wisdom shattered and boundaries stretched.
It is, above all, a business story. In it you will find all the buzzwords of the past decade: reengineering, TQM, rightsizing, diversity, globalization. Like it or not, that s what everyone in business was dealing with. But whatever the lingo being slung at any point in time, the real business story of the '90s is that HR was right in the thick of it, working alongside everyone else to make business better.
So the stories of the Optimas Award winners are stories of aging businesses reinventing themselves to compete in a new economy and of record growth in new high technology firms. They are stories of public-sector organizations struggling to compete in unfamiliar ways with the private sector. They are stories of organizations confronting deregulated marketplaces, a more diverse workforce and global expansion. They are stories of mergers and acquisitions that have reshaped the business landscape. They are, in short, stories of business in the often thrilling and always turbulent 90s.
In that sense, the Optimas Awards have fulfilled our mission. We created them 10 years ago to focus on business issues. We sought not only to celebrate the best work being done in HR but also to prove that HR could transform itself from administrator to strategist. We sought to focus on new, broader interdisciplinary competencies such as Managing Change and Vision. We sought to inform and to inspire.
Choosing the organizations to offer that inspiration is a labyrinthine process of reading, research, interviewing and heated debate. It may not be easily described, but the process affords us a unique opportunity to watch HR evolve. Although we never sit down with an agenda in mind, each year a theme or trend nonetheless has become apparent.
Never has that been more true than this year. It somehow seems fitting that in the 10th year of the Optimas Awards--and the first year of a new decade--HR has come full circle. Year after year we ve seen HR confront the new: new technology, new markets, new labor laws. This year, in organization after organization, the focus was on something so fundamental you could be forgiven for calling it old-fashioned: employee development. Yes, after years of solving other problems, HR is again focused on getting the best work out of the best people.
Was the work driven by competitive forces that made it necessary to focus on developing employees, or was it simply time to revisit HR s core purpose? Some of both, and probably other reasons, as well. In any case, the back-to-basics approach to human resources is not a step backward. HR may have come full circle, but in making the journey the circle itself has been transformed.
In the new circle, employee development looks radically different from one organization to another and perhaps even from one employee to another. In the new circle, there s a clear return in every dollar invested. And in the new circle, employee development is always in support of meeting a specific business goal.
Reaching those goals is never easy, as you ll see when you read the profiles of the 10 organizations added to the Optimas honor roll this year. But goals do get met, and today they are most often met because HR plays an integral role. That s what the visionaries a decade ago hoped to see.
So read on--join us in celebrating the remarkable achievements of this year s winners, and in doing so celebrating HR.
Workforce, March 2000, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 37.