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Is This Our Legacy

October 16, 2008
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Related Topics: The HR Profession, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Workforce Planning, Featured Article
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In a recent private meeting with a group of Fortune 100 chief human resource officers, we discussed the current state of development of the HR profession. It did not take long for one to volunteer, "I have a group of terrific midcareer HR business partners, few of whom bring much HR depth to the table."

Is this to be our legacy? Have we created a new model of HR in which the actual HR component is minimal? Are we so focused on supporting the business that we have forgotten our duty as HR stewards? What exactly, then, is an "HR business partner," and do we really need them at all?

My window on the field of HR spans from the end of the "personnel" era in the 1970s to the present. While for the most part I have no interest in going back to the largely administrative role of those early days, I’m not sure I want to go forward on the path we are on either.

More and more often I meet midlevel HR executives who have spent nearly their entire career in client-supporting HR generalist roles. Few have had any depth of experience in what we affectionately call the HR "silos"—compensation, recruitment and staffing, employee relations/advocacy, organization development, communications or, heaven forbid, labor relations. They are well versed at analyzing business issues and identifying human capital implications or concerns, but many are unable to fashion effective solutions from the HR tool kit.

Once upon a time there were "specialists" (in the earliest days at each plant or location) from whom a "generalist" could acquire needed knowledge. Today, if those positions exist at all they are in distant centers of excellence or outsourced to business process outsourcers. Under this scenario, where does a generalist go for help? To the textbooks we write and use in academia? I hope not.

Big companies today routinely hire chief human resource officers with little or no HR experience into the top job. This notion that you can do HR without any real HR skills arises in several forms. Bill Conaty, the recently retired chief human resource officer at GE, was asked in an interview, "Can anybody do HR?" Fortunately, he answered no. In fact, he went on to suggest that talented HR professionals working in companies with that philosophy (that specific HR domain knowledge is irrelevant) probably needed to move to another company.

While GE is often cited as a company that takes HR very seriously and generally does HR work well, few realize the extent to which GE invests in the recruitment, selection and development of "the best and brightest" HR candidates from a handful of top-notch universities. Those who thrive in the GE culture receive continuous training and development in HR throughout their careers. And they earn their keep by delivering HR products that help the business, not by writing white papers that identify the problem. Mastery of some set of foundational knowledge in the human resources domain, and the ability to fashion solutions, is critical if the business partner model is to fully deliver on its promise.

But today’s undergraduate and graduate students in HR are repeatedly sent signals that the real need in the field is for more "strategic" players. As best I can decipher, to them being "strategic" translates to not being required to do any real HR work. They view filling open jobs or helping a line manager document a tricky performance case as beneath them—from their first day on the payroll! How did we get ourselves into this predicament?

One of my close academic colleagues blames the success that the leading HR guru, Dave Ulrich, has achieved in gaining global acceptance of the HR business partner concept. This mythic creature of great beauty (the business partner role, not Dave Ulrich) allowed the last generation of HR practitioners to hope for a better day, which was a valuable contribution to a field with a self-image problem. But the unintended consequence was to diminish the value of the real work through which HR earns credibility and, with it, line management’s ear. It also promotes a myth that everyone in HR can be strategic, every day. If nobody in the field wants to do the real work, what exactly do we bring to the table? Have we so diluted the field and the role that we are simply advisors or consultants? Is that all that is left when we finish our "transformation"?

I hope not. I hope that more companies will return somewhat to the basics and tell this next generation of HR professionals that when a company is growing, there are few things more "strategic" than filling open jobs. I hope they’ll say that when a company’s success is constrained by poor performers who drag down the entire organization, it is "strategic" to either help improve those people’s performance or manage them out of the organization. I hope the next HR generation will understand that when a compensation plan fails to provide the motivation and incentive to support the company’s goals, it is "strategic" to design a better comp plan. When tough times hit, carefully managing reductions in force is the definition of strategic. And finally, when conflict pits labor and management against each other in Detroit—or Pune—it is "strategic" to find ways to reduce conflict and build trust. All these things are strategic. They’re just not easy.

So call me old-fashioned. But I am just as excited today about the role of HR as I was 30 years ago—maybe more excited. With broad recognition that how people are managed is directly tied to competitive advantage, HR has never had a bigger platform. For a truly qualified HR professional, the opportunities are almost unlimited. But those qualifications include the ability to actually craft HR solutions. So go learn your trade, and don’t be afraid to break a sweat and get your hands dirty doing it.

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